He is a masterful deep safety, easily the best center fielder in a Giants uniform. And because of that, Kenny Phillips never gets to show off his other gifts.
It’s an irony that’s not lost on the 25-year-old. Phillips, who is in the final year of his contract, is coming off a career season in which he picked off four passes, made 82 tackles and helped knock away that Hail Mary pass to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XLVI.
But he aspires for more, to move closer to the line of scrimmage like elite safeties Ed Reed of Baltimore and Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu do. He wants to influence the game more, even if his training-camp experience indicates he won’t get that chance.
“I had four interceptions last year,” Phillips said. “I feel like this year, if I’m more involved in the defense, that number can go up. That’s really my goal.
“For the most part, I’m usually always back deep; it looks like I’m catching punts. I would like for that to change, to be more involved in the defense, in the box, just around the ball more.”
This isn’t about the money, Phillips said, and he seems to mean it. If the Giants approach him about an extension, he said he’d tell them to “talk to the agent,” and he’s hardly concerned about job security.
“At the end of the day, I know I’ll be playing football somewhere (next year),” he said, “so I’m not really worried.”
Mostly, Phillips just doesn’t want to spend every Sunday as an on-field spectator. He wanted a bigger role last season, too, when defensive coordinator Perry Fewell opened camp by asking the safety to take a “quantum leap” forward, and Phillips talked excitedly of becoming a ball-hawking defensive back.
But then, a rash of cornerback injuries so bad that fellow safety Antrel Rolle wound up at nickelback forced Phillips to play “security blanket,” as he said, dissuading quarterbacks from going deep.
Phillips excelled at the role, and that’s just the problem. As safeties coach Dave Merritt put it, Phillips is “really good, we all know, back in that back end.”
“How many balls do you see thrown back there?” Merritt asked. “Because 21 is that good. At the same time, would you like to have Kenny down low? Yes, because he’s a big man, and he understands run fits. But you also like to have him in that post.”
However, Phillips found it “boring” and “tough.” At times, the safety was visibly frustrated in the locker room, desperately wanting more action.
“I mean, you never want to go through a game and (be) like ‘What happened?’ ” Phillips said. “Just hoping someone breaks, just so you can make a tackle. That’s pretty bad.”
Things were supposed to be different this time, but while Fewell said, “We definitely have plans for Kenny Phillips,” injuries once again short-circuited that creativity in camp. With expected starting corner Terrell Thomas battling a knee injury and 2011 first-rounder Prince Amukamara still learning, Phillips is willingly again in his old role. However, Phillips is also hopeful Amukamara can develop into a one-on-one cover man, which will allow Fewell to use his safeties more freely.
If it doesn’t happen, Phillips said, he’s content to play “hero” against deep passes once again.
But hey, a guy can dream.
“I’m a team guy,” he said. “But hopefully, it all works out.”