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Justin Tuck promises bounce-back season with New York Giants

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As Justin Tuck prepares for his ninth NFL season, you'd think offseason conditioning -- including the voluntary team workouts that began Monday -- would be business as usual.

You'd also be wrong.

For Tuck and the New York Giants, the fallout of their 2012 season -- one characterized by inconsistent play and ultimately defined by underachievement -- has included significant self-examination and soul-searching. Which means for Tuck, a team captain entering the final year of his contract, nothing is ordinary as he looks ahead to the upcoming season.

"For me, this year is going to be all or nothing," Tuck told NFL Network. "I mean that in the sense that I'm going to do all that's in my power to be in the right place mentally and try to convey that to my teammates. I might not have done the best job I could do in that situation in past years. But I'm in a great (mind-set) right now, I really am. I can't remember a time when I was this overjoyed to get back to work."

Even for voluntary workouts?

"I'm excited," Tuck said. "I wish it would have come a lot earlier."

Saying he "definitely wasn't happy with my performance last season," Tuck has been at the Giants' Timex Performance Center regularly this offseason. At this point in the spring, he has spent more time than usual watching film and grinding away in the weight room.

Tuck says his work on the mental side of the game includes "wrapping my mind around having a great year this year, not just individually, but having the team get back on track this year, as well."

All of this is wholly positive news for the Giants, who not only have missed Tuck's Pro Bowl-caliber play -- he logged a total of nine sacks over the past two seasons -- but also his inspiring leadership. Those dips in productivity and presence led general manager Jerry Reese to meet with Tuck in early February to gauge Tuck's commitment to playing the game at a high level.

"Obviously, Justin hasn't played as well as we think he can play and what kind of player he has shown to be in the past," Reese told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine. "And he knows that. Justin and I recently had a really long conversation and talked about some of those things, and he really wants to get back to the old Justin Tuck and be the player that we know him to be."

Tuck characterized the meeting as a "good conversation," adding, "I don't see myself not bouncing back, and he voiced that to me and that was pretty much that."

Reese never aimed to ask Tuck, who turned 30 last month and is due $4.5 million in salary for 2013, to take a pay cut. But their conversation did include equal parts pep talk and tough love. The message, it seems, was received.

"I'm not going to place any limits on myself; I think I can be better than 2010," Tuck said, referring to a season during which he recorded 11.5 sacks and forced six fumbles. "But me saying it isn't going to get it done. It starts with getting my butt in here and working my butt off with my teammates to get back to that level of conditioning and get back to that level of strength."

Tom Coughlin's Giants stumbled to a 9-7 record in a season that, even now, continues to confound some within the organization. They won convincingly at San Francisco (26-3) and against Green Bay (38-10), but were not competitive in the two December games that mattered most, losing by a combined score of 67-14 at Atlanta and Baltimore.

And then there was a defense that ranked 31st in the league, yielded a franchise-record 6,134 yards to opponents and could neither stop the run nor pressure the quarterback on a regular basis.

For the first time in his career, Tuck will not have Osi Umenyiora as a teammate -- Umenyiora signed with the Atlanta Falcons in free agency -- something Tuck regards as "another challenge."

"We've got some guys who've got to step up," Tuck said, "and it starts with me."

He has plenty of company. This is a Giants team that knows it has, in Tuck's words, "a lot to prove." But make no mistake, one of the best signs the Giants could see in their building, their weight room and their locker room is Justin Tuck being himself again.

"We have to lead from the front," Tuck said, including Eli Manning and Antrel Rolle. "And everybody else has to get in line. And we have to make it be known that if you don't get in line, there will be consequences for that. That's something we've kind of shied away from, but in order to be the great team I know we can be, we have to do that this season."

Something to prove. Taking responsibility. Being accountable.

Yes, it's only April 15. There's a long way to go. But to the Giants, all of that sounds just about right.

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.

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