Giants receivers go extra mile to reach Super Bowl XLVI

INDIANAPOLIS -- At the end of each Friday during game weeks, Mario Manningham grabs a quick snack from the cafeteria at the Timex Performance Center and heads back into a meeting room.

It's one final sitdown between the wide receiver group and quarterback Eli Manning. And while offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride says these well-documented summits have been a little overblown, there's an underlying truth to them as well.

This group of Giants receivers is going the extra mile, in part, because it's been a position group that has been playing catch up since 2008.

The transformation from the last Super Bowl group of Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Steve Smith to the new big-game trio of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Manningham is complete with the Giants returning to the grand stage.

Yes, the road was winding and bumpy for GM Jerry Reese, coach Tom Coughlin and the rest of those involved in this rebirth. But the final result has been the same -- the Giants playing on the first Sunday in February with a passing game coming into its own.

"There are more similarities than differences," said Gilbride on Monday. "But if I had to distinguish between the groups, collectively, the 2007 group was a little further along as far as pattern running and the underlying pass-game concepts, and more refined in the execution and adjustments we could give them. We're a lot of read-and-react anyway, but we could a little more. This group, on the other hand, is more explosive, and more capable of turning a short one into a big play."

You can start on Nov. 28, 2008 -- roughly 10 months after Super Bowl XLII and seven months after the Giants drafted Manningham as the first piece of the new wave -- as the start of the stormy waters. That night, Burress shot himself in the leg, ending his season and, ultimately, landing him in jail. That year, even on a 12-4 team, Toomer led the Giants wideouts with just 580 receiving yards.

With both Burress and Toomer gone in 2009, Smith emerged, catching 107 balls for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns. The Giants also drafted Nicks in the first round, and he and Manningham combined for another 104 catches. That group came back in 2010, and Gilbride says that, "for four or five games, we were as good as we'd ever been at that position." But then Smith suffered a devastating midseason knee injury that necessitated micro-fracture surgery, which subsequently ended his Giants career.

That's where Cruz, the undrafted free agent, came in. In 2010, a breakout preseason performance put him on the map, but he wound up on injured reserve because of a hamstring injury. Even early this season, he drew doubts on his readiness to fill Smith's void.

"We used to say Victor giveth and Victor taketh away on a play-by-play basis," said Gilbride. "He'd make a big play, then come back with a bad read or missed block. The way our offense is, we can't afford that. We saw the big plays, they were there, but he kept making errors. … But our coaches fought hard to keep him around. He struggled early to the point where we brought in Stokley, but Brandon got hurt and Victor kept getting better."

Cruz was shut out in the opener. In Week 2, he had his first two professional catches. And when he broke out in Week 3 against Philly, with three catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns, the process was complete. In this season's final 14 games, Cruz averaged six catches and 109 yards per game.

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So it is that this Giants trio produced 197 catches for 3,251 yards and 20 touchdowns this year, dwarfing the totals of the 2007 group (137 catches, 1,848 yards, 15 TDs). And one reason why is how they've pulled together.

"It's like family," Nicks said. "We're like brothers in there. We help each other out, we break film down with each other. We try to get the job done the best way we can, always helping each other out."

And that happens in the film room, on the practice field and, yes, in those Friday meetings.

But for it all to work, the three rising stars have to do it on Sundays, most of all. That they have reveals the approach of each player, something Manningham was quick to point out when asked the difference between this group and the one he joined in 2008 with Burress, Toomer and Smith still around.

"We're closer than we were when I first got here, and no one care who gets the ball, nobody cares if the ball's coming to them or not," Manningham said. "You're still gonna run your route and get open, even if the ball's not coming to you. More meeting time, more talking in the meeting room, more coaching -- I just feel like we're a little more focused than we were back then."

The future at the position, for now, isn't certain. Manningham's a pending free agent and, looking further down the line, if Nicks and Cruz keep producing at the level they have, it will be pretty costly to keep both.

But after going down this long path to find the right group for Manning to throw to, there'd be definite benefits to making it work.

"I would say this -- they're all different," Gilbride said. "And because of that, they complement each other well. Each has an area they're excellent at, and it's nice to have all three areas covered, with one who excels inside, one who excels outside, and another who does it with his feet. They have different make-up. But all three are competitive, team-oriented guys. They bring out the best in one another."

And the commonality can best be explained in the final goal for each, the only thing that finally will even the tally with their predecessors. That goal guides each guy. As Manningham puts it, "We break the huddle, and it's just, 'Win. Win.' That's it, just win. You never know when the ball's gonna come to you, so just win."

Whether it's in those meetings, on the practice field or on game day, over the past month-and-a-half, that's exactly what Nicks, Cruz and Manningham have done.

It's not complete yet. This group of receivers still has one more Friday to go. But it's abundantly clear just how far those three have come.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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