I had the chance to interview Ralph Vacchiano, the Giants’ beat writer for the New York Daily News and get his take at the state of the Giants and where the team is headed. Ralph has been the Giants’ beat writer at the Daily News since 2001. He also covered the Giants from 1993-97 for the North Jersey Herald & News before joining the NYDN for temporary duty as a hockey writer (Islanders and Devils). Ralph hosts his own Giants blog online, The Blue Screen.
NK: The Giants have shown some very inconsistent play throughout their 13 games, are the G-Men setting themselves up to be a first-round bust in the playoffs for the third straight year.
RV: I suppose you can never rule that out completely, especially since they’ll have to go on the road, but I don’t think so. They are more playoff ready than they were each of the last two years. In 2005, Eli Manning was in the midst of a horrible, late-season slump as the playoffs hit, and the Giants were basically pulling linebackers off the street (Remember Jay Foreman or Alonzo Jackson? I didn’t think so) for their playoff game. In 2006, they were missing Amani Toomer, Michael Strahan, Luke Petitgout, Justin Tuck and had a ton of players nursing injuries. This year they are relatively healthy. Manning is playing better (at least a little). And oh, by the way, they are 6-1 on the road. They’re not as good as the Cowboys or Packers, but can you really argue that they have no shot at winning in Tampa or Seattle – the two possible places they’ll have to play in the first round? No. They’re at least as good as those two teams. There’s a long way to go, but I think they have a better shot of getting to the second round than they did in either of the last two years.
NK: What position do you think the Giants will make their top priority in this year’s NFL Draft?
RV: Obviously it’ll depend a little on where they are drafting and who is available, but if I were them I’d think about a play-making linebacker, safety or even another cornerback. They are fairly set on offense, I think. And even if Michael Strahan retires, they’re OK on the defensive line. But the back seven has some serious questions. Kawika Mitchell (the weakside linebacker) is going to be a free agent and Mathias Kiwanuka (the strongside linebacker) could head back to the defensive line if Strahan retires. But there are even bigger questions behind them. Their safeties have not been good, and Gibril Wilson has yet to live up to his promise. And while last year’s first-round pick, Aaron Ross, looks like a keeper at cornerback, what about the other side. Sam Madison has had a good year, but he’s not getting any younger. And they’re not exactly deep at that spot. So I’d lean towards corner or safety – the best available at either of those spots – but I’d keep an eye out for linebackers, too.
NK: Michael Strahan keeps hinting at retirement once again, but judging by his play he still has a few good seasons left in him. Is this Strahan’s final weeks in a Giants uniform?
RV: Maybe. But nobody knows. Even those closest to him go back and forth on what they think he’s going to do. Some of it depends on how the season plays out. If they get to the Super Bowl, he’ll be happy to go out in a blaze of glory. If they self-destruct and Tom Coughlin somehow ends up getting fired, Strahan isn’t going to stick around for another rebuilding job. But if it’s somewhere in between, he’ll probably come back. The real question, though, is this: At what cost? Next year is the last year of his contract and one thing everyone seems to agree on is that he’s looking for one more big payday. He’s very likely to ask for (demand) a contract extension, and I don’t think the Giants are going to give him one. That could set the stage for another training camp holdout. Or it also could be the catalyst that finally causes him to drop the curtain on his Hall of Fame career. Honestly, the answer to that question is something we’re probably not going to know until next July or August. I don’t think Strahan even knows right now.
NK: Eli Manning continues to be torn apart by the media when he performs poorly, and he is rarely praised after a good game. Is Eli playing like the quarterback the Giants thought they drafted, or is he at least on the right path to becoming that player?
RV: No, he’s definitely not playing like the quarterback the Giants thought they drafted. They didn’t trade all those picks and pay him all that money for an erratic passer who is consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in passer rating and completion percentage. By now they expected he’d be on his way to stardom. And they expected nothing less. They made the move to get him because they thought he was a special player. They tossed around words like “great” without reservation. Sure, they anticipated a growing process, but not one that would last four years. The fact that he’s still so up and down is extremely worrisome to everyone in the organization. Now, that hasn’t shaken their faith in him. They believe he’s loaded with talent. They believe he’s their long-term solution at quarterback. They believe he still has star potential. And they believe they can win a Super Bowl with him someday. But they know he’s not there yet and some people in the organization are starting to wonder if the projection of his upside should be reduced from “great” to “very good.” Personally, I still think he has “great” potential, but his lack of accuracy worries me. I suspect he’s going to be a little up and down for a few more years, at least. But history shows some quarterbacks didn’t fully develop until they approached (or in some cases passed) age 30. It’s starting to look like that’s the case with Eli. That’s frustrating for Giants fans and for the organization, but there is still an upside to his ability. He’s had too many great games, too many amazing comebacks to just dismiss his potential. I don’t know what he has to do to harness that – it’s possible it’ll take a different coaching staff or offense – but I do believe that someday, he will.
NK: If the Giants can advance deep into the playoffs, who would they rather not want to face: Dallas or Green Bay?
RV: Well, they exited both of their losses to the Cowboys still convinced they were the better team and that with a break here or there they could’ve beaten them, so by default I’d have to say Green Bay. The Packers beat them up pretty good, especially late in the game. For the most part, the Giants were right there, step for step, with the Cowboys. Both teams would test the Giants’ suspect secondary. Both have the offensive lines to handle the Giants’ pass rush. And both have pretty good defenses. I don’t see a lot of difference between the two. But if I were the Giants, I’d feel much better about facing a Tony Romo-led team in Dallas than I would about facing a Brett Favre-led team in Green Bay. Winning in Green Bay is going to be much tougher. And Favre looks like he’s having an unbelievably charmed year.
NK: It seems like every game the Giants have a chance to put their opponent down two possessions and lock up the win, but penalties and turnovers prevent them from achieving their goal. Is this something that will come back to haunt them in a game in January?
RV: That’s usually what dooms teams in January. Unfortunately in Coughlin’s four seasons, those untimely penalties and turnovers have kind of been a staple. The real good teams don’t make those mistakes. Against the Packers or Cowboys, it’s probably more likely than not that the Giants will. Still, this is a more disciplined team than Coughlin’s previous teams. Manning is still prone to the turnover in a bad spot, but he’s a little better at managing a game and staying out of trouble than he had been. So there’s a better chance that they can avoid doing that. But still, in a big spot against a real good team, that’s likely going to be the difference. I don’t think they’re going to get blown out by anybody, which means the difference will be one small thing like that.
NK: If you had to choose a MVP from this year’s team so far, who would it be and why?
RV: Plaxico Burress, without question. When this season began my biggest question was “Who is going to pick up the slack left by Tiki Barber’s departure?” And by that, I didn’t mean just his rushing yards. I was looking for the guy they could count on in big situations — someone to make the big play, the way Tiki so often did, just when the Giants needed it. Burress has done that in numerous games. He had huge receptions — that were mostly yards after the catch — in wins over Washington, the Jets and Philly. He has bailed out his erratic quarterback time after time. He has carried a passing offense that at times has been unable to really consistently involve any other receivers. And then you add in the fact that he’s done it on an ankle that’s been sprained since Aug. 2, that’s hurt so bad he hasn’t been able to practice more than one day since Week 2? It’s one of the finest regular-season performances I’ve ever covered. He’s not going to the Pro Bowl, I don’t think, but he should go. If he was healthy, his numbers would be through the roof and the Giants’ offense would likely be averaging 7-10 more points per game. Manning’s completion percentage, yards, touchdowns and passer rating would be way up, too. And if Burress was out? Well, there’s no way this team would be on the verge of the playoffs. Remember how bad Manning looked last year after Toomer went down? I think he’d look twice as bad if Burress was out of the equation.
NK: Tom Coughlin’s job status will come up once again very soon, is Tom only safe if the Giants win a playoff game?
RV: No. His future is not tied to a win in the first round of the playoffs. There’s no real line drawn in the sand that he needs to cross. Ownership really just wants to step back and take a look at the big picture. How did the season go, overall? Did they fade at the end again? Have the built something for the future? Honestly, barring a collapse (like 0-3 in their final three games), he’s coming back. Ownership is thrilled with the way he reinvented his personality, repaired his relationship with his players and, to a small extent, with the press. They appreciate the way he turned a circus of a locker room into a focused group of players who only care about winning. They love his professionalism, his devotion to the Giants, his attitude. Really, in a lot of ways, they see him as their ideal coach and they want him to succeed. They want to bring him back. Now, if they go from 9-4 to 9-7 and either miss the playoffs or lose in the first round, it’s going to be hard to argue he should return. If they suffer some sort of first-round embarrassment it might be a tough sell, too. But this team looks like it’s headed for 10-6 or 11-5. Given all the circumstances and how close he came to getting fired last year, that’s probably enough whether they win a playoff game or not. I can’t guarantee that. A lot can change in a few weeks. But right now, that’s the way it looks.
NK: Are the Giants capable of disrupting the Patriots’ perfect season in Week 17 and is this Giants squad capable of going on to win a championship?
RV: I’d be absolutely shocked if the Giants were able to pull off the Patriot upset. First of all, if the ultra-focused Pats get to 15-0, I find it hard to believe they’d lose in Week 16. Second of all, the Giants are likely to have a playoff spot locked up by then which means they’ll probably be resting a few regulars. But even if they have something to play for and play everyone? No. It’s just a bad match-up. The Patriots’ strength is their incredible passing game and huge arsenal of talented receivers. The Giants’ secondary is the most suspect part of their team. Usually they camouflage that with a terrific pass rush, but they’re not going to be able to get a huge rush on Tom Brady behind that offensive line. I just can’t see any way that happens. … As for the championship, I think they’re probably a few pieces away from contending for that. It wouldn’t shock me if they won a first-round game. I wouldn’t be completely stunned if they pulled a second-round upset either and managed to get to the NFC championship. But as good as this team has been on the road, keep in mind they’ve only played four games all season against likely playoff teams (Dallas twice, Green Bay and Minnesota) and they’ve lost them all. To ask them to win on the road in Tampa or Seattle, and then on the road in Dallas AND in Green Bay, and then face a likely rematch against the Patriots in the Super Bowl? It’s just way too tall an order. Giants fans should be happy with one playoff win and be deliriously happy if somehow you get two. Anything more than that would be stunning, to say the least. But I like the direction this team is headed. If they shore up the secondary a little in the offseason, I see no reason why they can’t take a step up and join the elite NFC teams in 2008.-
Thank you to Ralph Vacchiano for taking the time to answer these questions and give us an insider’s look at the G-Men. Once again check out his blog at The Blue Screen.