ALBANY - ALBANY - Ahmad Bradshaw says he has been waiting his whole life for this season.
It's the season Bradshaw expects to make a consistent contribution to the offense, the season he moves up the food chain to become the Giants' No. 2 running back. After spending 2008 as the third wheel in the "Earth, Wind and Fire" backfield - while Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward each had more than 1,000 yards - Bradshaw had just 355 yards on 67 carries. He is poised to pick up the slack from Ward's departure.
"This is one of the biggest years of my life," Bradshaw said. "To have this opportunity, I just have to take advantage of it . . . I've been waiting for this year forever."
Giants fans have been waiting for it, too. Ever since Bradshaw burst on the scene with a handful of dazzling runs down the stretch of the Super Bowl season - he was the leading rusher in the win over the Patriots - expectations have been great.
He's shown flashes. In each of the past two seasons he's had the team's longest run from scrimmage. But in those two years he's averaged just more than three carries per game. He hardly touches the ball, but when he does it usually results in something spectacular. He can expect a lot more touches this year.
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"I just want to come in and change the game up when Brandon's not in," Bradshaw said. "My explosiveness and to be able to read the holes, there's just different flows with Brandon being in and me being in."
There's also a different flow to Bradshaw this season. He's no longer burdened by the calf strain that troubled him for most of last season. He's also not thinking about his legal troubles. Bradshaw spent a month in jail at the end of last season, completing a 60-day sentence for a juvenile probation violation in Virginia that began with 30 days in jail just before last year's camp.
"It lifts so much off of me," he said in the spring, soon after he was released from jail. "Having to look towards that [jail time] last season and knowing what I had to do when the season was over, this takes a lot off my back. It helps me get through a lot of these things, football-wise, and it helps me focus a little more getting that off my back. Everything's behind me now, so it's like I got a road ahead of me."
It's a change nearly everyone has noticed.
"Mentally he's gotten so much better with the offense," Jacobs said. "It looks like he's been studying and watching film and he's been in his playbook. He knows so much more this year that he didn't know last year."
Bradshaw hasn't locked up that No. 2 job. Danny Ware is pushing him from behind. The third-year back has performed well in previous preseasons but has yet to get a chance at steady regular-season work. His chance may come this year. More a traditional back than the shifty Bradshaw, Ware likely will have more carries out of the No. 3 spot than Bradshaw had in 2008.
"We all look good, we all have our own little running styles, we all know what to do," Ware said. "I think we can do the three-headed monster like we did last year, maybe even better than last year."
Last year the Giants led the league in rushing and had those two 1,000 yard running backs. Can they really be better this season? Jacobs wouldn't compare this group to last year's, but he did put them up against the rest of the NFL.
"I think as a unit," Jacobs said, "we may be the best in the league."
Notes & quotes: WR Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) returned to practice last night after missing six previous workouts.