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Keefe To The City: Big Blue In Need Of Giant Season

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Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

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After the way the Giants ended the 2009 season, I’m not sure if I’m ready for the 2010 season to begin just yet. I’m not sure I can handle anymore defensive performances in which I am begging for just one stop on third down in a game. I’m not sure I can handle watching the Panthers’ Steve Smith break his arm midgame and still score touchdowns against the Giants or watch DeSean Jackson backpedal into the end zone from 20 yards outs, taunting the New York sideline in the process.

New Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has a serious job to do and if he can’t do it, Tom Coughlin will have some explaining to do. It’s certainly going to be an interesting season for the Giants, and there is a good chance we will know in the 15 minutes of play on Sunday against Carolina what these New York Football Giants are capable of.

With tension and turmoil brewing with the running backs, Eli Manning trying to prove he is an elite quarterback and Tom Coughlin trying to stay away from and off of the hot seat, Ralph Vacchiano, Giants beat writer for the New York Daily News, joined me to talk Giants football and preview the 2010 season for the G-Men.

Keefe: Two seasons ago, I remember asking you what Tom Coughlin had against Ahmad Bradshaw, since at the time, Coughlin was barely using Bradshaw at all. Now we are just a few days away from the start of the 2010 season and Bradshaw is the No. 1 running back with Brandon Jacobs becoming Bradshaw’s backup.

Jacobs was disappointing last season, and after the Patriots game last week he went off, making it known he is unhappy with his current role and calling the NFL a “backstabbing business.” Then, Jacobs backtracked and said his comments were about the fact that he didn’t get a carry against the Patriots, and he said, “people get different things confused through words.”

It was a poor excuse to try to cover up the tirade he had, and I’m not sure anyone can believe Jacobs’ excuse. Jacobs says he “is here to win football games and ride it on out with my teammates,” but do you think he will become a problem for the team if Bradshaw succeeds in the No. 1 spot and he becomes a non-factor? The running back depth chart is created through on-field results, but how long of a leash will Coughlin have with Bradshaw getting the majority of the carries before he reverses the roles back?

Vacchiano: Well, first of all, good for you for not believing Jacobs’ bizarre attempt at backtracking. He has a little Osi Umenyiora in him – and by that I mean you should never take anything either of them say at face value. Their stories change as it suits them. And “people get different things confused through words?” That’s got to be the dumbest excuse for saying something you shouldn’t have said that I’ve ever heard. I mean, I’d almost rather he rolled out the old “misquoted” or “taken out of context” excuses. I honestly don’t even know what that means.

Then again, since I’m confused through words there maybe I just proved the point.

Regardless, I don’t know how you can dismiss the possibility that he’ll be a problem this season. Even if you have faith in Jacobs’ ability to keep his emotions in check, he just popped off after a PRESEASON game. What will happen in the regular season when he gets 7-10 carries and Bradshaw gets 20? What will happen if, in his few carries, he’s as ineffective as he so often was last year? If you don’t think he’ll melt under the most benign questioning then you’ve never seen or heard Jacobs when dealing with the media. You could ask him “How you doing?” and get an angry, defensive response.

Now, I’m not saying he will be a problem, mind you. Tom Coughlin has a way of keeping his players in check. And there comes a point – sort of like with Osi this offseason – where his back-and-forth ramblings become like background noise and not even the tabloid headline writers will care. But it’s certainly a possibility that must – and will be – watched.

As for how long Bradshaw’s leash is? I’d say not long. I think what Jacobs failed to realize before popping off is that the roles of the two backs may very well be interchangeable. It could be a case of who is hot, who is performing best at the time, or who is more effective against a particular defense. Yes, Bradshaw is the No. 1 right now. But it’s possible that Jacobs is more of a 1A than a 2. And with a hot start, he could end up being 1 again.

Keefe: I have seen nearly every snap Eli Manning has taken since becoming the Giants starter, though you have me beat since you have actually seen every snap he has taken.

I am a big Eli fan, and it bothers me when he doesn’t get the credit from those outside of the area that I think he deserves. Then again, the national media tends to the follow the hot hand and without a playoff win since XLII, Eli has sort of taken a backseat to some of the other emerging quarterbacks in the league.

It’s safe to say that you know Eli better than any member of the media, and in your book, Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback, you detail the maturation process Eli went through from being the No. 1 pick to that horrible train ride back from Baltimore to the incredible win over the Patriots. Coming off a non-playoff season in which the Giants folded like the Mets, I think it gets lost in the mix how good and how confident Eli looked last year. The last two seasons might have not resulted in championships, but I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t because of Eli.

What do you expect from Eli this year with another season of Steve Smith and a second season with Hakeem Nicks? I honestly believe the Giants have the ability to be one of the passing offenses in the game.

Vacchiano: First of all, thanks for mentioning my book – which is still a pretty interesting read on how quarterbacks are found and developed and would be a nice trip down memory lane for Giants fans yearning for the days of Super Bowl XLII (available on Amazon … here endeth the commercial). I agree with you that last year Eli took a huge leap statistically and probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves.

Here’s the thing, though: When he was struggling in his early years, but he was still managing to get the Giants to the playoffs, all his blind-faith supporters would scream at me (and whoever): It’s about the Ws. Who cares what his numbers are as long as he wins? … OK, fine. But then the opposite applies. And last year he didn’t win. No, it wasn’t his fault. On my list of Giants problems from 2009, Eli ranks about 14th. But I’ve heard time and time again that quarterbacks are judged on their ability to win and to lead teams to the playoffs, championships, etc. So in that sense I have to say that the lack of credit he gets from last year is, if not fair, at least consistent.

You and I know, though, that he was a different, more confident quarterback last year. It’s interesting, I was just talking to Archie Manning about this. The downside to last year’s struggles – especially their inability to run the ball – was that Eli was forced to throw and didn’t wilt under the pressure. He had his best statistical year. He proved that, if needed, more of the offense can be dumped on him. That’s not ideal, of course, but at this stage of his career he can take it. And he found some very dependable receivers in Smith and Nicks (and, to a lesser extent, Mario Manningham). Both of them are Pro Bowl-caliber receivers in my eyes (or at least Nicks will be).

So what do I expect? I don’t think Manning and the receivers will step back at all. I think Smith’s numbers will decrease, but only because Nicks’ numbers will grow. I expect Manning’s numbers to stay around the same. If they decrease at all it’ll only be because the Giants will want to run the ball more. If they can generate a rushing attack they’ll throw less. And probably win more.

If they win and Manning hovers around 4,000 yards will he get the credit he’s due? I suppose that depends on what you’re expecting. Unless he lights things up with 4,200-4,500 yards and 30-plus TDs – numbers I wouldn’t expect – he’s never going to be considered among the elite. Peyton, Brady, Brees will be ahead of him because the offenses they play in spotlight the QB and the passing game more. And Aaron Rodgers will leap him statistically too, I would think. Maybe Joe Flacco will do that, too.

In the eyes of the general public, Eli may never be able to get out of that second tier of QBs – just beyond the reach of the elite. Who knows, maybe that’s where he belongs? I think that second level is still pretty good. But in the end, who cares? The only thing that really matters is how much he wins.

Keefe: You’re right. It doesn’t really matter as long as the team wins, and the only way the team is going to win is if the defense from 2007 and 2008 and the first five weeks of 2009 shows up.

I am excited beyond belief for the start of football this Sunday, but I am also scared beyond belief because I just keep envisioning the loss to the Panthers at the end of last season and see that as a repeat this Sunday. Does that make me a pessimist or a realist? I don’t know. But I do know that if even a glimpse of that defense from last season shows up and I have to watch 3rd-and-12s and 3rd-and-14s converted on a consistent basis, I will be in depression.

I was a supporter of promoting within and giving the defensive coordinator job to Bill Sheridan, as I am an advocate for promoting from within in all sports, but that obviously backfired and blew up in the front office’s face. Under Perry Fewell, the defense hasn’t been anything to get excited about during the preseason games, but it’s preseason and it really means nothing. But as someone who is around the team on a daily basis, and who knows what the changes that have been made on the defensive side of the ball, what can Giants fans expect to see from the defense under a new coordinator?

Vacchiano: I don’t know if you’re a pessimist or a realist, nor do I know which you should be. But the 85 points they gave up at the end of last season should be alarming, considering there really haven’t been major changes to the defensive personnel. OK, yes, the safety corps has been dramatically upgraded and they get big points for changing defensive coordinators to a guy the players seem to respect. Maybe that’s enough. But isn’t this mostly the same front four from last year? Isn’t it the same linebacking corps, only with Keith Bulluck trying to play seven months removed from a torn ACL?

Yes, the front part of the D will be healthier and having a capable back two will be a huge help. But I can see where you’d be worried. I mean, all you had to do was watch the Baltimore game to be a little frightened. Granted, the Ravens might have the most dangerous offense in the NFL and the Giants weren’t exactly game-planning. They were also missing their top two corners. But still, didn’t it look a lot like last year with that gaping hole in the middle of the defense? And did you see the story I did last weekend on the Read & React system the Giants are going to play? The players love it, don’t get me wrong, and it might work. But it’s designed to give up underneath passes at times. And if the pass rush isn’t there to support it, it could be a disaster.

I’m not saying it will be, but those are all good reasons why you could be worried about falling into a deep, dark place.

I do think Perry Fewell will make a big difference, to be honest. Sheridan was lost and he lost the players pretty early on. That was clear. They respect Fewell and, after last year’s disaster, they’ve forced themselves to respect him, too. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean that they basically decided “No more dissension. Whatever he says goes.” That’s how they got the whole Osi situation under control. If nothing else, Fewell brings an outside set of eyes to look at the problem and a new approach to doing things. Since the old approach stunk, that can’t help but help.

So what do I expect? If everyone stays healthy – a big if – I think they’ll generate a better pass rush, but probably not as good as what they had in 2007. I don’t think the talent is the same and not having a Hall of Famer on one end (not to mention a younger, healthier Osi Umenyiora on the other) is a big part of that. I love Justin Tuck, but Tuck as the third DE in proved to be much more effective than Tuck as the starter (not to mention the No. 1 pass-rushing threat). With better play out of the secondary, I think this defense will be decent. But I don’t see a Top 5 unit or even a Top 10. I’d put the mark at somewhere in the top half of the league.

Keefe: Hey, as long as C.C. Brown isn’t in East Rutherford on Sunday, I think we will be OK.

I was never a Tom Coughlin supporter. Then, he went and salvaged my college career in Boston senior year with the win over the Patriots (making up for my freshman year disaster: the 2004 ALCS), so I thought I would be forever indebted to him. Then, Weeks 6 through 17 happened last year and well, the Tom Coughlin watch is back on.

There have always been odd decisions made by him (like letting Sinorice Moss be a returner over Domenik Hixon, or how he treats 1st down in the red zone or whatever the heck happened in the final minutes of that San Diego game last season), and I think that his unusual and bad decisions have outweighed his good ones during his tenure with the Giants.

No, you can never take XLII away from Coughlin and I will forever be grateful for what happened during that magical run, but would it be unfair to say that he will on the hot seat if there is any carryover from 2009, or if the Giants miss the playoffs this season?

Vacchiano: I do agree with you that he makes some odd and stubborn decisions sometimes. My gripe with Tom Coughlin as a coach – and I do think he’s a good coach – is that he’s way too rigid. He gets an idea, is convinced it will work, and will stick with it even when everyone on the planet can see that it doesn’t. His odd reluctance to use Hixon as his primary kick returner at times is one example. I see it a lot in game plans. I don’t think the Giants adjust well at halftime of games. I’m not sure they really try. I think Coughlin’s philosophy is, basically: I spend all week studying and watching film and planning and I know this stuff will work, so you want me to rip it all up after 30 bad minutes? No way. I know this will work. I’m sticking to what I concluded after all that preparation.

It’s not a terrible philosophy. It reduces the chance of panic – something that gets a lot of teams into trouble. But flexibility can be a good thing. Just look at Bill Belichick. You can go from one game to the next – sometimes one half to the next – and see two completely different approaches to everything from the Patriots.

Anyway, having said that, the bad doesn’t outweigh the good. I know the issues with Coughlin: No playoff wins in any year other than the Super Bowl year, too many second-half slides. Those are real issues. But he has had a remarkably successful tenure. Four trips to the playoffs in six years. That one magical Super Bowl run that you’re right, you can never take away from him.

Does he deserve an endless honeymoon for that? No. But I talked at length to John Mara about this before training camp and he really believes Tom Coughlin is the right man to lead this team for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that he continually has the Giants in a position to contend. No, it doesn’t always work out well in the end, but after Year 1 – in which they were contended right up until they committed to a rookie QB – Coughlin always has the Giants in the hunt. And as you saw in ’07, that’s all that matters. Get in the hunt. Then anything can happen.

So Mara doesn’t want to take a chance on someone else. He likes what Coughlin has built. That’s why he insists he’s not on the hot seat. Now, there are ways that can change, of course. A repeat of last year – the embarrassing 3-8 finish and two humiliating blowouts at the end – probably would do it. So would a 4-12-type disaster. If Mara sees Coughlin losing the players, a la 2006, that could do it, too. I think this team is too talented for any of that, though. So let’s assume a mild disappointment for the sake of argument – 8-8- or 7-9 and no playoffs. No embarrassment, just erratic play, reasonably close game, but not quite good enough. If that happens, no, I don’t think Mara would fire his coach. His GM? Maybe. But not his coach.

Keefe: Now that we have sorted through the major story lines of the preseason, I guess the only thing left to talk about is the expectations of the 2010 Giants.

From Super Bowl champions, to divisional round losers to an 8-8 team, the Giants have gradually declined each season since their championship. However, I think the Giants will rebound this season and pull it all together. At least that’s what I am telling myself.

In what will be the hardest the division has been maybe ever, now that the Redskins have a real QB to make all four teams true contenders, I still think the Giants can win the division and reach the postseason, though I will take a wild card berth as well.

I’m going to keep it reasonable and say 10-6 for the Giants this season.

Vacchiano: It’s reasonable. I don’t agree, but it’s certainly not an out-there prediction. I think the Giants certainly have the talent to go 10-6 and win the division. But they also have enough issues and injury problems to sink to 6-10. I suppose that thinking is how I came up with my prediction of 8-8. Right down the middle. No guts and little glory for me.

The truth is I just don’t have a great feel for how this season will go for this team because of all those questions. OK, forget the injuries for a moment. If they happen like last year I think we can all agree they’re screwed. But let’s say they’re healthy. Are we really sure that the running game will return to its 2008 level? Was the decline of the offensive line last year all injury related? Was Brandon Jacobs’ decline all because of his knee? Can Ahmad Bradshaw really be a No. 1 back? And what about the pass rush that went MIA last year? Was that all because guys were banged up? Or is the truth that it just really hasn’t been the same since Michael Strahan – a Hall of Famer – was there and Osi Umenyiora was in his prime?

If the answers to those questions and the others – Can they get by with just two TEs? Is Kenny Phillips really back? What about the rookie punter and the sketchy return game? — are all positive, then I’d sign up for 10-11 wins and a run at the NFC East championship. But I find it hard to believe all of that will be answered positively. I think they’re too good to endure another disaster. But I think they’re about to undergo some transition, definitely on the offensive line, possibly at running back, and maybe soon on the defensive line as well. I think that puts them in an iffy area for this season where things could go either way.

So, again, I climbed way out on the limb and said 8-8.

Follow Neil on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NeilKeefe

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