In a weeklong series, The Post is looking at alternate realities in New York sports. We are examining “what if” scenarios for our teams, reversals of fortune that would have radically changed not only the franchises themselves but dramatically altered their leagues, too. There are two rules: The scenario must be grounded in reality and have taken place within the last 30 years.
It is rare indeed to wake up in the morning feeling so excited and confident about your job and your impending performance in that job that you cannot wait to get to work and start your dominance.
This is the way Shaun O’Hara greeted the day when he played center for the Giants during the 2008 season.
“That year, I tell people all the time, was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football in my entire life,’’ O’Hara told The Post. “That year we literally kicked the snot out of people. I couldn’t wait to get to the stadium on Sunday, on game day, because we were that good.’’
How good? The Giants won their first four games, lost one, then ripped off six more victories to approach the end of November with a record of 10-1. Coming off their stunning upset of the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, all signs pointed to the Giants claiming or at least making a serious run at another Lombardi Trophy, this time not as upstarts but as a legitimate powerhouse team.
“I think that was the best team we had,’’ Amani Toomer, the Giants all-time receptions leader, told The Post.
“It wasn’t like we were airing it out, either,’’ O’Hara said. “We’re gonna run the football. They knew it, we knew it, and there was nothing they could do about it. I know we won the Super Bowl the year before but we were a better team in 2008, we were a better offense in 2008 than we were in 2007. It was by far the best team I’d ever been on.’’
The best team was not the last team standing. The top wide receiver, Plaxico Burress, 11 games into the season accidently shot himself in the right thigh with an illegal handgun in a Manhattan nightclub. A season firmly on the tracks got derailed, the Giants made a one-and-done playoff appearance and Burress never again suited up for the Giants.
All these years later, members of the 2008 Giants wonder “What if?’’ What if Plaxico didn’t stuff a Glock 9mm into his sweatpants before heading off to the Latin Quarter at 47th and Lexington that fateful night?
“I think about it every year around the Super Bowl, because everyone talks about how tough it is to go back-to-back and had we won that year people would have started saying the ‘D’ word,” O’Hara said, referring to the Giants being called a dynasty. “That’s how things would have changed. Who knows the trajectory of the franchise, how different that would have been for everybody?’’
The Giants that season played bully-ball. They had two running backs, Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward, who would surpass 1,000 yards and emerging Ahmad Bradshaw as part of the best rushing attack in the league. They had Eli Manning, the freshly minted Super Bowl MVP, emboldened in his fifth year. Tom Coughlin, the head coach, believed the Giants were playing better than anyone else, and this is a man not prone to hyperbole.
Thanksgiving came and went. There was a Friday practice two days before a game at Washington. Burress, the lanky receiver who cradled the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl to prevent the Patriots from going undefeated, tweaked his right hamstring a week earlier and barely played the previous game. Not that it mattered much. The Giants still had no trouble thrashing the Cardinals in Arizona. Burress, still ailing, did not practice two days before the Redskins game and was going to sit that one out.
Saturday morning, as players arrived for a walk-through practice before the quick train ride to Landover, Md., word started trickling in. Did you hear what happened to Plax last night?
“It was crazy,’’ Toomer said. “[Wide receivers coach] Mike Sullivan was telling us, ‘Hey, here’s what happened with Plaxico.’ I was like, ‘Oh, what did he do?’ He says, ‘He went to a club.’ I go, ‘Uh-oh.’ He says, ‘He had a gun.’ I go, ‘Uh-oh.’ He says, ‘And he shot himself.’ I go, ‘Uh-oh.’ It just kept getting worse and worse and worse. It was crazy. It was a tough thing to swallow.
“But I thought, ‘OK, he’s out for a little while. Luckily it didn’t hurt him that bad.’ I thought he’d be out a couple of weeks because the bullet wound wasn’t that bad.’’
The night of Nov. 28, 2008, changed everything. Burress, out with middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, faced charges of criminal possession of a handgun. Burress had an expired concealed carry license from Florida but no New York license. The Giants suspended him without pay.
A perfect storm was brewing. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had a no-tolerance policy on guns. The law in his city was a minimum 3 ¹/₂-year prison sentence for conviction on possession of a weapon. A high-profile case like this was not going to deter Bloomberg.
“Our children are getting killed with guns in the street,’’ Bloomberg said at the time. “Our police are getting killed. I think it would be an outrage if we didn’t prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, particularly people who live in the public domain.’’
Burress was eventually sentenced to two years in prison and ended up serving 21 months at Oneida Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The next time he stepped foot on a football field was in 2011, with the Jets. He was never the same player.
“I lost two years of playing the game I love when I was in my prime,’’ Burress wrote in a letter to the 2017 draft class published on The Player’s Tribune website. “I lost millions of dollars. I lost valuable time with my wife and children. I even missed the birth of my daughter, who was born while I was in prison. I basically lost everything all because of one stupid decision.’’
Days after the incident, the Giants carried on, business as usual. Toomer caught a 40-yard touchdown pass in a routine 23-7 victory over the Redskins. At 11-1, the Giants had their best record in franchise history after 12 games. Factoring in the 2007 postseason run, they had won 15 of 16 games. The Giants in a five-week stretch in 2008 beat all four teams (Eagles, Cardinals, Steelers, Ravens) that ended up playing on championship weekend, winning three of those games on the road.
But they were not the same team without Burress. They lost three of their final four regular-season games.
“We still were a good team, but when we struggled to run the football or teams found ways to stuff us a little bit we really lost that go-to guy in the passing game,’’ O’Hara said. “That kind of made us one-dimensional at times.’’
This was glaring in the moribund 23-11 home playoff loss to the hated Eagles, a team that did not have a cornerback capable of covering Burress. Without that threat, Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins was freed up to play in the box, nullifying the Giants’ running game.
Toomer says “absolutely’’ when asked if the Giants win the Super Bowl with a healthy Burress. Then he quickly recants, saying he sensed a different vibe that season from the previous year. He points to the Giants pulling their starters in the regular-season finale, a 20-19 loss at Minnesota.
“I think going into the playoffs on a loss like that was totally different than going to play us after a hard-fought loss against the Patriots the year before,’’ Toomer said. “I felt like we didn’t learn from what made us great the year before. I felt aside from Plaxico shooting himself, I think we dropped the ball in a sense, we took our finger off of the trigger and kind of let up. It’s hard to turn it on and off, especially at that point we had played so much football, we had the No. 1 seed, but still, you can’t let up. I felt we let up.’’
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Toomer also bemoaned the “weird decision’’ to move second-year Steve Smith into Burress’ ‘X’ receiver slot.
“I felt that was a big slap in my face and made us less competitive,’’ said Toomer, who at the time was in his 13th and final year with the Giants. “Steve Smith ended up being a great receiver, but I don’t know if he was ready at that period and Domenik Hixon never ended up materializing as that receiver they thought he was going to be.’’
The Steelers beat the Cardinals in the Super Bowl following that season. The 2008 Giants beat them both, on the road.
“Two teams we kicked the snot out of during the regular season,’’ O’Hara said. “If we had beat Philly, the Cardinals would have had to come up and play us at MetLife, that would have been a disaster for that offense and Kurt Warner. If we had gotten past Philly, I have no doubt we would have beaten Arizona. And we would have beaten Pittsburgh.’’
How often does this come up in get-togethers with former teammates?
“Depends,’’ O’Hara said, “on how much liquor is in the room.’’