FOXBORO -- When Tom Coughlin learned last June the Giants lost tight end Jake Ballard to the Patriots, he wasn’t a happy Irishman.
"Discouraged is a minor description," Coughlin said during Giants minicamp after the Patriots claimed Ballard off waivers. "Very disappointing. I am not going to have a lot to say about that one, just the fact that we are disappointed. We are very disappointed."
The Giants plan was to waive Ballard because of the knee injury he suffered in the Super Bowl against the Patriots. When nobody claimed Ballard -- who had microfracture and ACL surgery in February, 2012 -- New York would re-sign him. The Giants could have kept Ballard on the team and put him on IR at the end of training camp, but they wanted to open a roster spot to get up to 90 players for the summer.
The plan backfired.
The Patriots claimed him. That touched off the 3,743rd instance of cluck-clucking over the mean Patriots. The angle was that the Patriots were uprooting poor, injured Jake Ballard and not extending the Giants a professional courtesy by leaving an injured player alone.
Bill Belichick didn’t give a crap.
"First of all, there aren't any unwrittens," he said when I asked him about the allegation he’d violated an unwritten rule. "You can't negotiate a contract, release him, and then renegotiate another contract with him that was already done in advance. I'm sure the Giants weren't doing that. So the player is on waivers, he's on waivers -- ours or anybody else's. I don't know what unwrittens you're talking about … Any time you put a player on waivers, you know there are 31 teams out there that can take him if they want him. We all know that. There is no secret about that."
And look at Jake Ballard now. The Patriots tight end position -- an embarrassment of riches last June with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez coming off their historic 2011 season -- is dealing this spring without either player as they both rehab from injury. And Ballard is positioned to be front-and-center in the offense.
Ballard is still a little limited as he returns. He blew out his ACL during Super Bowl XLVI, and he believes he ripped cartilage when he tried to jog on the sideline, which made microfracture surgery necessary.
But he is making strides, a fact amplified by Tom Brady on Wednesday at Patriots OTAs when Ballard ran about a 9-yard out pattern, took a sharp cut to the right sideline and hauled in the pass and Brady yelled, “Nice route, Jake!”
“I’m doing the best I can to be 100 percent and I’m doing as much as I can, as much as they allow me to when I’m out here,” Ballard said Wednesday. “I’m not full-go the whole practice. The coaches and trainers tell me what I’m limited to.”
Ballard was a Giant. And by that I mean, he identified with the team and what it accomplished in 2011 so much he had a tattoo commemorating their Super Bowl win over the Patriots.
With the ink barely dry, he was on the other side.
“It was shocking and abrupt. I heard and the next morning I was on a plane to Boston so it was pretty crazy but I’m absolutely a Patriot through and through,” Ballard said. "I enjoy being here, I enjoy being around the coaches. Everybody’s great and I’m just looking forward to getting back on the field and being 100 percent.”
With 2012 serving as a redshirt season -- similar to the way Ballard spent 2010 on the Giants practice squad -- Ballard believes he gets the offense. He just needs to get into it.
“I’ve been around these guy for about a year so I’m taking what I learned in the meeting room out here on the field,” he explained. “The mental aspect is the easy part. I’m just trying to get out here and get comfortable playing with guys I haven’t played with . . . just getting on the same page.”
Ballard said the year spent observing “helps tremendously.”
“My first year I was on the practice squad with New York and I had a chance to study that offense and then came out and played,” he recalled. “Kinda like the same thing here. I was watching all last year and looking over the playbook but I got a sense of what the offense is about. It helped a lot.”
The specter of filling in for Gronk has to be somewhat daunting but Ballard has a measure of experience in that respect.
When Kevin Boss, a solid player for the Giants from 2007 to 2010 left as a free agent before the 2011 season, Ballard -- an undrafted free agent out of Ohio State -- stepped in and caught 38 passes for 604 yards. Two of those catches came in the Nov. 6, 2011, game against the Patriots when Ballard made a key third-and-10 catch with 51 seconds left to prolong a drive then caught the one-yard game-winner with 17 seconds left in a 24-20 win.
In the case of Ballard, the Patriots logic could be spun as, “If he helps them beat you, make him join you.”
Ballard will always be just a little bit of a Giant, I think. The emotion of what that team accomplished and the way he was unexpectedly snatched from them months later create a weird dynamic even now.
The Giants, simply, got it wrong. They told him he’d be back with Big Blue in no time when they released him.
“That’s what they told me would happen but they didn’t think anyone would claim me,” he shrugged. “But they did. I’m happy it was a great organization like the Patriots.”