I am having a tough time this morning digesting the serious neck injury New York Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka was diagnosed with Friday afternoon.
Friday morning I was listening to a cheerful, upbeat Kiwanuka on WFAN with Boomer & Carton. He was giving traffic reports as he drove to the Timex Performance Center for practice, defending Tom Coughlin and talking optimistically about the rest of the Giants season.
Today, Kiwanuka has a bulging cervical disc and is out of the Giants lineup indefinitely.
This is a huge blow to the Giants defense -- a revamped group that has played well in two of three games thus far.
I believe Kiwanuka (a team-leading four sacks, plus 11 tackles) has been that group's best player through three games. We can argue about that, but I would rather we didn't. Best or not, what I do not believe is arguable is that Kiwanuka has become the most important player on Perry Fewell's defense.
Technically, he isn't even a starter -- though head coach Tom Coughlin says the Giants have 15 defensive starters. When you think about it, though, everything the Giants do on defense revolves around Kiwanuka's ability -- and willingness -- to play just about anywhere.
Defensive end? He can play either side and be a force. He has played more downs that Osi Umenyiora thus far.
Passing situations? Kiwanuka goes inside to defensive tackle, along with Justin Tuck, and gives the Giants the ability to rush four defensive ends.
Running downs? Kiwanuka plays outside linebacker, bulking up the Giants run defense, giving them a blitzer off the edge and an athlete capable of adequately defending the pass if needed.
How do the Giants do all of those things -- the heavy package, the four defensive ends -- without him?
Coughlin is wondering the same thing.
"Obviously, Kiwi is a big part of our plans. He's had a very good season. He's very flexible. He's a versatile athlete who can be used in a lot of different ways," Coughlin said. "So now we have to regroup and try to figure out how we're going to utilize our personnel for this game."
Jason Pierre-Paul, the No. 1 pick from South Florida, will likely get more snaps to rest Tuck and Umenyiora. Maybe Dave Tollefson gets some of those, as well. We know JPP is an incredible athlete and he has flashed his potential at times -- but at this point he is nowhere near as accomplished or dependable as Kiwanuka.
The four defensive end stuff? Again, likely to fall to Pierre-Paul or Tollefson. Can Pierre-Paul be effective doing it? Who knows?
What about the linebacker stuff Kiwanuka does? We actually saw Pierre-Paul make a play last week lined up as a stand-up inside linebacker, but is it fair to ask him to learn Kiwanuka's package on the outside? I don't think so. Athletically, he could do it but this is a player with very limited experience. Throw too much at him and I believe you set him back.
Tollefson? He has some linebacker experience collegiately, but he is nowhere near the athlete Kiwanuka is. Perhaps Clint Sintim can pick up some of that, if he isn't playing full-time in place of Keith Bulluck.
The Giants have no idea how long Kiwanuka will be out. Here are some details from ESPN.
Sources told ESPN.com senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen that the tests were alarming enough that the Giants are bracing for a worst-case scenario of Kiwanuka missing two to three months and perhaps the rest of the season. However, as both sides seek different opinions, there also remains the best-case scenario that treatment, possibly through injection to calm down the disc, could allow for a return to action at some point.
One more thing. If Kiwanuka is gone for a long period of time, or the entire season, don't underestimate replacing his leadership. Yes, leadership. That, of course, has been a huge question on the Giants defensive unit and Kiwanuka has been becoming one of the emerging answers.
Listen to his WFAN interview Friday and you will hear it. Read the fabulous piece Ralph Vacchiano posted on him Friday night -- one written prior to the injury news being released -- and you will see it. Remember that when Coughlin called earlier this week for starters to move to the struggling coverage teams Kiwanuka was one of the first players to jump in and line and volunteer.
His leadership, evident in his selflessness, has been becoming more and more clear. How the Giants replace him, is most definitely unclear.