There aren't many New York Giants who haven't thought about Plaxico Burress' accidental shooting in November and wondered: `'What if?"
The Giants seemingly were on the verge of becoming a dynasty last season. Coming off a Super Bowl win over the previously undefeated New England Patriots, Tom Coughlin's team was on the road back to a title game. Then everything went south in the six weeks after Burress shot himself in thigh in a Manhattan nightclub.
The 11-1 start that led to an NFC East title didn't mean much after New York lost four of its final five games, including being embarrassed at home by the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC semifinal.
Sure, blame it on Burress. His self-inflicted gunshot wound and suspension changed the offense and the Giants.
The team that swaggered for much of the season lost it when it mattered most.
The question is what to expect this season. Burress is gone. He was let go by the team in April and subsequently pleaded guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon, agreeing to serve up to two years in jail. He will be sentenced on Sept. 22.
By that time, the Giants will be two games into the season. How will this group respond?
"I think we have a special team here," Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning said. "We have great character. We have guys who work hard and want to be part of a team. They understand the concept; guys who are competitive and want to be great. So I am excited about the guys in this locker room. We have something special and we have to take advantage of it."
With the exception of a new defensive coordinator, some new receivers, extra depth on the D-line and the loss of backup halfback Derrick Ward to free agency, this is basically the same team that won the Super Bowl in February 2008. The same team that was on the road to another when the weapon slipped out of Burress' pants and went off.
"We are a good football team, and the last few seasons we have been proving it," safety Kenny Phillips said. "We felt real good about ourselves last year, and you just don't lose that mentality. If anything, it makes you hungrier and makes you want to do even better. We have the talent and leadership, everything it takes to be a championship team."
For the Giants, everything starts with Eli Manning and the running game. It's a symbiotic relationship.
When Manning can be selective in his throws, the Giants tend to win, which is why they have gone to the playoffs the past four years.
New York led the league averaging 157.4 yards rushing last season, with big Brandon Jacobs turning in his second straight 1,000-yard season and Ward adding his first. Manning passed for 3,238 yards and 21 touchdowns and earned a $97 million contract extension in the process.
The decision to release Burress and then not re-sign Giants' all-time leading receiver Amani Toomer left many wondering who would be on the receiving end of Manning's throws this year. The answer seemed to emerge late in training camp when first-round draft pick Hakeem Nicks developed as the deep threat to accompany Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon, Mario Manningham and tight end Kevin Boss.
"Definitely, the talent is there," Pro Bowl guard Chris Snee said. "But obviously we know firsthand from last year's experience that you can start off 10-1, 11-1 and not play well at the end of the year, and you're home watching the final two games. We have to be consistent, but I'm excited about this team."
The defense is another reason for the Giants to be excited. It was ranked fifth overall in 2008, and it has added horses.
However, it also lost its lead. Steve Spagnuolo left to be become Rams coach and linebackers coach Bill Sheridan stepped up to replace him as coordinator.
His front line is awesome. Two-time Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora returns after missing last season with a knee injury, joining fellow defensive ends Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka. Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield return as the tackles and are joined by free agent signees Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard.
Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce runs the unit and he will have free agent Michael Boley _ five years, $25 million _ on the weakside once he serves a one-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
Cornerback Corey Webster anchors a solid secondary that will be even better when fellow cornerback Aaron Ross gets over a hamstring injury.
The special teams also should be solid with graybeard punter Jeff Feagles and placekicker Lawrence Tynes.
"We want people to understand that when they walk on a football field they are in a for a long day," Tuck said of the defense.
The big concern for everyone is not being complacent.
"Obviously it's a whole new team," cornerback Terrell Thomas said. "Plax is not here. We have a young receiver group, a new D-coordinator. It's a whole new team. We have to find our own chemistry, our own mojo, our own identity. It won't happen the first week or the fifth week. Later on when we find it, we'll know what type of team we'll be this year."
If it's anything like last year, the Giants will have a chance to win another championship.