Big Expectations for Big Blue

After what happened with the Giants in 2009, not many people were giving them a chance before the season and after Week 3 when they were 1-2. But since their loss to the Titans on September 26, the Giants have won four straight and are sitting atop the division and tied for the best record in the NFC. It hasn’t been the cleanest way to get to a 5-2 record for the Giants with an inordinate amount of turnovers through seven games. The Giants have tried to give away every one of their five wins with interceptions and fumbles, but have so far managed to not let untimely turnovers damage their season. Coming off of four straight wins and a bye, the G-Men begin the second portion of their season against the Seahawks. With a one-game lead over the Eagles in the division and nine games remaining (five against division opponents), the Giants have a challenging schedule ahead of them. Ralph Vacchiano, Giants beat writer for the New York Daily News, joined me to talk Giants football with the G-Men set to begin the second part of their schedule.

Keefe: In our preseason talk about the Giants, you predicted the team would go 8-8 and after their slow start to the season, I was scared that your prediction was on the money. But then the defense started playing like it did two years ago, and after four wins in a row, the Giants look like they might be back. I have watched at lot of Giants football to know that you should never feel safe with this team or the way they are going, but right now they are gaining a lot of hype and many people believe they are the best team in the NFC and one of the top teams in the league. After their beating against the Colts earlier in the season, I don’t think anyone would have predicted the Giants to be where they are at now, but the league seems to be wide open and is up for the taking by any team. Your prediction of 8-8 is still in play, though the Giants would need to go 3-6 at this point to fulfill it, and while it’s not out of the question after last season, I hope it’s unlikely. Are you sticking with your prediction in thinking that the Giants have already been as good as they will be all season, or have you become a believer in the G-Men?

Vacchiano: It would probably be unfair of me to change my prediction now. I think it would be pretty naive, too. I’ve just seen too many sudden changes from them over the years. They’ve been 5-2 or 6-1 in every one of Coughlin’s seven seasons now, but how many times have they ended as good as they started? Last year 5-0 became 8-8. In 2006, 6-2 became 8-8. In 2008, 11-1 became 12-4 and no playoff wins. I’m not guaranteeing another second-half collapse, but given that track record I’d be crazy to say, “I’m in. I buy the hype. They’re going 11-5!” How many other years would I have done that and been proven wrong? Plus, we need to go back and look at my wishy-washy prediction of 8-8. I had some pretty good reasons for it and a few caveats. I said from the outset that I believed this team had the talent to be a Super Bowl contender if – a big if – they stayed healthy and everything worked out right. I thought they had some issues, though, and were likely to end up more inconsistent than anything. So far they’re pretty healthy, and that’s great. That’s why they’re playing above my prediction. But I tell you what, the inconsistency is still there. The turnovers have them playing a very, very dangerous game. I didn’t foresee that as a major problem, but it’s become one. And even they know that if they keep that up they’re going to end up losing a lot more games than they should. Knowing that, if they stay healthy and fix the turnover issues, I don’t see any reason why they can’t be 12-4 or 11-5 and win their weak conference. But with nine games left, I still think the injuries and inconsistencies can rear their ugly heads. This remains, though, what I thought it was: A good team that, if things break right, can go a long, long way.

Keefe: Turnovers have been a problem for the Giants this season. Turnovers cost them the game against the Titans and almost cost them the game against the Cowboys – a game they dominated. Aside from the Colts’ loss, you could say the Giants should be 6-1 after the debacle with the Titans. I’m a firm believer that if the Giants can’t find a way to drastically reduce their amount of turnovers, it will come back to cost them in a big spot and eventually cost them their season. Is this the Giants’ biggest problem, and what is being done to rectify the situation?

Vacchiano: Yeah, it’s absolutely their biggest problem. They could’ve easily lost that Dallas game. They came close to losing control of the Chicago and Detroit games, too. And remember, turnovers put them in a position where they needed three end zone interceptions, if I recall, to beat Carolina on opening day. So, if we’re playing the “What if” game, you could say that the Giants only have one real quality win where they didn’t come close to shooting themselves in the foot. That’s not a fair game to play either way, of course, because turnovers are what most of these NFL games turn on today. So yeah, the amount they have right now is disturbing and they know it. Unfortunately there’s not a lot they can do to rectify it. Seven of Eli Manning’s 11 interceptions are off tipped passes. That’s a little flukey. He is throwing a little high and behind his receivers on some of those, but it’s not like he’s going to have some sort of drastic overhaul in his mechanics. He just needs to make better throws and his receivers need to hold onto the ball. On the fumbles, they’re working with Ahmad Bradshaw and, to a lesser extent, Brandon Jacobs on the “high and tight” carry position. But they are fighting instinct. Both players, when they fight for extra yards, the ball tends to drop to their sides. That’s how they’ve run for years and it’s hard to change now. So all they can do is focus on the problem, concentrate, and hope the ball bounces their way a little more than it has. The good news is that historically this hasn’t been a turnover-prone group under Coughlin. Things usually have a way of evening themselves out, so I expect that eventually this will do that, too.

Keefe: The special teams are clearly the biggest weakness on the team. You tweeted that Darius Reynaud will likely not be the returner for long, but it’s amazing he has lasted this long despite such poor results. Matt Dodge has had his ups and downs as well and the coverage on kickoffs could use some help. Do you think we will see a different look from the special teams coming out of the bye and in the second half of the season? And by different I mean a better look.

Vacchiano: I don’t really know what they can do differently. Dodge has been a lot more consistent lately and clearly he’s got the faith of Coughlin and his staff. He’s a rookie, though, so there’ll probably be another couple of ups and downs along the way. The coverage teams just need to tackle better. They can tweak the scheme a little, but if guys flail on the return men or leave their lanes, that won’t help. And you can’t really overhaul the entire special teams unit at this point in time. The only change they can really make is at returner, and now that they’ve signed Will Blackmon I expect they will do that soon. I don’t know how much that will help, though. Blackmon was a good returner in Green Bay, but he’s coming off a knee injury and who knows if he still has his old explosiveness? Plus, a lot of people thought Reynaud was a pretty talented return man, but he obviously didn’t get the job done here. Is it the returner or the scheme or the blockers? It’s hard to say. Probably a little bit of all three. But right now they don’t have a returner as skilled as Domenik Hixon was – a player who can rise above what’s going on around him.

Keefe: Nearly every one of Eli Manning’s interceptions has been the result of a receiver tipping the ball to a defender and missing what should have been a catch. I asked you via Twitter if Randy Moss made sense for the Giants since Eli’s problem has always been missing high and Plaxico Burress took care of that. You basically said there wasn’t a chance, and while I know the Giants aren’t the type of team to take in problem players, I thought Moss could have been the type of tall receiver that would limit Eli’s mistakes.

Vacchiano: Moss only would’ve been a help because he’s tall. And I get that. But as you know, he comes with so many other issues that bringing him in would’ve been disruptive and … well, terrible. Plus, he’s going to want the ball. So who would you want to sit? Hakeem Nicks? Steve Smith? The two of them are very possibly on their way to the Pro Bowl this year. Is Moss really much better, other than being taller? Anyway, I’ve said before I think the problem has more to do with Eli than with his receivers, that a majority of those tipped passes have simply not been good throws. I’ve seen him make better throws than he’s been making. Yes, traditionally he’s a high thrower. In fact, if you read my book (shameless plug alert) – Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback – you know that his penchant for throwing high was in Ernie Accorsi’s original scouting report on Eli and it was a big reason why they signed Burress. But I’m confident he can do better. And, to be fair, so can the receivers. The Giants’ coaching staff – I forget which assistant said it – feels that some of the problem has to do with receivers running imprecise routes. So they’ve just got to get crisper on both ends of the passes. And by the way, don’t discount the flukiness of this, too. I can’t remember the last time a tipped pass didn’t land in the hands of a defender. At some point a ball is going to tip off a receiver’s hands and go down or away from the crowd. The number off deflected interceptions in the first seven games has been unusually high. I really do think that the law of averages will even that out. I think.

Keefe: The reversal of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs roles has worked out well, but how has it worked in the locker room? A major storyline before the season was how Jacobs would react and perform under his new role as a backup, so what is the mood you are getting from No. 27 now that he has been the backup back for seven games, despite his ability to find the end zone on goal line plays? Do you think as long as the team wins Jacobs will be content, or is there always going to another problem just waiting to erupt for Jacobs?

Vacchiano: I’d say it’s probably an uneasy peace right about now. I know that Jacobs is saying all the right things, and that’s admirable – you know, if you ignore his antics through the first few weeks, then I guess you could admire his new stance. But I find it hard to believe that one conversation with Coughlin and Reese suddenly turned him from one of the unhappiest people I’ve seen around that locker room in years into Mr. Everything’s OK. You don’t have to be a genius to realize he’s probably got some simmering, lingering animosity towards the situation. In fact, that’s what I’ve been hearing privately – that he’s counting the days until the end of the season, anticipating that the Giants will cut him loose. He absolutely, positively, does not want to be here next year as a backup, from what I’m told. Now, having said all that, it doesn’t mean he’ll be a problem. He may really be intent on being the good soldier the rest of the way. He seems to genuinely like and respect Ahmad Bradshaw and admire his abilities, so that may be enough to keep him in check. I’m sure his huge salary helps, too. And giving him the goal-line role has been a boost to his ego. So it’s not like I’m waiting for another eruption. But the potential is definitely there. And don’t mistake his change of heart for genuine contentment.

Keefe: Since the embarrassment against the Colts, Perry Fewell has the defense looking like it did two and three years ago. The defense looks completely different than it did a year ago under Bill Sheridan with almost the same exact names. How have the players adapted to Fewell’s system, and do you think the defense is consistent and strong enough to carry the team through the regular season and deep into the postseason?

Vacchiano: I think the players love Perry Fewell’s system, they love the way Perry Fewell calls a defense, they love the way Perry Fewell listens to his players, and they just flat-out love Perry Fewell. Honestly, the last time all the reports on an assistant were this glowing, it was for Steve Spagnuolo the year after the Super Bowl. It’s an aggressive scheme, which the players love. He’s playing to their strengths at almost every position. He’s using his veterans, which is also always important. And it’s working, which is a big thing because in the end it’s the only thing that ever gets players to believe. Can it continue? Yes, absolutely. If – here’s that if again – they can stay healthy. Losing Mathias Kiwanuka was a blow, but they survived it. In fact, they even thrived. They don’t have any other defensive injuries, though. If it stays that way, this is a very good defense. I’m not so sure it’s incredibly deep, though. It might be, but I don’t know that anybody wants to find that out. I still think they’ll probably have a few ups and downs – much like the entire team – even if they stay healthy. But they’re getting terrific pressure. They’re getting a fantastic push up the middle from their DTs. Michael Boley and Jonathan Goff have been excellent at LB. And the secondary has been very solid, if not spectacular. All the ingredients are most definitely there.