Throughout all his travails with a herniated neck disc, Mathias Kiwanuka always proclaimed that he'd play again this year. But somehow, the defensive end's words rang with hopeful but, as one thought, empty optimism.
The empty part came true Thursday as the Giants signed new kick returner Will Blackmon. Kiwanuka was placed on season-ending injured reserve to clear the roster spot, the Giants' patience clearly up as they waited in vain for the disc to subside on its own.
"We held out hope as long as we could," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "Finally, by consensus, the doctors came to this decision. You have to make the right choice and the decision was made that he could not play again this season. My concern is for Mathias. He loves the game, he loves to play, he's proven his versatility this year beyond any question. He's given great effort and he has proven that he is a team player. I feel badly for Mathias because I know how important playing the game of football is to him. Let's get him healthy, back on the field, playing for the New York Giants."
Kiwanuka, of course, would have preferred more waiting time. But he also understood the Giants had other, more pressing needs at this point.
"Like I said before, I felt like, given enough time, I could've made it back this season, but it's the nature of the business," Kiwanuka said. "The Giants had to move on, and I had to be okay with it. Regardless of what happens to me as an individual, I'm definitely still going to work with the Giants organization throughout the term of my contract. I know this team is going be successful, so I'm excited to watch it."
The worst part for Kiwanuka, along with the obvious impossibility of playing again this year, is that this was the final year of his contract. His hopes for a big, free-agent payday from the Giants, or any other team next year -- in absence of a lockout, of course -- are just about nil.
This is hardly surprising, however. Herniated discs are nothing to be trifled with, as his former teammate Antonio Pierce can attest to. His career ended last season because of it, though Kiwanuka and the Giants always maintained that his was less severe. Still, it was serious enough that doctors would not clear him for contact.
The Giants, now in need of bolstering their return game as Darius Reynaud took a decided step backwards against Dallas, needed that spot for Blackmon. He was in for a tryout earlier this week, and the former Packer is expected to sign today. If nothing else, perhaps his presence will light a fire under the struggling Reynaud.
Blackmon, who turned 26 yesterday, averaged 11 yards per punt return (47 for 515 yards and three touchdowns) and 21.1 per kickoff return (66-1,393) from 2007 through Week 4 of last year when he tore a ligament in his knee and ended up on injured reserve. The defensive back, who was a fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2006, tried to make a comeback this year but had preseason knee troubles and landed on injured reserve.
A knee injury limited him to three games last season.
"Blackmon had a very good workout for us and showed that he has recovered nicely from a serious knee injury (which limited him to three games in 2009)," general manager Jerry Reese said. "We expect him to get into the mix quickly on special teams. He has experience and production as a return specialist and cover specialist. He also has played both safety and corner, which gives us some flexibility there as well."Ironically, Kiwanuka and Blackmon roomed together during their careers at Boston College.
"It's tough, because we were a couple of weeks away from playing together again," said Kiwanuka, who was a first-round draft choice in 2006. "He got his papers from Green Bay, I was excited and heard there was a chance that he might come here, so I've been talking him up around the locker room.
"Man, he's a great player. I told everybody he's definitely the most talented and gifted athlete that I ever played football with, hands down. He made the switch from DB to wide receiver and didn't miss a beat, and obviously he is a very talented return guy, too. He can do it all."
Reynaud has averaged just 5.9 yards on 22 punt returns and 18.4 yards on 21 kickoffs. Both averages rank him in the bottom 10 among players with at least 10 returns.
Meanwhile, the Giants' defense has actually improved without Kiwanuka, who had been playing both at linebacker and defensive end. Those multi-faceted duties are now being handled situationally by people like Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. DT Barry Cofield was also seen standing up on a play or two in Dallas. As a result, the Giants have put up a tremendous pass rush. Of the five quarterbacks they have put out of games injured, four came after Kiwanuka left the lineup.
Kiwanuka may not be done yet. But he won't be resuming it anytime soon, and certainly not under the terms of a big bucks contract.