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How Plaxico Burress' shooting may have cost the Giants a title

A year after helping lead the Giants to a Super Bowl title, Plaxico Burress' career with the team ended abruptly when he shot himself in the leg at a Manhattan nightclub. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It has been 10 years, but a conversation about the 2008 New York Giants still gets former All-Pro guard Chris Snee irritated. The memories of how it all unfolded -- culminating with the NFC’s top seed losing to the rival Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round of the playoffs -- remains too raw.

It might always be that way. Snee doesn’t talk about it with his father-in-law -- former Giants coach Tom Coughlin -- because he believes they are both too competitive. It would be the equivalent of ripping a Band-Aid off a still-raw blister.

That 2008 season is the one that got away. It’s also the one where, a decade ago this week, wide receiver Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg at a Manhattan club.

“Honestly, it’s still one that haunts me,” Snee said of that ill-fated season, during a recent phone conversation with ESPN. “I don’t think there was a team that could beat us. I really don’t.”

The Giants had beaten the four teams that went on to reach championship weekend (Eagles, Cardinals, Ravens and Steelers) in a five-week stretch earlier in the season. Three of those four wins were on the road.

They had raced out to a 10-1 record before the Burress incident derailed their season.

"We were the best team in the NFL at the time of the shooting," Coughlin has said in recent years.

Snee thought that was the best Giants team of that era, even though they had won a Super Bowl the previous year and another four years later. Quarterback Eli Manning said he probably agreed.

“We could hang with anyone and were rolling,” Manning said. “And then obviously lost Plaxico.”

The Giants lost four of their next six games, including 23-11 in the playoffs at Giants Stadium. They failed to score 20 points in each of the four losses. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much ill will or hard feelings toward Burress, even though all seem to agree the shooting was the turning point.

Maybe it’s because Burress got the worst of it all. He sustained a gunshot wound to his leg and served nearly two years in prison for attempted criminal possession of a weapon. The perfect storm of a public figure violating New York’s stringent gun laws made for a high-profile case that even had the mayor pushing for strict prosecution. The self-inflicted wounds turned Burress’ life upside down and ended his Giants career. After the incident. he caught a total of 48 passes with the Jets (2011) and Steelers (2012).

His teammates aren’t blaming their demise on the receiver, who had caught the game-winning touchdown to beat the undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl nine months earlier.

“We got 53 people on a football team and every year somebody goes down on every team,” defensive end Justin Tuck said. “You look at all the championship teams previously and there were players that were hurt or whatever and that team found a way to rally the troops, figure it out and accomplish their goals. Obviously, Plaxico was a huge part of our success the first 11 or 12 games.

“In a lot of ways, I feel the failure of the team after Plaxico was on my shoulders. I know Eli feels the same way. I know our captains feel the same way. We should have done a better job of hitting pause and figuring out we’re still a pretty good football team and had everything in front of us. Instead, we kind of looked at it and was like, ‘Oh, woe is me.’ So we could definitely have handled that situation a lot better.”

'All juniors and seniors'

The Giants went 10-6, made the playoffs as a wild card and won the Super Bowl in 2007. They were a team on the rise with a young star quarterback, developing offensive line, trio of quality running backs and a defense that was filled with pass-rushers.

They were even better early in 2008 as a battle-tested team with sky-high confidence. With the exception of the retirement of defensive end Michael Strahan, they had most of their significant players return. The offense returned all 11 starters.

“It would be like in college if you had all sophomores and juniors and they all came back and you had all juniors and seniors that next year. That’s what it felt like,” said Tuck, who had a career-high 12 sacks that season with Strahan gone and Osi Umenyiora out with a knee injury. “It felt like that team had jelled and that team had chemistry. We just found ways to win football games.”

The Giants’ only slip-up in the first 13 weeks of the season was in Cleveland in Week 5. They were running through opponents behind a dominant offensive line and on the back of what Tuck still considers the best running back trio -- Brandon Jacobs, Derek Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw -- of the past 20 years.

The league’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack rushed for more than 200 yards against a vaunted Ravens defense that finished the season third against the run and allowed 15.3 points per game. The Giants, with their rushing attack and aggressive defense (Aaron Ross had a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown) leading the way, put 30 on them. They looked unstoppable during this midseason stretch, when they dismantled some of the league’s best teams on a regular basis.

The Giants even went to Arizona in Week 12 and beat the Cardinals without Burress, who was dealing with a hamstring injury. They didn’t know at the time, but they would never get him back.

Five days after that Cardinals victory, on Nov. 28, 2008, Burress went to the Latin Quarters in Manhattan along with teammate Antonio Pierce and accidentally shot himself in the leg. A gun in his waistband had slipped and when he went to grab it, a bullet discharged.

Tuck said he knew about the incident late that Friday night or early Saturday. Others were informed of what occurred when they reported to work on Saturday.

Amani Toomer remembers the story being relayed to the players in the wide receivers room from coach Mike Sullivan. Piece by piece it got worse and worse.

It went something like this: Burress went to the club last night. Oh, no, Toomer thought. He shot himself. Oh, no. He went to the hospital. Oh, no. The police are involved. Oh, no.

“The whole thing it was unbelievable,” Toomer said. “It didn’t seem true if it was a movie script. You were like, this is fake. It was so over the top.”

The Giants went to Washington the following day and beat the Redskins 23-7. Toomer had a 40-yard touchdown catch early in that contest, helping fill the Burress void.

The immediate impact of losing their No. 1 receiver wasn’t felt that Sunday, but it was coming. The Giants were 11-1 at the time. They won once more after, a victory over the Carolina Panthers that clinched the top seed in that season’s NFC playoffs. The Giants lost four of their final five games, including the playoff loss to the Eagles. Manning didn’t reach 200 yards passing in any of the final five games.

Snee still remembers talking to Eagles safety Brian Dawkins at that season’s Pro Bowl. Dawkins explained how Philadelphia’s game plan had changed without Burress. It allowed for them to consistently put an extra guy in the box to stop the run. The Giants rushed for 138 yards in that contest, almost 20 below their season average and 81 less than they did earlier in the season in a win over the Eagles when Burress was healthy and the Giants were rolling.

“To have the season end the way it did to Philadelphia, it still irks me to this day,” Snee said.

The following week, the Giants would have hosted the Cardinals in frigid conditions in New Jersey. They have no doubt how that would’ve ended. It’s all revisionist history now. To that era of Giants, the 2008 season remains the one that got away.