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Giants Playoff Preview: The Distractions of Plaxico

The New York Giants first playoff game is this Sunday at 1 p.m. against the Philadelphia Eagles. Contributing editor Will Leitch recently spent three weeks in the Giants locker room, talking to players and observing the bizarre interaction between media and naked athlete. His dispatches will run every day this week leading up to the game. Today: The Plaxico Burress “situation.”

Thanks to his suspension more than a month ago after drunkenly shooting himself in the leg, Plaxico Burress won’t be taking the field for the Giants during this year’s playoff run. It’s likely we won’t see him in a Giants uniform again. But his absence still looms over the team, almost as much as it did the day after his suspension, when his locker was the star attraction.

On that day in early December, when reporters are allowed into the Giants locker room, they make a mad dash to Plaxico’s empty locker, sprinting past actual players who actually play for the actual Giants. Amusingly, several local television camerapeople elbow each other to position for the perfect shot. Of an empty locker.

Plaxico’s locker, like everybody else’s, has lots of shoes. (Teenage girls would be jealous of a professional athlete’s locker. Ironically, the locker with the fewest number of shoes in it is punter Jeff Feagles’s.) There’s a picture of Plaxico smiling with his wife and son, a copy of David Tyree’s autobiography, More Than Just the Catch — every Giants wide receiver has a copy of this book in his locker, though none carry Plaxico’s Giant — and a sticker with the logo of Michigan State, his alma mater. There are no guns.

After Plaxico’s empty locker has revealed all its secrets, the flock of reporters goes in search of players who will talk about Plaxico. It is, after all, the first “salacious” story of the year for the then-11-1 team, and probably the first time the low-key Giants have stolen any headlines from Brett Favre. The players are less enthused. Running back Brandon Jacobs, who might be the most important Giant this postseason (and whose locker reveals that he has the cutest son on earth), patiently piddles out platitudes about “just one guy” and “we’re a whole team” before someone asks him about next Sunday’s game against Philadelphia.

Reporter: Sunday is a chance to clinch the division. How important is that?
Jacobs: It’s very important.

The buzzword of the day is “distraction.” The Giants have been rolling over opponents all season, and the concern is that the Plaxico situation will serve as a “distraction.” The problem is that no one seems quite sure what a distraction is. Offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie, who has a professorial air that reminds one of a gigantic version of the writer John Ridley, tells me that the only “distraction” Burress has caused is forcing players who don’t know the quiet wide receiver well to think hard in order to come up with something to say about him to reporters.

Cornerback Sam Madison is theoretically an expert on distractions. He played with Ricky Williams in Miami, when the notorious ganja fanatic turned the whole Dolphins locker room into an ongoing discourse on the running back’s mental state. I ask him what “distraction” really meant. Were players so wrapped up in Plaxico’s troubles that they roamed around the practice field lost in thought, staring at planes passing overhead, wandering off aimlessly in the middle of sled drills?

Well,” he says, “it’s not like the Ricky Williams thing. It’s not affecting us as much.”

This strikes me as revisionist history. From my memory, players told reporters over and over during the Williams imbroglio back in 2004 that the team was fine, that he was just one guy, that this is a “whole team,” so on. The Dolphins then finished the season 4-12. I ask Madison, “So, then, if the team loses, it’s a distraction, and if the team wins, it’s just media nonsense. Is that how it works?” Madison seems annoyed; he was trying to get dressed, after all. “Sure, something like that.”

The loss of Plaxico didn’t affect the team in the locker room, but it certainly caused some issues on the field. Though 2008 wasn’t one of his best seasons, his absence paralyzed the Giants’ passing game, depriving it of his height and downfield presence. Eli Manning is not exactly the most precise deep thrower, and Plaxico’s “length,” as they call it, saved him some ugly mistakes. The Giants struggled in their first few games after the suspension, and as nicely as Domenic Hixon as been as a fill-in, he’s not Plaxico. The Giants can’t score as quickly, and they’re going to have more trouble if they fall behind. As much as you might like to forget Plaxico, you can’t.

Not that any of this was evident the day after his suspension. After 40 minutes of endless distraction talk, the locker room mostly clears out, the non-questions non-answered. Linebacker Danny Clark looks around and shakes his head. “That’s what our society is,” he says. “We like controversy. Otherwise, this team is boring. Finally people aren’t finding us boring, I guess. Whatever.”

Related: Not So Blasé About Those Eagles Anymore
Eli Manning’s Secret Leadership Weapon
Tom Coughlin Will Tell You How This Is Gonna Go, Okay?
A Defiant Antonio Pierce Bowls Us Over

Giants Playoff Preview: The Distractions of Plaxico