Behind Big Blue’s Offseason

It’s hard to stay on top of everything with the Giants during the Yankees season when I have to worry daily about whether or not Nick Johnson will start hitting or if the bullpen will hold a lead. Luckily I have Ralph Vacchiano, Giants beat writer for the New York Daily News, to trade e-mails with.

If you’re a Giants fan, Ralph’s Giants blog, The Blue Screen, is the best there is, and his book, Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback, is a must read for any Giants fan and Eli Manning fan for inside information on Eli’s career, and the inner workings of the Giants front office under Ernie Accorsi.

In our discussion, we analyzed the Giants’ draft, tried to make sense of Osi Umenyiora’s career downward spiral, picked apart the Giants schedule and tried to figure out how the defense will rebound in 2010.

Keefe: The Giants’ biggest hole entering the draft was in the middle of their defense and they didn’t address that need until Day 3 of the draft. You predicted that the Giants would take Jason Pierre-Paul, which they did, if Rolando McClain was gone by the time they were able to pick, which continued your near flawless record of Giants’ draft predictions.

From what I know and have read about Jason Pierre-Paul, I think I will be happy, as will every other Giants fan with the selection, though Osi Umenyiora might not be as happy. Did the team make a mistake by not addressing their most significant need with one their first three picks and by passing on Sean Lee and Brandon Spikes? And what does the selection of Pierre-Paul mean for Umenyiora’s role on the team and his career with the Giants?

Vacchiano: Well, they didn’t have a choice with their first pick. I still think they would’ve taken Rolando McClain if he were there. But he wasn’t. Could they have taken Lee or Spikes in Round 2? I guess, but they wanted a DT too and they may have gotten a steal in Linval Joseph. In the days before the draft a lot of people started mentioning him as a potential late first-rounder. A lot of teams liked him and he slipped into the Giants’ lap. They felt like they couldn’t pass that value up. They also apparently didn’t have Phillip Dillard rated too far behind Lee on their board (I heard they weren’t crazy about Spikes). So, was it a mistake? I guess that depends on Joseph and Dillard. They don’t think they made a mistake, though.

And I don’t think Pierre-Paul’s arrival will affect Osi much immediately. For now, Pierre-Paul is the fourth end and likely to be used as a situational pass rusher. How much he affects Osi in the future depends on a lot of factors — Osi’s happiness, how fast Pierre-Paul develops, what happens with Mathias Kiwanuka’s contract. But there’s enough uncertainty and defensive end for the Giants that I don’t mind them adding another. Things have a way of working themselves out, just like they did after they added Kiwanuka as a fourth end in 2006.

Keefe: The Umenyiora situation is pretty fascinating to me, considering I don’t spend every day in the locker room and I’m not in the Giants front office to know how good and bad some relationships are between the players and front office executives. All I know is that, Osi was an essential piece to the Super Bowl puzzle, and when Michael Strahan decided to retire, it was Osi along with Justin Tuck who were supposed to lead the defense into the future. Then, Osi goes down with the knee injury and Trent Dilfer says on ESPN that the Giants will “be the biggest disappointment in 2008,” only to have them win the division and get the No. 1 seed without Osi. Then he comes back and the team collapses, and he gets benched and is rumored to be on his way out of town. The whole thing doesn’t make sense.

I guess what I’m saying is Osi was supposed to be a staple in the defense for the future. Then because of injuries and some of the worst defensive performances (by the team, not just Osi), he became the scapegoat for the Giants’ defensive woes. We’re talking about a defense that had C.C. Brown starting before he was eventually benched. There are certainly no excuses for what happened last season and the abysmal play of the defense, but doesn’t it seem ridiculous that Osi comes out looking like bad guy in all of this? The way everything has unfolded with him since the Giants beat the Patriots just seems unfair.

Vacchiano: Yeah, I agree … for the most part. But Osi hasn’t exactly done himself any favors. I don’t think anyone considers him the biggest problem in last year’s defense. Bill Sheridan, injuries, the safeties, the linebackers, the defensive tackles, all would be listed ahead of him. But he wasn’t playing well against the run. He could rush the passer — though depending on whom you ask, he may not have been doing that at his usual standard either — but he was being pushed off the line of scrimmage and seemingly taking the wrong lanes on run defense. The Giants — Sheridan and Tom Coughlin — confronted him about that. And at that point, he had a real bad attitude about the whole thing. One of his teammates told me that he basically checked out mentally, which led to Coughlin and Sheridan to bench him. After that he was useless because he was ticked off.

Then, to make matters worse, he goes on that silly rant at the Super Bowl, demanding his starting job back or he’ll retire. He looked like a baby. Then, given the chance to back off it the next day, he insists that he wasn’t kidding — as if he’d really give up all that money. Then, a few months later, he has that “no comment” press conference where he looks even more ridiculous. Never once does he stand up and say “You know what? Nothing is given to you in life. I get paid a lot of money. I want to start. I’m going to go out and earn it and be a good guy and teammate.”

That would’ve gone a long way towards making him look like a good guy again. The whole defensive collapse definitely wasn’t his fault. But his own actions are what has put him in the spotlight.

Keefe: When it became evident that the Eagles were willing to part with Donovan McNabb, it was almost as relieving as when the Red Sox were finally ready to deal Manny Ramirez, except Manny left the division and went to the National League. For Giants fans, the only place that would have been worse for McNabb to end up other than staying in Philadelphia was Washington. Now he’s a Redskin, and if anyone wanted to question what division is the toughest in football, I don’t think there is really anything to question now.

But here’s the biggest problem with McNabb going to Washington: Where are the Giants going to get those two wins from? Sure, the Giants might still sweep the Redskins in the season series, but now a split is more likely and getting swept is even a possibility. I look at their 2010 schedule and I am having trouble finding 10 wins. Maybe it’s just me being down on the Giants after last year’s debacle, but where are the wins on this schedule that are going to get them in the playoffs? Where are the Giants going to finish in the division and the conference? Is it going to be another winter without a postseason for the G-Men?

Vacchiano: First of all, I won’t play the schedule game with you. I think it’s silly to look at a schedule in April and May and project wins. In the NFL, the success of teams varies wildly from year to year. Plus, it’s not always who you play, but when you play them. The Redskins games look a lot different if McNabb is hurt. The Green Bay games looks a lot different if it snows or if their defense is a mess, so who can tell this early? All I can tell you is the Giants were a disaster last year and still won eight games. Why can’t they win 10 with better health? I mean, they lost everyone on defense last year. Everyone, for at least a game or two. If they can stay in one piece, that’s got to be worth two wins, right?

Besides, if you insist on playing the schedule game, shouldn’t some of those wins come from Philly? Do you really believe the Eagles will be as good as ever now that McNabb is gone? I don’t know about Kevin Kolb. I really don’t. Maybe he’s Aaron Rodgers II. Maybe not. We’ll find out.

But for the moment — and this is really, really early, so I reserve the right to change my mind — I don’t see why the Giants can’t be right up there with the Cowboys as the best teams in this division. I really don’t.

Keefe: I agree that playing the schedule game is pretty ridiculous, but it’s hard to not look at it and try and play the season out in your mind.

I was never the biggest Antonio Pierce fan, but I understood what he meant to the team and what he meant to the defense. Now that he is gone, who steps up and takes leadership of the defense, and how will the team respond to the absence of Pierce for an entire season?

Vacchiano: I would hope by now that they’re used to Pierce being gone, since he was out the second half of last year. So I would hope they’d respond better to his absence. Who the leader will be is not real clear. I thought it was telling in the after-the-season press conference that when Tom Coughlin was asked about leaders he mentioned Jeff Feagles and then pretty much drew a blank. He had none on defense and he knew it.

I think the feeling is that Justin Tuck will be one, and that if he wasn’t so hurt last year he might have even emerged. They also have high hopes that Antrel Rolle will step in and be a leader, too.

Keefe: With the emergence of Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham and the outstanding season Steve Smith had, how good can the Giants offense be with Eli now having a full season under his belt with Nicks and Manningham? And how do you think Brandon Jacobs will respond after having a letdown season last year?

Vacchiano: I think the sky is the limit for the passing game. I really do. I have great respect for Eli Manning and think he’s going to be an upper echelon QB in this league before he’s done. And I think he’s got a good and diverse receiving corps. I do have questions about the running game, though. With Jacobs coming off knee surgery, and Ahmad Bradshaw coming off surgery to both his feet and his ankle, and with Andre Brown coming off a torn Achilles, I just don’t know what’s there. The potential is great, but I have serious reservations about whether any of these guys can stay healthy for a full season. That’s definitely a worry with Jacobs. I don’t see any evidence that he can take a pounding and survive. If he can, this has the ingredients to be one of the best offenses in football. If he can’t, it’s one-dimensional and that is just not good.