Giants opt to part with their heart

He might be best remembered around the country for falling backward into the end zone while trying to stop himself from scoring the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI.

But in these parts, running back Ahmad Bradshaw will be remembered as perhaps the toughest New York Giant during the franchise's past two Super Bowl runs.

"That is what they say," Bradshaw, who played through constant pain in his surgically repaired ankles and feet, said in an interview on WFAN radio. "That I am the toughest guy on the team. Anywhere I go, I will try to get that name just because of my game."

This week, the Giants began the tough process of clearing cap space and moving in a different direction by releasing key veterans such as Michael Boley, Chris Canty and Bradshaw.

The three moves clear about $13.75 million in cap space and bring the Giants' cap number down to about $118.25 million, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. NFL Network reports that teams have been told the salary cap will be set at $121.1 million for this season.

While the moves alleviated financial pressure, the Giants parted ways with a lot of their championship toughness, leadership and experience.

And the Giants likely aren't done making moves. Not by a long shot. They need to carve out space to re-sign free agents like left tackle Will Beatty and restricted free agents like wide receiver Victor Cruz and safety Stevie Brown, while also trying to lock down wide receiver Hakeem Nicks for the future.

It's nothing new for general manager Jerry Reese, who has made painful decisions in the past, such as releasing offensive line fixtures Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert while also letting young players Steve Smith and Kevin Boss go in free agency in 2011.

Those moves weren't popular with the fan base. But the results were, as the Giants won the Super Bowl.

This, though, will be the first time since Bradshaw was drafted in 2007 that the Giants will not have him or Brandon Jacobs, who was released last offseason, in the backfield. The Giants are now moving forward with a new backfield led by 2012 first-round pick David Wilson. Tom Coughlin likes having a one-two punch and the team likely will try to keep restricted free agent Andre Brown, who had eight touchdowns last season before breaking his leg.

"They are two great backs and they showed it last year," Bradshaw, who is recovering from surgery to replace a screw in his foot, said in an interview on ESPN New York 98.7 FM.

But can Wilson and Brown -- and whoever else the Giants bring in at running back -- fill Bradshaw's cleats?

Bradshaw might have only two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, but the seventh-round pick out of Marshall was always about more than statistics. He was Eli Manning's most trusted protector in the backfield –- something the coaches repeatedly harped on last season whenever asked why Wilson didn't play more often.

Bradshaw's heart and desire seemingly were unmatched. His powerful legs never seemed to stop, in an effort to churn out every single yard he could get. Sometimes that was to his own detriment, as he would get stripped of the football; he lost seven fumbles in 2010. But even Coughlin, who despises fumbles, lived with that, knowing how hard Bradshaw always tried.

Teammates on defense, such as Antrel Rolle and Justin Tuck, often talked about how inspiring the fiery Bradshaw was with his toughness and ability to play through injuries.

Make no mistake: Coughlin will miss one of his favorite players.

"He plays through anything," Coughlin said in a statement released by the team. "He doesn't just talk about playing hurt. He does play hurt. If anyone knows the quality of this man's pain threshold, all you need to do is watch him on a Monday when he can't even walk.

"He gets a little better on Tuesday, a little better on Wednesday. By Thursday his spirits are back up and whether he can or he can't, he's telling you he's practicing on Friday, and he does. And he plays on Sunday. And he goes through the same cycle. He did that for two or three years."

Over the past four years, Bradshaw averaged 207 carries a season. He also averaged a couple of injuries every year, thanks to his violent, bow-legged style of running.

Still, somebody will have to pick up all those carries, find a way to move the pile and light a fire under the team the way Bradshaw always seemed to do.

Just like somebody will have to fill the middle of the defensive line and stuff the run the way the 6-foot-7 Canty did for much of the past four seasons.

Just like somebody else will have to find a way to cover tight ends, provide speed at linebacker and make timely plays like Boley did.

Wilson, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and linebacker Jacquian Williams are just three candidates who now will attempt to replace all that the Giants said goodbye to this week.

In Bradshaw's case, the running back says the farewell might not be forever as both sides discussed leaving the door open for a reunion later on.

Until then, the Giants will have to find a way to replace something money usually cannot buy.

"Anytime I touch the field," Bradshaw said, "it is going to be heart."