It started in September when Burress was suspended for a game after missing team meetings. It continued even after the Super Bowl XLII hero returned, only to get benched for a quarter against Pittsburgh after skipping a medical treatment.
As talented as he is, Burress was proving too unreliable to be counted on down the stretch. To their credit, the Giants recognized this long before Burress was shelved Tuesday following his ammo mishap at a New York City nightclub.
Look at how New York's offense has morphed in 2008. At this time last year, Burress was single-handedly carrying the passing attack. He had six more touchdowns than fellow starting wideout Amani Toomer. Even on a bad ankle, Burress was New York's only legitimate big-play threat.
But excluding a 10-catch effort in the 2008 season-opener against Washington, Burress hadn't cracked the 100-yard receiving mark this season. He hadn't caught more than three passes in the previous five games before suffering a hamstring injury that sidelined him for last Sunday's win at Washington. His long reception was a meager 33 yards.
And yet the Giants are even more productive than during last year's championship push. New York tops the NFL in scoring offense and is fourth overall with a 370.8-yard average.
With Burress struggling on and off the field, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride began turning to other options. The "Earth, Wind and Fire" combination of running backs Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw has made beautiful music together, pacing New York's league-leading rushing attack.
Other receiving targets began to emerge for quarterback Eli Manning. Now two seasons removed from a serious knee injury, Toomer has regained his old form and can still get deep at 34-years-old. In the past six games, second-year tight end Kevin Boss has 20 catches and four touchdowns. Wide receiver Steve Smith, who was injured at this time last year, has a team-high 43 catches.
The most pleasant surprise of all is Domenik Hixon. A third-year castoff from Denver, Hixon has started two games in place of Burress. The results: Nine catches for 173 yards and one touchdown. One might even suspect the Giants were calling Hixon's number to send Burress a message that was never received.
Don't get me wrong. Burress will be missed, especially if the Giants are forced into a shootout with another high-powered offense like Dallas (that matchup is Dec. 14). No quarterback/receiver tandem has produced more touchdowns (33) since 2005 than Manning and Burress.
Like two other tall, fast wideouts in Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, the 6-foot-5 Burress was one of the rare talents who could take over a game single-handedly. At times, he was almost impossible to cover one-on-one.
Just ask Green Bay's Al Harris. He is one of the NFL's top man-coverage cornerbacks, but Harris couldn't stick with Burress during an 11-catch, 150-yard performance in last season's NFC Championship game victory.
Unfortunately for New York, there were no guarantees that the old Burress would resurface for this year's playoff run. In all likelihood, he will never play again in a Giants uniform.
Depending on what happens with his legal case, the Giants could give Burress the Jeremy Shockey treatment and trade him during the 2009 offseason. Burress also may ultimately be released as the Giants try to recoup money already paid through two lucrative contracts.
When it comes to permanently replacing Burress, free agency probably won't be the answer. The Giants may use one of their early selections in the 2009 draft — including the second-rounder collected from New Orleans as part of the Shockey trade — to procure an heir apparent. Or the Giants might decide the solution is already on their roster.
Toomer, a pending free agent, could be re-signed to a short-term deal while Hixon and Smith are given another season to develop. The Giants also used a 2008 third-round choice on Mario Manningham, who has spent most of his rookie season on the bench.
Ironically, Manningham's draft stock tumbled because he was considered a character risk coming out of the University of Michigan. Giants management had hoped that a Super Bowl-winning roster would help foster maturity in a player with a troublesome off-field history.
Instead, Manningham should learn something watching a teammate fall. Even the NFL's most gifted players are expendable if necessary.
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
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