Leonard Williams #99 of the Giants on the field before the...

Leonard Williams #99 of the Giants on the field before the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. Credit: Getty Images/Wesley Hitt

If there is a perfect symbol for the futility of New York football in recent years, it is Leonard Williams.

He has felt the pangs of disappointment with both the Jets and Giants, a man of immense talents who has yet to know firsthand what it is to compete in a playoff game.

The former 2015 first-round pick of the Jets (drafted sixth overall) spent 4 ½ seasons in green and white, coming oh-so-close as a rookie before Ryan Fitzpatrick’s meltdown in the season finale in Buffalo left them at 10-6 and on the outside looking in.

And for the past 2 1⁄2 seasons, he has been part of a Giants team in the midst of one of its longest downturns in the nearly 100-year history of the franchise.

"I would definitely be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous of guys [from other teams], knowing that they’re going to the playoffs and stuff like that," Williams said Thursday as he prepared for Sunday’s game against the Bears — a meaningless matchup in terms of playoff implications.

"I’m finishing up year seven now, so I’ve obviously been doing this for quite a while now. With my last team and this team, I haven’t been to the playoffs once in my career. That’s obviously something I’m looking forward to and building towards and striving for."

But the wait will last at least until next year. Given the sorry state of the Giants’ roster, it might be even longer for the 27-year-old defensive lineman.

He is unwilling to proceed without optimism, however.

"I obviously see hope, always," Williams said. "I wouldn’t be playing this game still. I’m not [playing] this game for the money anymore. I want to be great and I want to win. I definitely see light at the end of the tunnel."

After some disappointing stretches with the Jets, for whom he didn’t always live up to his stature as one of the best college defenders coming into the NFL, Williams has flourished in his time with the Giants.

He was traded midway through the 2019 season and had a breakout season in 2020 with a career-high 11 ½ sacks. He parlayed that performance into a three-year, $63 million contract, a wise investment by the Giants for their best defensive player.

Unfortunately for Williams, there simply isn’t enough talent around him — on either side of the ball — to get the Giants into playoff contention. And with a likely change at general manager and perhaps coach in the offseason, there could be some more lean years ahead.

Yet Williams perseveres and shows up every week. In fact, he has yet to miss a game in his NFL career, even after suffering a triceps injury against the Chargers earlier this month. Williams now plays with a brace.

"I think the coaches know that I’ve been dinged up and struggling with it," said Williams, who has 5 ½ sacks. "They know I want to finish the season, though. I want to finish the season with my team."

He has been limited in practice during the week, coming in early each morning for treatment and staying for additional medical attention after practice. He holds out hope that he can avoid surgery in the offseason.

"I think I’m going to be able to just work the small muscles around it, keep getting treatment," he said. "Personally, I would like to avoid surgery at all costs, regardless of the injury. That’s from personal experience and also from what I’ve heard around the league from vets: ‘If you can avoid surgery, do it.’ "

Williams had two shoulder labrum tears in college, one that was surgically repaired and one that he rehabbed.

"I still feel the effects of the one I got surgery on," he said. "It feels like every once in a while, it clicks, or like the screws that are in there just kind of bother me. The other one that I tore, I did a lot of treatment and rehab and worked the small muscles that make it stronger, and this one feels a lot better now."

He plays through the pain, regardless of the circumstances his team faces. It’s an admirable mindset; unfortunately for Williams, he hasn’t been rewarded with a shot at football’s ultimate prize. So he lives with the lament that Giants and Jets fans have felt for most of the last decade, and he summons the three-word mantra that everyone can relate to. That is all there is, really:

Maybe next year.


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