EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - For most of the past decade, Tiki Barber was the face of the New York Giants.
His powerful legs and cutback ability found holes in defenses and made him the catalyst of the offense. A boyish face and broad smile made him one of the poster boys of New York metropolitan area sports.
His glib, insightful thoughts made him a go-to guy for the media, and many times a pain for Tom Coughlin and the franchise.
The voice that accused Coughlin of being outcoached after a 2005 playoff loss is on the outside now, and the Giants appeared to have profited from the subtraction in an odd way.
In his second career as a television football analyst for NBC, Barber may have helped unite the Giants more than anyone knows heading into next weekend’s Super Bowl against the New England Patriots in Glendale, Ariz.
The words that brought the team together came in mid-August, when Barber criticized Eli Manning’s lack of leadership during the 2006 season. Barber noted the quarterback’s attempt to lead an offensive meeting late in the campaign was “comical” at times.
It didn’t go over well with teammates, and certainly not with Manning, who had become the face of the Giants in training camp with Barber gone and seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan mulling retirement.
The normally reserved Manning went after Barber, criticizing the franchise’s all-time leading rusher for distracting the team in 2006 with his midseason retirement announcement and his criticism of Coughlin.
“I guess I’m just happy for Tiki that he’s making a smooth transition into the TV world,” Manning said back then. “You know, I’ll be interested to see if he has anything to say (about a team) besides the Giants, and what his comments will be on that.”
The response not only showed that Manning had a backbone, the fiery manner in which it was delivered cemented his place as a team leader.
“That’s our teammate. That’s our quarterback and we love him for what he has done. Regardless of what people say about him, he has led this team to a Super Bowl.”
Manning called the incident history on Thursday.
“I put that all behind me,” Manning said. “It maybe showed my team I can stand up for myself. I don’t think it did more than that.”
Barber did not return a telephone call left on his cell phone by The Associated Press seeking comment. Attempts to reach him through his agent, Mark Lepselter, also were unsuccessful.
Speaking on his Sirius NFL Radio program earlier this week, Barber had no regrets about his decision to retire, noting he and his wife, Ginny, discussed the Giants making the Super Bowl in the year after he left the game.
“In my heart I knew I didn’t want to do it anymore,” Barber said. “My life, both personally and professionally has taken me a different way. My passion is elsewhere. With that being said, I’m ecstatic for those guys, especially my long-term teammates there.”
Barber didn’t specifically address his comments about Manning, but he admitted he has been dismayed by the perception he has been overly critical of the Giants in his new job.
“I said what I said because it is my job to say what I said about the New York Giants, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not a supporter of an organization that was part of my family for years,” Barber said. “John Tisch is still a great friend of mine. John Mara, quite frankly, called me after the season and asked my advice about this team.
“People think that I’m this Giant hater and I’m not,” Barber said.
“That was just his job being in the media now,” Feagles said. “I think things were taken a little out of context. He’ll probably be at the Super Bowl and patch things up. I am sure Tiki is happy we are going to the Super Bowl.”
Not all his former teammates were happy, though. Many consider Barber an outsider now.
“We care about the guys in this room,” guard Rich Seubert said. “We don’t care about guys not in this room. Eli has always been my leader. That never bothered us.”
Guard Chris Snee felt Manning did a good job talking to the team before the Dallas game in early December 2006.
“Just speaking for myself, I have always been behind Eli,” Snee said. “He assumed the leadership role and it resumed in May and June and took it throughout camp. I never laughed when he made a pep talk. He was always the leader in my book, and it still holds true.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
After Barber leaked his upcoming retirement a little more than a month into the season, it caused some uncertainty in the locker room. The situation got worse when the team collapsed in the second half of the season, winning two of eight games.
While the Giants made the playoffs with an 8-8 record, they were a dysfunctional team by the end of the schedule.
“We just kept grinding as a team this year,” Robbins said. “You can’t let the outside stuff get to you. Once you let the outside stuff get to you, it’s a team breakdown and you can’t let that happen. If we didn’t stick together, we wouldn’t be on the way to the Super Bowl.”
It’s a trip they are taking without Tiki Barber.
“That’s the past; we’ve moved on,” Tuck said. “That’s all I have to say about it. At the time it was between Eli and Tiki. If it resurfaces again, it will be between Eli and Tiki again.”
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