The timeless football adage "on to the next play" means everything when discussing New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. This could still be a story about a tragic accident that left Pierre-Paul's right hand mangled. It could continue to be a tale about immature decisions, relentless maneuvering and a multi-million-dollar contract that still hangs in the balance. Instead, all the talk about Pierre-Paul should hinge on only one question: What can he do to help the Giants win games this year?
A football season can distill extremely complicated issues down to assessments that are that simple. It doesn't matter right now that Pierre-Paul blew up his hand on Independence Day, an injury that caused so much damage that he didn't sign a contract with the Giantsuntil Tuesday. He's also quite likely to provide insights into that topic in his own due time. The important thing is that he's returning to a 4-3 team that is perched atop a mediocre NFC East, a squad that desperately needs somebody to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
This is why you heard Giants head coach Tom Coughlin talking about the excitement in the building when Pierre-Paul returned to the squad.
"We're all rooting for him, to be honest with you," Coughlin said. "He had a very traumatic experience, and he's done really what appears to be an outstanding job of preparing himself. He is mentally very upbeat. His attitude is outstanding. He's anxious to go and play right now, to be honest with you. But they're going to go relatively slow on that. It will be a wonderful thing to have him come back, get ready to play, and play and contribute, which is his plan."
Even casual football fans should know the ugly details involving Pierre-Paul by now. He lost a finger and other parts of his right hand in a fireworks accident on the Fourth of July. The damage was brutal enough to create plenty of speculation about whether Pierre-Paul, who had been tagged as the team's franchise player, might ever play football again. Since Pierre-Paul hadn't signed his $14.8 million tender before the accident, he kept his distance from the team for months as he rehabilitated and trained on his own.
There were plenty of days when the Giants were losing their patience with Pierre-Paul's unwillingness to cooperate with them in this process. Team owner John Mara publicly complained about Pierre-Paul's absence during training camp and nobody in the organization examined Pierre-Paul's hand until mid-September. All that stuff feels like old news today. Whatever path Pierre-Paul had to travel to reach this day, everybody around the Giants seemed content with the decision.
As Coughlin spoke at his Wednesday morning press conference, he actually sounded like a proud father who was happy to know his son had survived a brutal car wreck. The coach probably had spent enough time trying to comprehend what Pierre-Paul had been thinking back in July, as well as how the team would handle the situation as it evolved. That's what happens in the offseason. The focus is more on what could happen instead of squarely on what needs to be done.
If the Giants want to win this division, they have to find a pass rush for a team that currently ranks 29th in the NFL in yards allowed per game. Nobody knows what type of impact Pierre-Paul can make -- the Giants have a two-week roster exemption that allows him to practice during that time before he can be activated -- but we're also talking about a two-time Pro Bowler who has 42 sacks in five seasons. Even with a damaged hand, the Giants hope he can give them something. The sight of him alone could be an uplifting asset for that team.
When asked about the expectations for Pierre-Paul, Coughlin said, "I'm being brought along just like everybody else. He will start with the medical team. He can do all the jog-throughs. He can be out there for whatever we're doing pre-practice, then he's going to slide off to the side with the medical people, be under their supervision. How long that lasts is really according to how well they feel he's able to proceed."
Coughlin added that Pierre-Paul has been doing plenty of things in his absence, including working against bags and delivering blows on a board. The coach was just as encouraged to see Pierre-Paul check in at a lean 268 pounds (which was 10 pounds lighter than his normal playing weight). At first glance, the Giants were seeing everything that was critical in evaluating their star player. They realized he hadn't lost his focus or his fight at a time when he easily could've felt sorry for himself.
The Giants also deserve some credit here. Since Pierre-Paul wasn't under contract, they could've let their frustrations fester into a rash decision. Instead, they weathered the process as best as they could and did enough to not alienate Pierre-Paul. There certainly had to be some difficult conversations that occurred between both parties as this all played out. But the Giants also got what they wanted in the end: a talented player returning to them for an adequate price (a one-year, $8.7 million deal that includes reachable incentives) and with ample opportunity to impact their fortunes.
There's already a long checklist of things that Pierre-Paul must do to win even more confidence from his coaches. He's got to get up to speed with the new defense installed by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. He needs to test that injured hand in more competitive situations, so his coaches understand exactly what he can do with it. Coughlin already believes Pierre-Paul will use his hand in the same manner he always has, more as a club with blunt-force potential than as a tool to grab opponents.
The one area that won't be hard to evaluate is Pierre-Paul's exuberance.
"(He's) upbeat, very upbeat," Coughlin said. "Very excited, very glad to be here. Just as the first time he came until now, he's done everything he can to get back here. And he was in a good frame of mind the first time I saw him, as well. But this time, very good because he feels it. He senses that it's close and whatever we ask him to do, he can do it."
It would've been extremely difficult to predict that type of cooperation a few months ago. Back then, everything around Pierre-Paul was clouded in mystery and rampant speculation. The only facts anybody outside of his inner circle knew were that he was being treated in Florida and he didn't have a contract. The idea that he could even be an effective member of the Giants this year was a far-fetched notion.
Now we have Coughlin talking about taking Pierre-Paul to New Orleans for this week's game with the Saints. The coach normally prohibits injured players from traveling but he also wants Pierre-Paul to get reacquainted with a competitive environment. It's another smart move for an organization that is clearly eager to have one of its biggest stars back in the building. It's also one more indication that the most important aspect of Pierre-Paul's story isn't what's behind him. It's what happens in the next chapter.