Blue blood: The harsh logic behind the cutting of Bradshaw, Canty and Boley

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Ahmad Bradshaw. (giants.com)
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Despite an organizational brand premised on steadiness and continuity, Giants fans have become accustomed in the last several years to sudden change.

In the Super Bowl seasons of 2007 and 2011, the Giants metamorphosized without warning from mediocrities into world-beaters. In seemingly every other season of the Coughlin era, they’ve done the exact opposite.

Given this, the recent releases, within a 24-hour period, of longtime contributors Ahmad Bradshaw, Chris Canty, and Michael Boley were "shocking,” yes. But they weren’t really surprising when considering the stark salary cap realities facing the Giants.

Before the moves, the Giants were a reported $9.15 million over the salary cap. By cutting these players, the Giants just freed up $13.75 million in cap space, and, by the above estimates, are now $4.6 million under the cap.

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They’ll need every penny of that and more, given the number and quality of the free agents they are potentially interested in bringing back (Victor Cruz, Will Beatty, Kevin Boothe, Martellus Bennett, Chase Blackburn, Stevie Brown, Andre Brown, Osi Umenyiora).  Longer-term there is also Hakeem Nicks, who will be a free agent after this coming year, and who is reportedly a higher priority than even Cruz.

Bradshaw and Canty seem like fairly obvious moves, with Boley as the head-scratcher. But in the aggregate, these moves make sense. They are players who make a lot of money, whose best years are likely behind them, and who carry some injury risk. 

Still, as much as fans and players alike evoke the consoling cliché that “it’s a business,” there are sentimentalities involved. It's sad to see these guys go.

BRADSHAW'S DEPARTURE IS THE MOST POIGNANT.

He leaves with two championship rings: The second he’ll forever be associated with because of his ambivalent reverse-tumble into the endzone for the winning touchdown. The first he effectively launched with his 88-yard burst against Buffalo in the second-to-last game of the regular season, which blew open an ugly slog of a game to clinch a playoff berth, and seemed to reawaken the Giants after weeks' worth of ugly football.

From that dash in the snow onward, Bradshaw was by far the Giants’ most effective running back: During the 2007 playoff run, Bradshaw rushed for 208 yards and an average of 4.3 yards per carry, while Brandon Jacobs rushed for 197 yards on 3.2 yards per carry.

Beyond his contributions over the years, what endeared Bradshaw to Giants fans was his hard running style, in which he propelled himself around the field in convulsive half-squats of indignation. For a fan base that has always prized toughness and effort over prettiness, Bradshaw’s style and Giants fans were a perfect match.

His ferocity was never more vividly on display than during a midseason game against Washington this past year. First, he was caught on camera slapping Victor Cruz upside the head in retaliation for indifferent blocking. Then, he engaged Tom Coughlin in a mini-screaming match along the sideline, which Coughlin let slide in deference to Bradshaw’s competitiveness, for which the old coach always harbored great respect.

New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi once described Bradshaw’s style by saying he runs “like he’s angry at the grass.” But if Bradshaw was intent on pounding the grass into submission, the grass (or FieldTurf ) inflicted a beating of its own. Bradshaw’s latest in a long string of foot surgeries came three weeks ago: He had a new screw inserted into his right foot because a previous one “wore off.” 

Bradshaw’s foot problems caused him to miss six games over the past two seasons, and they weren’t getting any better. Whether Bradshaw will ever make it through a 16-game season again as a team’s featured back, let alone be healthy enough for a playoff run, is very much an open question.

By the eye-test, Bradshaw’s injuries were clearly taking a toll. The spring in his stride was going away. And though he would still opportunistically bust into the open field from time to time, he'd get run down from behind much more easily than in the past.

His recent stats present a mixed picture: On one hand, his 4.6 yards per carry was exactly in line with his career average. His 45.6 percent “success rate” for his runs, as measured by Advanced NFL Stats, was the best of his career and one of the better marks in the game, superior to luminaries like Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice.

But Bradshaw’s numbers look worse when you consider those of his fellow running back, Andre Brown, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry and had a 51.1 percent success rate.

Also consider the play-by-play charting stats of Pro Football Focus, which point to a steady decline: The number of missed tackles Bradshaw caused dropped from 50 in 2010, to 42 in 2011 to just 27 last year.

With Bradshaw gone, David Wilson, last year’s first-round draft pick, will be the primary ballcarrier. Wilson was electrifying with the ball in his hands last year, but he frustrated coaches with his pass blocking.

This is where Bradshaw will likely be missed most: According to Pro Football Focus stats, Bradshaw was the third-best running back in pass protection this past year, after finishing a respective fourth and second in 2011 and 2010.

It’s an appropriate distinction for a Giant who will be remembered for a toughness that allowed him to play bigger than his size.

“Pound for pound, Bradshaw is one of the toughest players that I’ve been around,” read a statement from general manager Jerry Reese in a press release yesterday. “Ahmad played football like Giants football should be played.”

IT'S EASY TO POINT TO CHRIS CANTY AS AN OBVIOUS place on the roster to cut salary: He was scheduled to make more than $6 million for two more years, a seemingly prohibitive amount for a player who will turn 31 next year and, according to whispers, underwent the dreaded microfracture surgery after 2011, which limited him to just nine games in 2012.

The conventional wisdom surrounding Canty seems to be that his best football is behind him. The fact that his return from his knee surgery last year coincided with the Giants poor defensive second half confirms this impression.

But it’s not so simple. According to Pro Football Focus stats (which, yes, need to be taken with a grain of salt) Canty was highly effective when he played last year, accumulating a grading in the top 20 of defensive tackles.

There’s also the question of who will replace him in the starting lineup, opposite emerging stalwart Linval Joseph. The Giants depth at defensive tackle is extremely thin: Marvin Austin, a second round draft pick in 2011, showed next to nothing last year. Markus Kuhn, a seventh-round draft pick in 2012, showed limited promise but then tore his ACL. Rocky Bernard did excellent work last year but is a free agent. In other words, Joseph is the only sure thing in the Giants’ defensive tackle rotation.

Letting Canty go might have been necessary, but that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt.

CUTTING BOLEY WILL SAVE THE GIANTS $3.1 million in salary cap space in the final year of Boley’s deal. That’s a sizable chunk of change, but it doesn’t seem like all that much for a player who, as of late 2011, was being hailed by teammates as the defense’s most indispensable player.

It seems likely that something happened to sour the coaching staff on Boley, something beyond his nagging hamstring and back injuries and substandard play last year. During the Giants’ final three games of the season, Boley went from playing 92 percent of snaps to playing 49, 25, and 27 percent of snaps.

In the midst of this, Tom Coughlin said that Boley’s diminished playing time was “not necessarily a health thing.” But he qualified that by saying, “It had been a cumulative health thing. He was having some issues … that we felt was not allowing him to play the way he’s capable of playing.”

The obvious candidate to replace Boley in the starting lineup is Jacquian Williams, who has Boley’s skillset as a quick “cover linebacker,” is seven years younger, and is a fraction as expensive.

But other than the promising Williams, the picking are slim at linebacker. Mark Herzlich started two games as a second-year-man last year (against Pittsburgh and Baltimore), and played very poorly in both. Spencer Paysinger, also a second-year-man last year, played on only 137 defensive snaps all year.

Chase Blackburn, a stalwart in the middle last year, is an unrestricted free agent. So is Keith Rivers, who received moderate playing time last year amidst injuries. Mathias Kiwanuka is rumored to be moving back to defensive end.

Saving salary cap space is a good thing, but somebody needs to play linebacker. It seems strange that $3.1 million is keeping this player who was so recently deemed “indispensible” from having any role at all.