Talent is almost always the deciding factor in who stays and who goes on a football team, but leadership intangibles also play a part. Best-case scenario: players who have plenty of both.
That’s what the Giants were hoping for when they signed running back Jonathan Stewart, cornerback William Gay and pass rusher Connor Barwin. All have had extremely productive careers, and all have been terrific at imparting the lessons of the NFL to younger teammates.
But as cutdown day approaches and the Giants need to make the hard decisions about their final 53, these three thirtysomethings might have trouble convincing the coaches and management that their talent is good enough to keep their leadership skills on the roster. And even if any of them stays — chances are Stewart will make the team because of the $3.45-million guarantee in his contract — their contributions on the field might not amount to what the Giants would have liked.
First things first, though. No decisions have been made about any of them, and coach Pat Shurmur won’t make those calls until before the Sept. 1 cutdown day. “I don’t want to talk about that yet,” he said.
But in speaking generally about keeping older players as leaders, Shurmur made it clear that it takes more than being a good locker-room presence to make his team.
“We all have to produce,” he said. “Everybody that’s coaching or playing has to produce. It’s important that you have a veteran presence, but you also have to have a youthful team. That’s the balancing act you have.”
Stewart, 31, figured to be an ideal mentor for rookie tailback Saquon Barkley. Although it’s important not to read too much into what happens in preseason games, Stewart certainly hasn’t distinguished himself with six carries for 2 yards. The Giants hope that’s an anomaly and that he can be the kind of complementary back he was for so many years in Carolina. Last year, he had 680 rushing yards and six touchdowns while playing alongside first-round pick Christian McCaffrey.
But younger backs Wayne Gallman and Robert Martin, who has a team-high 86 yards on 12 carries, have shown the kind of promise you like. The demand for older backs has been drastically reduced in the NFL, and Stewart must fight time to stay productive.
Barwin, 31, who totaled 31 1⁄2 sacks the previous four seasons, was being counted on to supplement the pass rush. But after running with the second team through the first part of training camp, he hasn’t played since the preseason opener because of what the team said is “soreness.”
Gay, 33, has been an active participant in practice, and the Giants can use all the help they can get in pass defense. But he is running as a second-team safety after dabbling at nickel corner at the start of camp. Once a mainstay for the Steelers, Gay enters his 12th season unsure about what lies ahead. For now, the leadership part is on hold.
“Right now, just trying to make the team,” he said. “Doing whatever I can to contribute, to show the coaches, the GM, the owner that I’m capable of helping the team win games.”
That’s no different from what it was when he entered the league with the Steelers in 2007.
“All I’m used to is competition,” he said. “Training camp was intense, because you just never know who they’re going to keep. Nobody was locked in. They didn’t care about money, how many years you’ve been there. Every year, your back is against the wall.”
Leadership qualities or not, time isn’t on the side of NFL players on the other side of 30.