A lot has changed since the last time Jason Pierre-Paul played a game on the grass of Raymond James Stadium.
That moment was Nov. 28, 2009. The current New York Giants defensive end was playing his final home game as a member of the University of South Florida Bulls. Pierre-Paul recorded a season-high seven tackles, one sack and forced a fumble during that 31-10 loss to Miami. Five months later he was being selected by the Giants with the 15th overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft, higher than any other USF Bulls player in program history.
The next five-plus years would be filled with more career-defining highs: a Super Bowl ring and Pro Bowl selection in 2011, another Pro Bowl trip in 2012 and an impressive pro stat sheet filled with 42 sacks, 286 tackles, eight force fumbles and two interceptions over 75 games and five season.
Then came last Fourth of July at his home in Miami. The Deerfield Beach native sustained injuries to his right hand in a fireworks accident that suddenly put his NFL future in question. The incident cost Pierre-Paul his index finger and parts of his middle finger and thumb.
Surgeries, contract discussions and plenty of questions about how soon – if ever – Pierre-Paul would return to the field followed. The team and Pierre-Paul came to a contractual agreement late last month and he hit the practice field for the first time yesterday.
The story’s far from over, but a big step may be taken Sunday if Pierre-Paul suits up for action on the field he starred on for a season in college. If that’s the case, Bucs defensive end Gerald McCoy said he’ll be happy to witness it.
“You never want to see anybody go down, period,” said McCoy, a fellow 2010 draftee. “Regardless of whether they are a top guy or just an undrafted free agent, you never want to see anybody go down. So to see him working his way back is good to see.”
In recent interviews, Pierre-Paul has expressed confidence that the new handicap will not at all limit his football abilities. Without seeing him in action yet, McCoy said he thinks the 6-foot-5, 278-pound defensive end’s game will allow him to transition smoothly.
“A person like me, I go both ways,” McCoy said. “I can go right, I can go left and sometimes you have to learn to play with just one hand. Like Sapp, people don’t realize, he played with the same hand down even though he played on the left and right side. Up until ’99 he played with his left hand down. So as a D-lineman it just depends on how you play the game, and watching Pierre-Paul, he plays with the same hand down. I think that’s why it’ll be a lot easier for him to go from side to side.”
During Wednesday’s teleconference with Tom Coughlin, the 12-year Giants head coach left open the possibility that Pierre-Paul may see defensive snaps against Tampa Bay.
“He’s practicing, we’ve upped the number of reps, he had a nice day today and we’ll see,” Coughlin said. “We’ll see how he is.”
From what he’s observed, Coughlin added that he hasn’t seen any signs that Pierre-Paul is limited in what he can do on the football field.
“He really doesn’t show a whole lot of difference, to be honest with you,” Coughlin said. “They really do a nice job of making what appears to be a large thing for him to wear in practice. I don’t know how comfortable he is with that or how long that will be something he’ll do. But he was able to, a couple of times today that I noticed, get his hands in there and defend against the run, get his arms locked out, steer the offensive tackle, that type of thing. He was able to do that a couple of times today, so I think it’s just a matter of getting used to the padding, the glove and all the things he wears in practice, which he won’t wear to probably that degree in the game.
“He will have to go through the whole rigmarole of putting both hands down and using his hand the way he would try to use it normally. So he’ll go through all of that and I’m sure there’ll be a learning curve there as well.”