There was a time when the idea of Justin Tuck going into a contract year would have been unthinkable. Even to him.
The defensive captain and former Pro Bowl player seemed destined to have a second long-term contract with the Giants sewn together long before the 2013 season started, effectively making him a Giant for life.
And yet, after two disappointing statistical seasons and this most recent disappointing team performance, Tuck is faced with the reality that he could be going into his final year with the only team he's ever known.
Next year, Tuck either will bounce back to the level he was at and continue on as a Giant . . . or he won't.
He knows what he thinks will happen.
"Listen, man," Tuck said, "I'll be very frank and honest in saying this: I plan on being here for a long time. That's pretty much all I have to say about it."
For that to happen, he'll have to play much better than he did in the last two years. He battled through injuries in 2011, but for most of 2012, he was healthy. And yet his numbers still were lower: only four sacks in 2012 compared with 111/2 in 2010. He'll turn 30 this offseason, a dangerous age to have back-to-back duds that can be construed as a downward slide.
Last offseason, after a strenuous season that took a physical and emotional toll on him, Tuck briefly considered retirement. That no longer is among his options. "Believe me, when I feel like I can't do it anymore, I'll be the first one to go up to Jerry Reese and those guys and tell them," Tuck said. "I'm not going to be one of these guys that stick around in the league just to get a paycheck. When I can't play this game at a high level, you'll know it and I'll gracefully bow out."
The Giants seem to believe that Tuck's future bowing will take place on the field, after sacks, and not as he leaves the league or even this team.
"He's not getting any younger, but I think he's got a lot of tread left on his tires," general manager Jerry Reese said. "We expect him to come back and be the Justin Tuck we know."
If he is, then he likely will end his career with the Giants. That's what Michael Strahan, his mentor as a young player, was able to accomplish. It's what Osi Umenyiora, Tuck's close friend on the current team, seemingly will be unable to do.
"I'll be the first to tell you that my performance this year was nowhere near what I envisioned for myself after coming into training camp," Tuck said. "For whatever reason that was, it didn't happen for me this year. You still go out there and try your best to help this football team win games in whatever capacity you can, but I am disappointed in my play this year."
Tuck was asked last week if he and the Giants had enough in their tank to make a possible playoff run. "Don't even go there," he said dismissively.
Now the question about Tuck's gas gauge comes back, not only for this season but his future with the team and in the league.
"Ask me that question in six or seven years," Tuck said. "That lets you know how much I still have in the tank."