TAMPA — Jason Pierre-Paul could make his return to the NFL on Sunday, against the Bucs in the stadium where he once starred for USF.
But even if he doesn't, the confidence is already returning to the Giants defensive end, sidelined since sustaining a serious hand injury July 4.
"I know for a fact that I'm still the same JPP," he told reporters in New York on Wednesday. "Getting to the ball, screen pass, running and chasing down, getting to the quarterback, playing the run. It's just that confidence I've got to get back: 'Hey, my hand is okay.' "
Pierre-Paul spoke exactly four months after his NFL future was put in jeopardy in a fireworks accident that led to his right index finger being amputated and caused other damage to his hand. He took the practice field Wednesday, another major step toward returning, perhaps a week earlier than expected.
"I think, to be honest with you, that he's dealt with this about as well as you can," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Wednesday in a conference call with Bucs reporters. "I've been very impressed by the things that he's said and the way in which he's been received, not only by his peers, his fellow teammates, but also by the way he's conducted himself, for example, with the media."
For months, Pierre-Paul was bunkered at home in South Florida with details of the severity of the injury largely unknown, even to the Giants for some time. But since returning, he has earned back their confidence. He's expected to wear a special glove to allow him to play as close as possible to the dominant pass rusher he once was.
The 2010 first-round pick had 16½ sacks in 2011 and 12½ last season, when he bounced back from a back injury in 2013.
"You can't take things for granted. They can be taken away from you just like that," Pierre-Paul said. "I'm very excited going out there because I got a second chance to do what I love, you know? It could have been taken away, but God spared me. Each moment I'm out there, I'm giving it my all."
Pierre-Paul could still make as much as $8.7 million this year and needs to prove that he's healthy and close to the force he used to be to be in position for a lucrative contract in free agency.
His reputation across the NFL is still strong. Bucs coach Lovie Smith spoke glowingly about him.
"One of the best defensive players in the game when healthy," Smith said. "What does he bring? A force. Every defense needs a true bell cow, and just about any team he would go on, that would be the case. … Great rusher, a big guy to play the run, brings quite a bit. They're definitely a better defense with him on the football field."
Still only 26, Pierre-Paul said he has found a maturity in his months away from football, and Coughlin said the changes he sees in his young pass rusher are mental as much as physical.
"When he first came in, he was very upbeat, very positive, and he continues to do that with the same old Jason smile on his face," Coughlin said. "But there's a seriousness about him that probably was not there before. … He was a young man who was just grateful for the opportunity to come back and to play the game that he loves to play."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.