If anyone knows what Giants running back David Wilson is going through after being benched for fumbling twice in Sunday night's 36-31 loss to the Cowboys, it's Tiki Barber.
Been there, done that for the former Giants Pro Bowl running back, who experienced his own fumbling issues midway through his career and had to undergo a dramatic transformation to fix the problem.
Barber watched and re-watched Wilson's two fumbles from Sunday and noticed immediately what the problem was -- namely that Wilson had failed to adequately secure the ball as Cowboys defenders successfully ripped the ball out of his hands. But to those who believe that Wilson is incapable of correcting the problem, Barber said that simply isn't the case.
"If people are ready to give up on David, that's ridiculous," Barber told Newsday. "As much as people want to say it's in his head, that he has to be smarter and man up and do these things, it's so much of a mechanical thing. It's fixable. The key is awareness of when contact is coming. If you watch David's fumbles, he's not aware of contact. He just thinks he can go through [the tackler], and by the time the contact comes, the ball is already compromised."
Giants coach Tom Coughlin yesterday said it is imperative that Wilson overcome his fumbling problems, even suggesting that the running back is now "a marked man." Coughlin will look carefully during practice to see that Wilson is using the proper technique. "In practice he's going to have to have the ball in that position all the time, not just when he thinks he's running free and there's nobody around him," Coughlin said. "I want to see the ball in the right spot all the time. And quite frankly, there's nowhere else to go with this. There's a way to carry the ball and there's a way to protect the ball. Ball security is No. 1. And that's what he's going to have to demonstrate."
Barber himself went through fumbling problems when he became a feature back under coach Jim Fassel. From 2000-03, Barber had a combined 35 fumbles, an average of nearly nine per season. When Coughlin took over for Fassel after the 2003 season, he had a meeting with Barber and explained his philosophy about fumbles in very simple, and very stark, terms.
"He said to me, 'If you're going to put the ball on the ground, you're not going to play,' " Barber said.
So the running back immediately got to work with running backs coach Jerald Ingram to address the problem. The operative phrase during that transformation was "high and tight," signifying the positioning of the ball as he ran. Barber would carry a football everywhere, holding it to his chest, with his hand up near his shoulder and his elbow down at around a 45-degree angle.
"I held it like that everywhere," Barber said. "I even do it now sometimes. I can't help but put it there in front of me. It became second nature. I even have to tell my kids, 'If you're going to carry the ball, you have to carry it like this.' "
Barber also added another technique to secure the ball. Once he sensed that he was about to be hit, he would take the hand that wasn't carrying the ball and hold onto his opposite wrist to further protect the ball and add a layer of strength to deal with opponents trying to rip the ball away.
"I'd run through the contact in a compact way," he said. "It allowed me to run through tackles better. My feet were close together, and I was more balanced. The unintended consequence of carrying the ball like that is that I became a more powerful runner."
Wilson is now heeding that advice. He said Wednesday that he is already working on the technique Barber shared with him. The two texted several times on Tuesday.
"He gave me some advice I can really use," Wilson said. "It makes sense. It felt good in practice, so I plan on using it."
Barber cured his own problem. In the final three seasons of his career, he fumbled a combined nine times, which is equal to the previous season alone. And his numbers improved, too. From 2000-03, he rushed for a combined 4,474 yards and 25 touchdowns. In his final three seasons, he ran for 5,040 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Barber believes Wilson is capable of those kinds of numbers -- or even better. He urges the Giants' second-year running back to remain optimistic about the future.
"I just gave him some encouragement, and hopefully he takes it," Barber said. "He can be special. This is the one thing that's hanging him up right now, and he can't let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy that gets him discouraged. I think he has a great attitude, and if he can figure it out -- and I think he will -- he has all the athletic ability to be a special player."