Giants gone soft? Don't tell Ahmad

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There are NFL fullbacks who go entire seasons without a single carry, backup quarterbacks who never take a live first-team practice rep, and fringe players who insist they enjoy being the guy who busts up a wedge on kickoffs.

And yet of all the things that don't make sense in football, the New York Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw is a different oddity: a sore-footed running back who runs only on game days.

Bradshaw is definitely not who defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was talking about Wednesday when he said the Giants, who are in a 1-3 slump, are sometimes too "soft." A day earlier, coach Tom Coughlin seemed intent on rattling the Giants' cages, too. Noting how his team is now clinging to a one-game lead in the NFC East, Coughlin looked ahead to the New Orleans Saints' visit Sunday to MetLife Stadium and said the Giants need to win their remaining four games to avoid any risk of missing the playoffs.

That won't be easy.

Atlanta, Baltimore and Philadelphia all lie ahead after the Saints. Though New Orleans isn't the same team since the bounty scandal cost it head coach Sean Payton for the season, the Saints have still won five of their past eight games after an 0-4 start. And they still have Drew Brees, who gashed the Giants for five touchdowns last season in the Saints' 49-24 win in the Superdome.

When Giants defensive lineman Osi Umenyiora was asked Thursday what he remembers about that game, Umenyiora said: "I remember going to get X-rays on my ankle. When I came back out they had already scored four or five TDs."

One headline writer called the Giants a "fading" team after that game. They're now trying to shake their usual November dip in success again. Though Eli Manning isn't getting a lot of grief about it, Monday's loss to Washington -- and especially some of the open passes he missed -- underscored how he isn't having his greatest year. The same goes for the Giants' defense, which Rolle says needs "a little more dog." As in bite.

But Bradshaw? Bradshaw should get the biggest pass. But he'd never ask for it or take it. He's listed at 5-9, 214 pounds, but when you stand next to him he seems two inches shorter than that. He has had both feet surgically repaired -- then massaged and fixed and taped up and put through physical therapy again and again -- but his feet still bother him so much he often takes only a few snaps in practice most weeks.

Come Sunday, though, it's a different story.

Bradshaw slams and spins and grinds and struggles for every yard, often dragging tacklers with him. And every push-off he makes with each foot must hurt. But with 836 yards rushing so far, Bradshaw is on track for his second 1,000-yard season. He had 24 carries against Washington on Monday for 103 hard-won yards -- his best performance since he went for 200, then 116 yards in back-to-back October games. When he got only 12 carries the following week, the TV cameras caught him yelling at Coughlin in frustration, "RUN THE BALL!"

"I didn't see it live," Giants guard Chris Snee, Coughlin's son-in-law, says with a smile, "but it was one of those things you hear about later in the locker room."

Thursday, Manning smiled about it too, but preferred to talk more about Bradshaw's gift for "finding the smallest seams and creases to run through." And Snee laughed again when asked if Bradshaw has ever slapped him upside the head as Bradshaw did to wideout Victor Cruz when he missed a block that Bradshaw felt might've sprung him.

"Nah. He and I butt heads before every game," Snee said of Bradshaw, "so we get it out of the way."

Snee added, "I'm sure on Sundays it looks like he's running pain-free, but I'm also sure he's in pain. He'll just never complain about it. Ahmad has the same fire that he had six years ago [when he got here]. Nothing surprises me about him or amazes me anymore. I just appreciate what he plays through, and how much love he has for the game."

Against New Orleans, it won't be a surprise if the Giants again try to knit together long, time-consuming drives to keep the Saints' offense off the field, same as the Giants did Monday against Robert Griffin III and Washington. What makes Bradshaw's ability to play through pain even more important is backup Andre Brown was recently lost to a broken leg.

Bradshaw is now the Giants' only healthy running back who has been here awhile. David Wilson is a rookie. Kregg Lumpkin and Ryan Torain just arrived. Bradshaw's old pal Brandon Jacobs is gone to San Francisco.

Given the critical stretch run of the season the Giants are in, it still feels like a thin blue line of protection. But Bradshaw says no, no, no, the running attack is not Bradshaw 'Til He Drops, or Bradshaw or Bust.

"I'm not going to put all the pressure on me. ... I got help," he has insisted. "Ryan and Lumpkin is coming in, and I've got the young boy [Wilson] here. ... When I first got my playing time, Derrick Ward went down with a broken leg and I was able to step in [as a rookie] and be a huge part of our offense. So I've been telling him [Wilson] that, staying in his ear, trying to help him out as much as possible."

That's all fine. But there's no back left who can replace everything Bradshaw does.

How is it that a running back who runs only on Sundays can be this good?

"He's as tough as they come," Manning answers.

"And once he gets in the game," Snee adds, "he never wants to come out."

But what about those bad feet?

"I'm getting a lot healthier now," Bradshaw insisted the other day.

Nothing soft about him.

Notice he didn't say "healthier" compared to what.