Sometimes, Giants tackle Chris Canty has to remind people how strong he really is

Chris Canty tackling Marion Barber. (nfl.com)
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Each time the Giants or Jets play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Chris Canty, who played defensive tackle in the Giants’ 20-17 win over the Miami Dolphins.

Chris Canty, the Giants' 28-year old defensive tackle, breaks into a signature celebration after he makes a big tackle: He steps away from the offensive player he has just felled and flexes both of his biceps.

Combined with the maximum-security facemask and dark visor that Canty has worn since he suffered a detached retina before his rookie season, the celebration rounds out the figure of a Marvel villain. It also affords Canty—who has the thankless, mostly anonymous job of commanding double teams and occupying blockers so that his teammates can make tackles—his own moment in the spotlight.

After the Giants rebounded from a lethargic, error-filled start to beat the Miami Dolphins yesterday, I asked Canty about the origin of his celebration.

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“When I was playing for the Dallas Cowboys back in 2007, I blocked a kick against the Vikings," he said. "And I kinda had just muscled my way in there, and…”

He paused.

“It’s about the muscle,” I offered.

“It’s about the muscles, man,” he confirmed, with ironic mock-cockiness. “See, a lot of people don’t think I have big arms. But I gotta tell people, ‘I’m long, but my arms are bigger than you think.’ So you gotta watch out: I’ll challenge most guys in the bicep game. I’m in the weight room four times a week. The East Rutherford Gun Club.”

Like the rest of his teammates, Canty was in a giddy, playful mood after the game. Elsewhere in the locker room, players were shouting reminders to each other to watch “60 Minutes” for a segment on Mark Herzlich, a rookie linebacker and survivor of Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. “Herrrrrrzzzzzzzz!!!!!!” a handful of Giants bellowed in response to the reminders.

Corey Webster and Eli Manning, two Louisiana guys who have been colleagues for seven years, emerged from the shower chirping about Webster’s game-clinching interception.

“Early, late, it don’t matter,” Manning said, by way of thanking him.

Nowhere is the divide between football media and football players more pronounced than in the locker room of a team with championship aspirations after it has narrowly defeated a bad team. The pundits can’t help but wonder how such a performance might project against some of the league’s tougher teams, like the ones the Giants have to play during the season’s remaining nine games, starting next week in New England. The players are flush with a sense of accomplishment: They have just defeated another group of elite professional athletes, to say nothing of surviving a highly dangerous game with their limbs intact.

I asked Canty to assess how he played.

“Solid performance,” he said. “I mean, obviously I can’t pat myself on the back too much because we didn’t stop them enough in the running game. Wish I could’ve been more disruptive. But we were able to make enough plays to win the game, and that’s all that matters.”

Indeed, if Canty is to be judged largely by how well the Giants stop the run, his lukewarm assessment of his own play was about right. The Dolphins rushed for 145 yards overall, around 31 more than the league average. It hasn’t been a great season for the Giants in terms of stopping the run. After yesterday, the team slipped to 25th in the league in yards allowed per attempt with 4.7, a downgrade from last year, when they ranked 13th, allowing 4.2 yards per carry.

But the run defense clamped down for most of the second half. After Dolphins running back Reggie Bush followed a 28-yard run with a 13-yarder, Miami had amassed 116 rushing yards through the first 32 minutes. For the remaining 28 minutes, they managed only 29 yards on the ground.

“I think we picked up the intensity,” Canty said. “I think coming off the bye week, we just had to adjust to game tempo. But we stuck to the game plan: Trust the defense, trust our techniques, and just play good team ball.”

It’s telling that Canty emphasized the idea of “team ball,” because Canty is best appreciated by looking at what he does for his team than any visible individual highlights.

First are the near-constant double-teams that he encounters.

Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell told me after the game that Canty gets blocked by two men “90 percent of the time. That keeps our linebackers free to make tackles. Those kinda guys people don’t see, but he’s tremendously important to us.”

Second is Canty's flexibility. This year, given the Giants’ personnel, he is lining up mostly in the gap between guard and center, playing the role of the “space-eating” defensive tackle. Last year, with since-departed Barry Cofield playing that role, Canty lined up in a “three-technique” position between the guard and offensive tackle, responsible more for penetration than occupation of blockers. Canty also moves to defensive end in goal-line situations.

“The flexibility is unbelievable,” said Fewell, describing the attribute that compelled the Giants to make Canty a rich man prior to the 2009 season by giving a free-agent contract that included $17 million guaranteed.

Fewell said he hopes to use Canty in more in pass-rushing situations in the coming games. The way things stand now, Canty comes off the field during obvious passing situations in favor of the Giants’ foursome of dynamic pass rushers Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka, who between them notched four sacks yesterday.

“He’s such a big, strong man that he can bull the pocket,” Fewell said of the 6-foot-7, 317-pound Canty. “We probably don’t take advantage of that enough with him. But I’m sure as we progress during the season, we’ll count on him in the pass game.”

WHEN CANTY FIRST GOT TO THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA in the fall of 2000, he weighed about 100 pounds less than he does now. He hadn't even played football until his junior year of high school. Rather, as is the case with so many NFL players, he considered himself more of a basketball player, following in the footsteps of his father, who had done a stint with the Harlem Wizards, a “show” basketball team whose alums include Tiny Archibald and Connie Hawkins.

The Canty of 2000 may have been a drink of water compared to the current version. But he had the potential to add bulk, blessed as he was with what talent evaluators call a “projectable” frame, which offers the exciting possibility that a player can become a bigger without losing his litheness. (Watch Canty’s feet closely and you can still see the graceful basketball player in him.)

Canty redshirted his freshman year and proceeded to build himself up in the weight room for the duration of his college career. By his junior year, he had become an all-conference defensive end who was projected to be drafted in the second round at the latest if he decided to forego his last year of eligibility.

Most players would have jumped at the money, but Canty grew up in upper-middle-class comfort. His mother, Shirley, was a Methodist pastor. His father, Joe, had been a top official in the New York State Health Department during Chris’s early childhood. The Cantys lived in a private house on a tree-lined street in the Eastchester section of the Bronx, a few blocks from Co-Op City.

When Chris was around 11, Joe and Shirley decided to move the family back down south, where they had both grown up. This was 1993, and the Cantys were less than crazy about sending Chris and his older brother to Truman High School, where the eldest Canty brother had gone. Joe leaned on some political connections to get a top job in Raleigh with the North Carolina Health Department overseeing reimbursements in the Medicaid division. He transitioned to youth programs—in the process implementing a program that won a National Council of Government Award in 1996—before transitioning out of government altogether by starting a general-contracting business in Charlotte, where a Sun Belt construction boom was in full swing. He sent Chris to Charlotte Latin School, a prestigious private school.

So Chris returned to Virginia to finish his college career, figuring it could only help his draft stock. But it didn’t work out that way. In an early season game, Canty shredded his knee, ending his college career and requiring major surgery. Months of rehab followed, during which Canty had built his knee back up to where at least he, if not NFL scouts, was confident in it.

By the following January, he was training for the draft in Arizona with a bunch of other NFL hopefuls, including an offensive line prospect named Richie Incognito, who had (and still has) a reputation as a hothead. During a night out, Incognito got into a bar fight. The details of the melee remain fuzzy, but the upshot was that a bottle smashed into Canty’s eye, causing a detached retina. Three months before the draft, Canty had suffered major injuries to his knee and his eye.

“Nobody wants a one-legged, one-eyed defensive end,” one NFL general manager told writer Pete Williams, author of The Draft, a book about the machinations surrounding the NFL draft.

“Disappointment,” was how Shirley Canty described those tumultuous few months. “But there was never, ‘Woe is me.'  It was like, ‘OK, we can fix this, we can go into surgery. Let’s do what we have to do and hope for the best.'  Chris isn’t a ‘woe is me’ type of person.”

Nor is he one to make excuses. His coach in college, Al Groh, had a refrain: “If you always make excuses and it’s always somebody else’s fault, I’m not gonna like you.”

That’s a common enough sentiment among football coaches. But Groh’s words carried extra weight, because he was a disciple of Bill Parcells, the ultimate results-oriented coach in the results-oriented business of football. Groh was an assistant coach under Parcells during the Giants second Super Bowl championship season of 1990. He coached the linebackers, while another assistant, named Tom Coughlin, coached the wide receivers. Parcells had a more graphic version of Groh’s refrain: “Don't tell me about the pain, just show me the baby.”

Before the 2005 draft, Parcells called his old assistant.

“Chris looked like and acted like Bill’s kind of guy,” Groh remembered. “It was easy to say, ‘If Chris is on your team, you won’t be saying, ‘What was Groh thinking recommending him?’’”

The Cowboys drafted Canty late in the fourth round. It was later than everyone had expected before his last year at Virginia, but not late enough so that it prevented him from becoming a full-time starter by his second year.

When the Giants signed Canty, Parcells knew he’d get along with his new coach, telling reporters, “He played for Al and me, so he knows what Tom will expect.”