As the Giants prepare for their final dress rehearsal tonight in advance of the 2010 regular season, a voice from their recent past suggests in remarkably harsh terms that they’d better show some more passion and intensity in the wake of last year’s late-season collapse … or else.

Outspoken former linebacker Antonio Pierce, the Giants’ emotional leader before being forced into retirement due to a neck injury last season, suggested in no uncertain terms that his old team has shown none of the fire and sense of purpose they’ll need to recover from their 2009 meltdown that rocked the franchise and saw them careen to an 8-8 record after a 5-0 start.

“I’m concerned, because I just don’t see the energy,” said Pierce, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “You don’t see that swagger that we always talked about, that me-against-the-world attitude. They can sit there and say all the right things, but you know that’s not a confident group right now. I see a team just going about their business. They’re going out there like, ‘I did my job, coach.’ But they need more.”

The Giants appear so unremarkable to Pierce, who remains close with several teammates and still feels an emotional attachment to the franchise, that there is absolutely nothing special about them heading into the season.

“When you look at them on tape, you say, ‘That’s just another team,’” he said. “They have nothing about them that stands out right now.”

It was particularly galling for Pierce to watch last Saturday’s inept performance against the Ravens in a 24-10 loss. But it wasn’t so much the end result as it was the lethargic effort and lack of enthusiasm. Pierce was particularly critical of the team’s reaction on two of the Giants’ best plays: Justin Tuck’s first-half sacks of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

Tuck made two great plays, but I didn’t see the team celebrating or the defense being excited,” he said. “Those were plays we weren’t making toward the end of last season. Just because it’s the preseason, I don’t give a damn about that. When people feel that positive energy, that gets everybody going.”

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The reaction Pierce was looking for: “When Tuck makes a play like that, there should be 10 other guys jumping on him, breaking his neck because they’re celebrating.”

Pierce’s criticism continued as he pointed out what he perceived as a huge void in the team’s leadership, a role he relished during his run with the Giants from 2005-09.

"I know everybody wants Tuck, but his demeanor is not that guy,” Pierce said. “He’s very passionate. He plays hard, works hard. But you need that extra oomph.”

Any suggestions?

“To me, it’s Antrel Rolle,” Pierce said of the Giants’ newly signed free agent safety. “He has that fire, that swagger, coming from [the University of] Miami, and with what he did with the Cardinals. He has that aura about him that he can get those guys going.”

But Pierce believes Rolle might be reluctant to assume such an important role. At least for now.

“I know from talking to him, he’s like, ‘This is my first year,’” Pierce said. “But it was the same with me. I was with Michael Strahan, and I just let my play and my emotions spill out, and guys could feed off that.”

But what about head coach Tom Coughlin serving as the primary motivational force? Pierce doesn’t buy it.

“Somebody’s going to have to light that fire underneath those guys, and I don’t think it needs to be the head coach,” he said. “[Coughlin] can only do so much. It was the same thing people said in ’05 and ’06, but you know who took control of that? The players did. At the end of the day, if the captain of the ship goes down, everybody goes down. So why even wait for that opportunity?”

Pierce said the Giants’ unexpected 2007 Super Bowl run was accomplished in large part because of an infectious enthusiasm that’s missing from this year’s team.

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“When we won the Super Bowl, we did more than our job,” he said. “Coach Coughlin said, ‘You have to go beyond the x’s and o’s. You have to make more plays than the coaches are designing as far as the scheme is concerned. To me, they’ve got to show a spark.”

And until they do, Pierce believes this will be an underachieving team. What makes it even more disappointing to the former linebacker: “They’re still one of the most talented teams in the NFL, hands down. But you’re not even making a statement now.” (graph)
Perhaps the ultimate indignity from Pierce comes from his prediction about which team will win the NFC East. His call: “I like the Redskins.”

Harsh words from a man who has the credibility to deliver them. Maybe if those words find their way to the Giants’ bulletin board, Pierce’s former teammates will pay attention.