It's hard to blame New York Giants center Shaun O'Hara for being stunned by his team's offseason free-fall. Only three-and-a-half months ago in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants knocked off a New England Patriots team that was regarded by some as the greatest of all time.
But in the all-important ESPN.com spring Power Rankings, the Giants are clinging to No. 6, and at least one voter had them at No. 10. This outpouring of apathy toward a world title wasn't lost on O'Hara, who sits on coach Tom Coughlin's leadership council.
"I don't study all the rankings, but I'm aware of what's going on," he said. "We were a week or two removed from the Super Bowl and everyone starts predicting the Cowboys to win the NFC East. You almost have to laugh. You just won a Super Bowl, and it's like, 'Hey, what do we have to do to get that respect?' "
After spending a couple of months on the banquet circuit, O'Hara and his teammates officially will reunite at a ring ceremony May 29. Several players skipped the club's voluntary workouts this offseason and a subsequent trip to the White House, but it's unlikely they'll forget to pick up their jewelry.
For the players who've been working out, Coughlin already has passed out this season's first inspirational T-shirt. In 2007, Coughlin began the season with the T-shirt slogan "Talk is Cheap, Play The Game" and then followed it up with a new one every four games. Borrowing from his mentor Bill Parcells' long list of hokey motivational ploys, Coughlin came up with "Mental Toughness," "Prove it" and "Together We Are One." Rumors that he used puff paint on the shirts were later proven false.
Two weeks ago, he handed out a batch of XXLs that read: "It's a Whole New Season." Don't you love it when Coughlin gets crazy like that. He almost seems like a "whole new man," but I think we wrote that story like 437 times during Super Bowl week.
To their credit, the Giants haven't been overly obnoxious about their championship. A week after defeating the Patriots in historic fashion, the club hung a banner on the side of Giants Stadium with the words "2007 World Champions." If you're placed on hold by a member of their football office, you can hear radio play-by-play of three of the Super Bowl's most pivotal moments. Other than that, it's business as usual.
One New York columnist recently explained to me that the city celebrated the title right up until the time pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, which was about 10 days after the parade. It seems not even a world championship can stand in the way of Yankees baseball. O'Hara said he took three weeks to revel in the win, but on March 1, he knew it was time to hit the gym.
"I'm kinda done celebrating the Super Bowl," he said. "I'll save my Super Bowl flashbacks for several years from now when I'm sitting on my porch drinking moonshine."
O'Hara and left tackle David Diehl took a break from training to attend quarterback Eli Manning's April wedding in Mexico. Upon their return to the Meadowlands, they joined the rest of the line for some serious film study. Everyone agreed to start by watching the tape of the Super Bowl and work backwards through the entire season.
"With each passing day, we started training harder and harder," O'Hara said. "Watching those games again put us in the right frame of mind."
Jerry Reese, the Giants' unassuming second-year general manager, has received an extended honeymoon after landing a 2007 draft class that figured heavily in the club's championship run. He inherited a situation in which star defensive end Michael Strahan skipped training camp while pondering his future and former standout running back-turned-TV commentator Tiki Barber was questioning the franchise quarterback's psyche. Oh, and don't forget the embattled head coach. Other than all those headlines, it was an easy transition.
So how long did Reese celebrate the Giants' world title?
"We flew back from Arizona on Wednesday and started our pre-draft meetings Friday," said Reese. "[The draft] is our lifeline and we had to get started."
Reese said one of the few downsides to winning a Super Bowl is that your free agents become a lot more attractive. He said it more diplomatically than this, but what he's getting at is that players on a Super Bowl-winning team become overvalued, which makes them harder to keep. Raiders' fans might recall a former Cowboys Super Bowl MVP by the name of Larry Brown.
The Giants lost linebackers Kawika Mitchell (Bills) and Reggie Torbor (Dolphins), who were both starting during the playoffs. They also lost starting safety Gibril Wilson to the free-spending Raiders. Reese signed Sammy Knight to compete for Wilson's old job and then drafted Kenny Phillips out of Miami in the first round.
The thing he liked about last season's team and draft class was that so many players had something to prove. Mitchell was playing on a one-year deal, Manning's critics were growing louder, Strahan was returning from an injury and Brandon Jacobs needed to show that he could replace Barber. Reese knows that some critics are saying the Giants had a fairy-tale season and aren't capable of repeating.
"Are we still hungry?" asks Reese. "It's human nature to become complacent after something like this, but the fairy-tale thing could give our guys a chip on their shoulder, and hopefully they can use it."
True to form, Reese found a couple of players in the draft who are desperate to prove themselves. After landing former Marshall running back Ahmad Bradshaw in the seventh round last year, Reese took Michigan wide receiver Mario Manningham in the third round of April's draft and Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson in the sixth round.
"Manningham is kind of a wild card because of a couple of off-the-field things, but he's a first-round talent," Reese said. "I told Woodson that he was a great, great value steal and that he was way more talented than where we took him. I told him to make this the greatest sixth-round pick we've ever used."
History isn't on the Giants' side when it comes to repeat attempts. In 1987, they followed up a Super Bowl title with a 6-9 record during the strike-shortened season. In 1991, the Ray Handley-led Giants went 8-8 following a Super Bowl title. And after losing in the Super Bowl in 2000, the Giants responded with a 7-9 record. Of course, Amani Toomer and Strahan are the only players who remain from the 2000 team, but it's still a curse that must be acknowledged.
Meanwhile, O'Hara, who joined the Giants as a free agent out of Cleveland in 2004, is trying to put the team's success in proper perspective. In fact, he talked to the head coach of his alma mater, Rutgers, about this very topic recently.
"He took Rutgers to back-to-back bowl games," O'Hara said of Greg Schiano. "He said it was harder to handle prosperity than adversity. Everyone wants to win, but not everyone knows how to handle success. Think about the Patriots dealing with the pressure of trying to go undefeated. That type of pressure has to be exhausting."
The Giants aren't going to slip up on anyone this season -- unless it's in the power rankings.
Matt Mosley covers the NFL for ESPN.com