EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When the New York Giants reconvened Tuesday for minicamp, it seemed normal to see defensive linemen Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul all slipping in and out of the locker room, same as they ever have. Almost too normal.
It was easy to forget it was no sure thing the three of them would be kept together just four months ago, after the Giants had won another Super Bowl. Or how it would have been tantamount to managerial malpractice if somehow the Giants had allowed the three of them to be broken up over something as stupid as not paying Umenyiora something closer to what he deserves.
JPP, the junior partner of the trio and the only one of them to speak with reporters Tuesday, knows that's true as well as anyone.
Pierre-Paul has been in the NFL for only two seasons. So he wasn't around when the Giants rode the same formula -- a white-hot postseason by Eli Manning and a fierce pass rush that canceled out their playoff opponents' franchise quarterbacks -- to a Super Bowl title five winters ago, with Hall of Fame-bound Michael Strahan filling the role JPP stars in for the Giants now.
But JPP has been around long enough to know what was true then is still true now: "We're lucky to all be together. Because together we make each other better," he said.
The fact that the Giants were able to keep the trio intact by giving Umenyiora a well-deserved raise already looks like their best move of the offseason.
The Giants don't know what they'll get from their draft picks going forward. They're not sure who will emerge to answer other question marks they have at tight end and No. 2 running back behind injury-prone Ahmad Bradshaw, now that Brandon Jacobs signed with San Francisco. But the three-headed monster of a pass rush the Giants can throw at teams is often just as important to their chances of winning as Manning -- sometimes even more so, come playoff time.
Like the Giants, the most dangerous playoff teams usually have a franchise quarterback. Think Rodgers, Brady, Brees. But Umenyiora, Tuck and JPP have proved they can cancel out even the best opposing quarterbacks.
More than Manning, they're what make the Giants unique.
Pierre-Paul should be an NFL defensive player of the year candidate if he stays healthy.
Umenyiora -- even with his chronic hip and knee problems -- still averaged a sack a game when he returned for the stretch run last season.
Tuck, who also battled injuries, still bulldozes toward quarterbacks, even when the Giants move him inside to defensive tackle instead of defensive end to get all three of their stars on the field at once.
If the Giants' past two Super Bowls have suggested anything, it's that the best way to combat their devastating pass-rushers isn't to get yourself a franchise quarterback. (New England, for one, has been there, done that.) Your best hope might be to get yourself a pass rush like the Giants have.
Which is easier said than done.
"We just have a whole group of guys who just want to get after the quarterback and play the run at the same time, and that makes it good for all of us," Pierre-Paul said. "It's hard to deny all of us."
There was a lot to like about what the Giants -- not just JPP -- were saying Tuesday, no matter which locker you stopped by. (Except at David Diehl's. The veteran offensive lineman was sweating profusely as he faced a horde of reporters and their questions about his DUI arrest Sunday after, authorities said, he clipped two parked cars in Queens.)
The Giants could have straggled back from the offseason looking fat and happy and self-satisfied. They could be acting like their second Super Bowl title in five years earned them the right to kiss off the maddening inconsistency they often fight. The Giants' stars, especially, could have made this offseason one long and draining victory lap, and shown up Tuesday still bragging about how no one should ever doubt them again, and so on.
But the Giants aren't grabbing for any of that.
No matter whom you spoke to, the theme was the same pitch-perfect tone Manning struck. "Hey, we were only 9-7 last year -- that's not good enough," he said.
The phrase that kept coming up in every corner of the room was, "We've gotta improve."
"I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help my team win," JPP said, adding that the only personal goal he does have is to never be pushed out front as a team captain. He doesn't think it suits his personality.
"I lead by my shoulder pads. You follow me there," he said.
Pierre-Paul also talked about how the short break the Giants will get between when this minicamp ends Thursday and training camp starts next month "isn't an excuse to take it easy." Wideout Victor Cruz, who had a breakout season last year, stood at his cubicle talking about how he turned down being grand marshal at a local parade because it would have been too much of a time commitment.
Even Manning, who has earned more rope on this team than anyone, said he didn't agree to host "Saturday Night Live" until he requested (and got) a detailed schedule from the show's producers laying out exactly what the week would entail, "just to make sure it didn't take away from any of my obligations here."
Repeating as Super Bowl champs in the NFL is never easy. But the Giants are off to a good start. They're acting like they want to be better than their 2011 club that was lucky to squeak into the playoffs, period.
But the best news -- still -- is they have both a franchise quarterback and the sort of devastating pass rush that's proved to be the perfect counter for whatever franchise quarterback other teams can throw in their way.
"I still learn so much from those guys," JPP said of Osi and Tuck. "And now we're going to go try to win another Super Bowl together, again."