EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – To New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul's teammates and coaches, his utter lack of self-consciousness is an endearing quality.
To opponents, it's endangering.
As Pierre-Paul prepares for his third season, hoping to follow up on his breakout, 16 ½-sack campaign that helped the Giants win Super Bowl XLVI, the natural tendency is to attribute his success to his freakish athletic ability.
While he is his physical gifts are unquestionable – as evidenced by his legendary back flips – that ignores another important quality:
Pierre-Paul is not afraid to ask questions, even questions others might be embarrassed to ask. He's also not afraid to make mistakes. Full-on, high-speed mistakes. While the instinct of many is to avoid reaching out for help, Pierre-Paul knows what he doesn't know and is trying to learn quickly.
"I think I said something to him about his hand placement and there he was by the end of practice, fixing it," defensive lineman Justin Tuck said. "I think we said something to him about his stance a month ago and he fixed it.
"He's not just trying to get by on his athletic ability. He's trying to go way beyond that."
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That fact led Tuck to a somewhat staggering evaluation of just how far Pierre-Paul may progress this season.
"I don't see anybody in this league at that position who has that kind of athleticism," Tuck said of Pierre-Paul. "And yes, I'm talking about [Chicago defensive end Julius] Peppers, I'm talking about [Dallas linebacker] DeMarcus [Ware] and [Buffalo defensive end] Mario (Williams), all those guys.
"I really don't see anybody who has that ability to adjust his body in positions that he can do. A man that big should not be allowed to do that. He's truly a freak. The sky is the limit for him and I know we use that cliché a lot, but it's really true with him because of his work ethic."
Pierre-Paul may have the mix of talent and personality that creates the truly rare athlete – a talented overachiever. It's the combination of force that creates the likes of Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning and Emmitt Smith.
During Pierre-Paul's first two seasons, which have produced 21 ½ sacks, Pierre-Paul has gotten by mostly on raw ability. In the background is a player who is extraordinarily interested in learning a game he only started playing as a senior in high school.
"My parents always told me to ask [questions]," Pierre-Paul said. "They would never make any of us feel bad for asking a question. That's just how I was raised."
That attitude has shown up time and again in the ego-heavy confines of the team meeting rooms or on the practice field.
"You get a lot of guys, especially young guys, who are afraid to ask," Giants linebacker/defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said. "They sit in the back and you look at them and say, 'Do you understand?' They look up and say, 'Yeah, I got it' and you know they don't, but they're too embarrassed to ask.
"With Jason, he doesn't care. He's smart enough to know what he doesn't know and he'll keep asking and asking and asking. If he has to ask something five times, he will until he gets the answer that he understands. He's not just a great athlete trying to get by on talent. He wants to learn."
That's critical for Pierre-Paul because there is much he still doesn't know. It's well-documented that Pierre-Paul didn't pick up the game until his senior year at Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High School when one of the coaches basically forced him to come out for the team. He then bounced through two junior colleges and one year at the University of South Florida before ending up the No. 15 overall pick by New York in 2010.
When he started playing, X's and O's looked like something from a trigonometry class – which makes his early NFL success all the more impressive.
In the human chess match that is football, the game is not supposed to be that easy. Getting 16 ½ sacks is usually for guys who have both natural ability and a deep understanding of how to actually play. Down, distance, hand placement and the ability to read blocking schemes are just a few of the factors that should be diagnosed with each play, even by a great pass rusher.
With Pierre-Paul, so much of that is being gathered as he goes along. Sometimes the learning process is downright comical to his teammates. There was the game last season at Dallas when, right before halftime, Pierre-Paul got to the line of scrimmage not knowing exactly what to do.
He got down on one knee, looked at the sideline for instruction, got the "go" signal and ended up with a sack. It wasn't really the right call, but it worked out fine because Pierre-Paul knows enough not to let what he doesn't know get in the way.
"If he makes a mistake, he goes full speed and doesn't hesitate," Kiwanuka said. "As a teammate, I can deal with that because I can adjust. I know that if JPP rushes or covers a [running] back when he's not supposed to, he's not going to hesitate. He's going to just do it and I can cover for him. It's the guys who hesitate who make it tough because then you don't know what to do."
While the essence of football – blocking and tackling – is pretty simple, it's a sport where missteps can send an entire defense into chaos. That's why Pierre-Paul continues to work on understanding the game.
"Jason doesn't care about what other people might think of him asking a question, he just wants to know," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. "It's refreshing when you have somebody who doesn't worry about appearance and just wants to know."
It's the kind of sincere, innocent approach that can create greatness. On game day, he usually spends up to half an hour going over the game plan one last time with defensive line coach Robert Nunn.
"He may ask five times, but he's going to have you explain it until he understands it," Kiwanuka said. "He may have to hear it a different way, but he's going to get it. He's at the point where I have no problem asking him if I missed something. He may not use the same terms, but he knows it in a way he understands it and can explain it."
And that's critical as this season starts. After his breakout performance a year ago, Pierre-Paul is going to be a marked man for opposing offenses to control.
"He's going to see more double teams and different protections and he's going to have to figure them out," Nunn said. "There comes a point where the athletic ability can take you so far. With Jason, that's a long way. But even then, you can take it farther with knowing the game."
Such as the idea of hand placement as a way to fight off a guard or not tipping off what you're doing by the way you line up in your stance.
"When he learns something, he has it down pat," Tuck said. "He takes everything to heart … it's almost as impressive as his physical skills."
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