Each off-season for five years wide receiver Steve Smith has gone to the base of a 100-foot sand dune in Southern California, pulled off his shoes and socks, surveyed the ascending line of orange traffic cones, dug the balls of his feet into the granular surface and run fly patterns uphill.
The first time, as a junior at USC trying to keep pace with Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Falcons linebacker Coy Wire, Smith finished two sprints up the dune, skipped the third and threw up after the fourth. ("The secret to climbing Sand Dune Park," says Polamalu, "is to never look up.")
When Smith runs the dune now—he can go up to 90 minutes before quitting—he mostly blends in with other locals who are exercising and sunbathing. On the occasion he is recognized, though, it is for his play against crosstown rival UCLA and not his first two seasons in the NFL.
"I told him," says Matt Kerstetter, Smith's strength and speed trainer, "if they're still thinking of you as a USC Trojan and not a New York Giant, you haven't made it yet."
Now comes Smith's chance. Eighteen months after exceptional play by the Giants' pass catchers keyed the game-winning drive in Super Bowl XLII, the team's receiver corps is younger and largely unproven. The wideout with the biggest opportunity is the 5'11", 195-pound Smith, a third-year player whose latest challenge is an uphill run at replacing Plaxico Burress.
After Burress accidentally shot himself in the thigh in a New York City nightclub last November, the franchise seemed to buckle and shift course. One of the most prolific quarterback-receiver combinations in the NFL had been shattered, a fact that was never clearer than in the Giants' divisional playoff loss to the Eagles last January. Without the 6'5" Burress, Eli Manning threw for 169 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Though Burress was released by the team in April, the reverberations from the shooting remain. Last Thursday, as players completed their morning workout at training camp in Albany, word spread that Burress had pleaded guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon and faced two years in prison. The news was a reminder of what the Giants had lost and what their remaining receivers had to achieve.
"When I think about what he threw away just by making some poor choices, hopefully it's a lesson for the rest of our players," said Giants co-owner John Mara. "He was part of the family, and I know a lot of the players are hurting right now."
Defensive end Justin Tuck said of Burress, "He's one of the reasons I can say I'm a Super Bowl champion."
Smith played in that game too, lining up in the slot and catching five passes for 50 yards—a sidebar to David Tyree's miraculous football-to-helmet catch and Burress's game-winning touchdown reception. When he heard about Burress's plea bargain, Smith, carrying a Styrofoam platter out of the camp cafeteria, bowed his head slightly. "I think they wanted to set an example, which sucks," said Smith, who was held up at gunpoint in front of his house in Clifton, N.J., and robbed of cash and jewelry just days before the Burress incident. "He did something to himself. He didn't hurt anybody else."
That Smith is in a position to become a No. 1 receiver signals a change in his profile. As well as he played at Southern Cal, Smith was overshadowed by bigger, flashier teammates such as Dwayne Jarrett and Mike Williams. "When you see your fellow receivers' jerseys in stores, it pushes you because you want that recognition," says Smith, who in his second NFL season caught 57 passes for 574 yards and made four starts. "I've always been around star players and tall targets, but I've always found my way."
It is one thing to be projected as a No. 1 receiver, but it is another to earn that respect from an opponent. A top wideout makes defensive coordinators think twice before stacking eight men in the box. He runs precise routes, has dependable hands and makes plays over the middle, downfield and anywhere else a quarterback sends him.
"We investigated some veteran receivers for some possible trades, but they weren't a good fit for us," says Giants general manager Jerry Reese. "We love developing our own guys, and we feel like we have quality receivers to get the job done."
In addition to Smith and Tyree, those vying for increased playing time or roster spots are Sinorice Moss (fourth year), Domenik Hixon (third), Mario Manningham (second), Hakeem Nicks (first-round draft pick out of North Carolina), Ramses Barden (third-round choice out of Cal Poly) and Derek Hagan, a fourth-year player who was waived by the Dolphins last season and picked up after Burress was sidelined. The Giants elected not to re-sign 34-year-old Amani Toomer, leaving Hixon as the favorite to start opposite Smith.
Even with his faith in the team's young pass catchers, Reese made it a point to speak with Manning, laying out his expectations for the franchise quarterback. "I challenged him," Reese says. "I said, 'One thing that attracted us to you when you were at Ole Miss was that you made everyone around you better. You had guys like me at receiver, and you were still beating the Floridas and the LSUs. Do we have a true Number 1 [receiver]? We don't know that yet, but we have some good players. I put the onus on you to make those guys better.' And he was like, 'You can count on it.'"
Manning's assessment of the receivers after three weeks of camp: "They work hard, they ask questions, they're trying to do the right thing, and they have a great attitude. That's what you like to see from the guys, all of them fighting for a position, and it's been good."
It's also been intense. After dropping his third pass of a morning practice, Tyree slammed his helmet to the ground and kicked it across the turf. Despite his Super Bowl heroics, he is no lock to make the team after missing the 2008 season with right knee and hamstring injuries. Hixon (seven starts, 43 catches last year) has a tremendous downfield burst but also battles drops. Moss provides a speed threat in the slot. "The roster's never really been an issue for me," says Tyree. "I go out there and I play this game, and I don't make decisions. It makes my life that much more simple."
Last Saturday another audition for New York's receivers took place at Chicago's Soldier Field, where the Bears thoroughly dominated the Giants. In four series Manning was sacked twice and missed Manningham on a potential big gainer. The wideouts struggled to find openings in the defense. An exception was Nicks, who hauled in a 55-yarder from backup Andre Woodson with less than a minute left in a 17--3 Chicago victory.
Another was Smith, who lined up wide and caught Manning's first pass—a five-yarder in the left flat—and then snagged a 25-yard dart in traffic after finding a seam. It was the kind of catch that has Reese bullish on Smith. "He is what I like to call quarterback-friendly," Reese says. "He's always going to be in the right spot, always going to get open, and he's going to make the tough catches. Quarterbacks love those kinds of guys."
But the real test for Smith will come in the regular season, when he will be split wide and go against top corners every play.
"It is different out [wide], but I think he can do it," Reese says. "We'd love to have a big guy, one of those Calvin Johnsons. But think about New England and their Super Bowl wins. Did they have Larry Fitzgerald on any of those teams? Didn't have him. Did they have Randy Moss on any of those teams? Didn't have him. They had David Patten, a free agent, and Troy Brown, an eighth-round pick [both 5'10"]. There are different ways to do it."
Instead of straining to scale a massive sand dune, Smith is running across green fields, dodging defensive backs and trying to overcome any doubt that he can be a No. 1 receiver.
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"We love developing our own guys," says Reese, "and we feel like we have quality receivers to get the job done."
Photograph by ANTHONY J. CAUSI/ICON
RECEIVING LINE While Smith (12) is getting first crack at starting, Moss (83), Manningham (82) and Hagan (80) stand at the ready.
[See caption above]
CATCH ALL The Giants are inexperienced at wideout, but their strength may come in numbers.
BACKUP PLAN Manningham (left) and Moss appear to be vying for the third receiver spot.