I had the chance to interview Ralph Vacchiano, the Giants’ beat writer for the New York Daily News and get his take on the state of the Giants and where the team is headed. Ralph has been the Giants’ beat writer at the Daily News since 2001 and hosts his own Giants blog online, The Blue Screen.
Ralph is also the author of Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback, which you can buy here, and I highly recommend you do so.
NK: A win is a win and the Giants remained undefeated on Sunday, but isn’t it bad that they needed a field goal in overtime to defeat the winless Bengals?
RV: Not at all. Look around the league. All these games are close. Unless you’re the 2007 Patriots (pre-Super Bowl version, of course) nobody is blowing anybody out with any regularity. Every one of these games seems to be up in the air in the fourth quarter. Plus, in the long run, nobody is going to remember (or care) that a victory was “too close”. Does any Giants fan still get upset that they only beat the 1-15 Dolphins by a field goal last year? Of course not. The “soft” part of the schedule is about padding your record with as many Ws as possible so you’re in good position when the brutal NFC East slate starts. That was always going to determine the Giants’ playoff fate anyway. And the more of these games they can win now, the better. No matter how they win them.
NK: Ahmad Bradshaw has only had one game to show his abilities this season and he scored two touchdowns. Isn’t it ridiculous that Tom Coughlin is not giving Bradshaw carries and is there more to the story as to why he is not being used?
RV: You know what’s funny about Bradshaw’s situation? That “one game” you’re talking about? He had five carries. That’s it. Last week he had two. In the big picture, that’s not a huge difference. He just happened to make better use of those limited carries against the Rams. My thought on Bradshaw is that he’s very good at what he does — coming in late in the game when the defense is on its heels and his legs are fresh. Everyone got so excited about him last year and I’ve even heard people say he should start. Well, how good would he be if Brandon Jacobs hadn’t spent the first 30 minutes barreling his big body into the defenders, wearing them down and tiring them out? Would Bradshaw be as effective? I’m not saying he wouldn’t be, I’m just saying I don’t know. All I know for sure is that I think the running back rotation is very dangerous as is. The defenders that play the Giants are exhausted after Jacobs has run over them for a half, and then they are thrown way off by the shifty moves of Derrick Ward and Bradshaw. I think Coughlin would like to use Bradshaw a little more, but the situation has to dictate it. There’s no way to give each running back 15 carries and keep all the receivers happy, too. So Bradshaw is going to be used selectively, as a late-game weapon. I think there will be a few games where he gets 10 carries or so, but I also think there’s going to be a few where he’s completely left out. And I really do think that’s all there is to that story. Bradshaw did have a strained calf in the opener, but supposedly he’s fully healthy. I don’t think there’s anything else at work here.
NK: Once Osi Umenyiora went down for the season, all heads turned to Mathias Kiwanuka, but it has been Fred Robbins, who is second in the league with four sacks, that has stepped up in the absence of Umenyiora and Michael Strahan. Aside from Robbins, who has had the biggest impact on defense?
RV: I’d root for Robbins to keep that pace up, but I don’t know how much longer I can watch his sack dance! Seriously, Robbins has been impressive. He’s become a better pass rusher this year than he had been in years past. He’s a little slimmer, too, which probably is the reason. Aside from him, I think Justin Tuck has undoubtedly had the biggest impact on the defense. He’s a force, he really is, and he appears to be getting the majority of the extra attention on the defensive line. Without him, I don’t know whom offenses would fear. You certainly saw his impact in the St. Louis game when he had those sacks and that interception return for a touchdown. He’s so fast, so athletic and he’s really become a student of the game, too. I think he’s got many Pro Bowls in his future.
NK: It seems as though Domenik Hixon has passed Sinorice Moss on the depth chart at wide receiver, so does that mean the front office’s plans for Moss to someday emerge as a starter are done? And what about Mario Manningham, when can Giants fans expect to see him?
RV: I definitely think the expectations have been dramatically lowered on Moss. No one in the organization seems to know what to make of him right now. He’s so inconsistent in practice. He’s also not an ideal receiver, by any stretch. He’s so small, which doesn’t make him a very inviting target. And while he’s fast, he’s not elusive enough for a guy who is 5-8. From what I’ve seen, he’s just not open enough. If you’re that small, you better find a way to get yourself away from the defenders. And he just doesn’t. He doesn’t out-run them either. So my feeling is that the only “future starter” on the Giants’ receiving corps right now is Steve Smith. If they were to need another one someday, if they were to somehow lose both Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, they’d draft another one or sign a free-agent. I think they feel Hixon is a good depth player, but not a long-term starter. And Moss … well, if they get anything out of him it’s a bonus. The wild-card in this, of course, is Manningham. It’s hard to tell what to make of him because he missed so much time in training camp and he is incredibly far behind. From what I’m told, it’s a huge adjustment to go from the antiquated Michigan offense to an NFL scheme, and after missing the summer Manningham is still struggling to pick things up. Now it’s nearly impossible for him to get on the field because all the reps go to the first four or five guys. His practice time is mostly on the scout team. So I think this is shaping up as a lost rookie season for him. Barring an injury, I don’t think he’ll be active for many games. And — again, barring injury — if he has double-digit catches, with all those receivers in front of him, it’ll be an upset.
NK: The debate about what to do with John Carney seems to be surfacing now that Lawrence Tynes is almost ready to return to action. How will the situation between the two play out in the coming weeks, and who will ultimately get the job?
RV: As long as Tynes’ knee recovers, the job is his. Believe me, it’s killing Coughlin to waste a roster spot on a second kicker. He’d rather use it on someone who can contribute on special teams or give his bigger linemen a break during practice. Coaches guard these roster spots like they were rare gems. He wouldn’t have kept Tynes around if he had any thought of cutting him now. Plus, there are some concerns about Carney. He’s been great so far, but his kickoffs aren’t exactly going through the end zone. Mostly they’re landing between the 5 and the 10. That’s good, but it’s early and he’s 44. How would his leg hold up during a 16-game season? And what about when the weather turns and the wind is whipping at Giants Stadium? And what’s his range now, anyway? I think he’s had a 46-yarder, but can he go over 50? Tynes has the leg to do that. I’m not so sure about a 44-year-old. So my guess is that Carney will stay around another two weeks, just to make sure Tynes makes it through the Seattle game unscathed. If he does, Carney will be cut. But as one NFL source told me, “They’ll keep him on speed dial just in case Tynes falls apart.”
NK: You posted on your blog the other day about Eli Manning and his tendency to produce comeback wins. After his postseason play in 2007 and his beginning to the 2008 season, is it safe to say Eli Manning is one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL?
RV: Boy, after the Super Bowl last year, how could you not say that? I understand the negatives about Manning. He had too many interceptions last year, and he’s too inconsistent for a fifth-year quarterback. It would be nice if he’d inch closer to 4,000 yards with about five more touchdown passes and maybe 10 fewer interceptions. But what he did last year, very few quarterbacks could have done that. He was nearly flawless through the postseason. And that drive with 2:39 to go in Super Bowl XLII was the stuff of legends. Look around the league. Right now, who else would you prefer to have on your team? I think you could make an argument for maybe five or six other quarterbacks. But it’s not even close with the rest. Now, I still want to see Manning do it over a longer period. The month-long postseason run was great, and the 3-0 start has been nice. But I want to see him carry this into October without a meltdown (or, if he has one, just don’t turn it into a month-long slump). But I think he will. The talent on this team and the confidence he gained from the postseason last year are both going to help him. I really do believe this is the start of his first Pro Bowl year.
NK: Speaking of Eli Manning, in your new book Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback, you depict the journey Eli took from Ole Miss to East Rutherford and share details about his time in the NFL to this point in his career. What was the most intriguing information you learned about Eli during your research?
RV: Wow, so many things. I’ve covered every snap he’s taken in his NFL career and been at almost every practice, so when I started putting this book together I sort of assumed I wasn’t going to learn anything that surprised me. But I learned several things I didn’t know before. Probably the biggest shocker was when I learned that an extremely influential person in the Giants’ organization was against making the draft day trade for Manning in 2004. I should probably put the words “spoiler alert” in here, in case anyone wants to wait until they read the book. It certainly was jaw-dropping for me when I was told that just a few days before the trade was made, Wellington Mara told Ernie Accorsi he wasn’t going to be happy if the deal went through. Up until I heard that, everyone in the organization had always said that the entire front office and ownership was 100 percent behind it. Turned out that just wasn’t true. I think I also was a little surprised to learn how deep the doubts were about Manning during his low points. Obviously I knew he was getting pressure from the media, and certainly plenty of boos and angst from the fans. And I knew the organization was concerned, just based on what they said when they nearly fired Coughlin at the end of the 2006 season. But it ran deeper than I knew, including Coughlin calling players into his office to try to get them to help light a fire under his emotionless quarterback, Accorsi walking out at halftime of Manning’s four-interception game against the Vikings and later apologizing to John Mara for the way the deal was working out. That’s pretty amazing, when you think about it. A little more than two months before the Super Bowl, everyone was bailing on Eli Manning. Learning about all that and how bad things really were will make reading the final chapters and the incredibly happy ending all the more wonderful. And, as you know, the happy ending was pretty wonderful to begin with.
NK: The Giants are already 3-0 and with Seattle, Cleveland, and San Francisco as their next three games, it looks like the Giants won’t endure the disappointing season many thought they would. How many wins do you see the G-Men pulling off this year and will they be the division champion or a wild card winner?
RV: Well, hold on there, partner. Remember the bye week jinx? The Giants are 4-15 after byes, so I wouldn’t get those 4-0 T-shirts printed just yet. But I do get your point. The schedule appears to be setting up nicely (though timing is more important than the quality of opponent — not who you play, but when you play them, as the cliche goes). And while I doubt the Giants will be 6-0, a 5-1 record certainly doesn’t appear out of reach. Of course, the Giants have been 6-2 many times in the Coughlin era, only to not completely fulfill expectations, so anything is possible. But I really do believe these Giants are different. They seem to have a killer instinct and they certainly have a championship-level confidence. How many wins is all that worth? Well, I predicted 9-7 and a wild-card berth before the season started, but I wasn’t counting on the pass rush being as good as it looked during the first three weeks. I still think there are issues — defensive depth, blocking of the TEs — and there are always possible injuries. Plus, the division is a monster this year. I would say they are talented enough to have anywhere from 10-12 wins, depending on how the breaks go and how healthy they’re able to stay. If they’re on the high end of that, they’ll win the division. If they’re on the low end, they’ll probably lose it to the Cowboys, which is how I originally predicted it would go. Things happen during a season. It’s never as easy as you think it should be. So don’t count out my 9-7 forecast just yet. But this is a very good team. They’ll be in the playoffs. Then, just like last year, they need to be hot at the right time and who knows what could happen? They’re as good as any team in the NFL right now. If they’re at their best in January, the sky’s the limit.
– Once again thanks to Ralph Vacchiano for taking the time to answer these questions and give us a beat writer’s take on the Giants. Check out his blog at The Blue Screen.