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Giants ride 'catalyst' Umenyiora to Super Bowl, but future uncertain

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Osi Umenyiora has 5 1/2 sacks over the past four games, all Giants victories. (US Presswire)  
Osi Umenyiora has 5 1/2 sacks over the past four games, all Giants victories. (US Presswire)  

A lot of people get a lot of credit for what's going on with the New York Giants these days, but one name you seldom here is that of defensive end Osi Umenyiora -- and that's a mistake.

In fact, I would make the case that without Umenyiora the Giants aren't where they are today, which is their second Super Bowl in five seasons. He's not only part of an improved pass rush, he's a big reason opposing quarterbacks don't shred the Giants as they did previously.

Go ahead and snicker. All I know is that since Umenyiora returned to the lineup from a high ankle sprain, the Giants haven't lost. In those four games, he has 5½ sacks and one forced fumble, and in those four games nobody -- not Tony Romo, not Matt Ryan, not Aaron Rodgers, nobody -- has been able to avoid New York's pass rush.

Contrast that to the previous four games, when Umenyiora was absent, and opponents put up 109 points and 10 touchdown passes, and maybe you understand what Umenyiora's return has meant to Big Blue.

With him this season, the Giants are 8-4; without him, they're 4-3. Any questions?

Well, yes, as a matter of fact: What's this mean for his future with the Giants? Not much, I'm afraid. Umenyiora is under contract for one more year, and in a perfect world, the club would retain him, then let him walk after 2012.

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But I wouldn't be so sure. The Giants and Umenyiora suffered through an acrimonious contract squabble last summer that saw the player show up late for training camp, and I can't imagine anyone -- Umenyiora, his teammates, coach Tom Coughlin -- is interested in going through that again.

Of course, that could be resolved with a long-term contract, but I don't see that happening, either. First of all, people close to Umeyiora tell me money isn't the issue; he believes the Giants reneged on a promise and he hasn't forgotten. Second, if allowed to choose his next employer, Umeyiora could pull a Plaxico Burress and wind up somewhere the Giants would rather he not. Third, and most important, with the emergence of Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora is no longer a starter -- and spare parts don't usually get lucrative contracts.

That doesn't mean he's not a premier pass rusher. He is. But he's also a part-time player, and Umenyiora not only wants to be paid like a starter, he wants to be a starter.

That's why there is speculation the Giants might try to trade him before next season. The argument is that the club could deal him to acquire something or someone of value before his contract expires, and that makes sense.

But so does keeping someone of Umeyiora's considerable abilities.

It's a sticky situation, but you would never know it talking to Umenyiora. He has kept quiet, he has produced and the Giants have won. Yeah, he wasn't happy this summer, and we all knew about it. But he shut up and played, and he played well -- with at least ½ a sack in all but three games.

He is an indispensable part of the Giants' defensive-line rotation, and now more than ever he's proving it. With Umenyiora, Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck in the lineup, the Giants have three Pro Bowl pass rushers who can collapse the pocket -- and it's that group that poses the biggest threat to Tom Brady and New England.

I have no doubt Brady can punch holes in the Giants' secondary, but I'm not so certain about him having time to find those holes. He didn't in Super Bowl XLII when he was sacked five times and hit on countless other occasions -- including once by Umenyiora, who recovered a Brady fumble.

"I always say the reason we were able to win Super Bowl XLII was that they couldn't block our front," Giants co-owner John Mara said last summer. "That, to me, is the heart of our team."

He's right, of course. The Giants proved you can never have enough pass rushers, and they're demonstrating that again. With an effective front four, they're able to drop everyone else into coverage, flummoxing quarterbacks like Rodgers, who had just one pass completion of more than 20 yards in Green Bay's 37-20 playoff loss.

It was for 21.

Umenyiora is what one source close to the Giants called "a catalyst," but he's more than that. He's a critical piece of a pass rush that tilts the board toward New York. I don't know whether the Giants can win without him; what I do know is that they haven't lost with him. Not in the playoffs, they haven't. And that tells you something about his value to the Giants.

Did I say value? Osi Umenyiora is invaluable, and it's time someone recognizes it.

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