EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When the New York Giants beat the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, Owamagbe Odighizuwa was 15 years old and watching on TV. He could not take his eyes off Osi Umenyiora.
"Ever since that day, I watched him play and I just fell in love with how he played," Odighizuwa, the Giants' rookie defensive lineman, said Wednesday. "There was one summer where I did every little drill that he did to a T. Every single day, every drill that I could find on him that he did during the offseason, I would do that every single day."
So when Umenyiora arrived for his retirement news conference Wednesday, Odighizuwa was sitting right near the entrance to greet him. They shook hands and shared a Giants-family hug before Umenyiora took the stage.
"I just want to talk to him, kind of pick his brains a little bit, maybe build a relationship if I can," Odighizuwa had said a few moments earlier. "I've looked up to him for a very long time."
It's nice that the new kid has that kind of respect for the tradition into which he's entering as a Giants defensive lineman. But it's a shame that he had to wait for Umenyiora's retirement day to have that experience.
Umenyiora's presence at the team facility Wednesday was a reminder of what the Giants don't have anymore. That long line of dominating pass-rushers has been broken, and the current locker room doesn't have a Michael Strahan, a Umenyiora or a Justin Tuck for a young guy to lean on. Currently, due to some very unusual circumstances, that locker room doesn't even have Jason Pierre-Paul, who played with Umenyiora and Tuck when he was young and helped win Super Bowl XLVI as part of a defensive line that still featured those two Super Bowl XLII vets.
Odighizuwa is a rare rookie who doesn't have to be taught the history of the Giants' defense. He's already studied it, believes in it and is eager to become a part of it. But the fact that he doesn't have a teammate right now who links back to the days when a dominant pass rush led the Giants to Super Bowl glory is unfortunate, and it's part of the problem the 2015 team faces.
"We're a group of guys who can click very well together," Odighizuwa said of the current defensive line. "We understand that we haven't made a name for ourselves yet, but we have a lot of ambition and we all want to be great. I look at it as a story to be told."
It could be, but the Giants' current group of pass-rushers is not an accomplished one. Robert Ayers is a good player but not the kind who'll throw a scare into an offensive game plan. George Selvie is kind of just a guy. Damontre Moore is hyper-talented, but size and concentration issues have prevented him from reaching his potential so far. Kerry Wynn has shown some things but only has five games of NFL experience. Everybody expects Pierre-Paul to return, but no one knows when he'll be able to play or how good he'll be after a July 4 fireworks accident cost him his right index finger.
"Guys are going to emerge, and they're going to have to -- these young guys are going to have to emerge," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Wednesday. "Guys like Owa, he's a talented young guy who can learn from watching these guys and knowing full well the success that that group had."
It would help if some connection to "that group" still inhabited the Giants' locker room. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who ran the defense in that Super Bowl XLII season and is back to run it again this year, has worked all offseason to teach his charges about the great defenses and defensive players of Giants history. But aside from Cullen Jenkins, who won a Super Bowl title with the 2010 Green Bay Packers, there's not a defensive lineman in the room who knows what it's like to hold up a Lombardi trophy. Players say Jenkins and Ayers have taken on vocal leadership roles this offseason, but it's still nothing like the room into which Pierre-Paul walked when he was a rookie in 2010.
Spagnuolo, Umenyiora and the Giants won Super Bowl XLII because they were able to generate incredible pressure on Tom Brady with just their front four. This season, Spagnuolo is not going to be able to count on that, and you'll likely see a lot more blitzing and attacking to cover up the question marks along that front. It's possible someone will emerge as a dominant player from the current mess, but whoever it is won't have the day-to-day help of the Giants greats who've come before. The roster erosion and developmental failures of the past half decade have left the current group basically on its own.