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Keefe To The City: Big Blue Set To Be Giant Underdogs

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

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By Neil Keefe
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The 2011 NFL season began on Thursday night, but the real season (for me at least) doesn’t begin until 4:15 on Sunday when the Giants and Redskins kick off in Washington.

With injuries taking a toll on several Giants starters and a few botched free-agent signings by the front office, the G-Men are being written off as a lost cause for this season. Very few “experts” have the Giants in the postseason and many don’t even have them putting up at least a 9-7 record. I’m the same person who was bracing for a Giants collapse weeks before it happened last year, but I’m surprisingly optimistic about the 2011 Giants.

It looks like the Giants won’t be able to suffer any other devastating injuries before Sunday, so it’s time to preview the season with the roster as currently constructed. Ralph Vacchiano, Giants beat writer for the New York Daily News, joined me for an email discussion to talk Giants football and figure out what to expect from the G-Men.

Keefe: Steve Smith is in Philadelphia. Kevin Boss is in Oakland. Osi Umenyiora just underwent knee surgery and changes his mind daily on whether or not he even wants to be a Giant and won’t be back for a few weeks. Terrell Thomas is out for the year with a torn ACL. I’m seriously scared to check your Twitter and blog for fear of finding out something else has gone terribly wrong to the Giants before the season opener.

As a Yankees fan, I have had the luxury of avoiding the emotional heartache that Mets fans have endured in recent years. I don’t want to say the Giants are exactly like the Mets since they did win a championship just four seasons ago, but I can’t help but think of the similarities over the last two seasons the beginning of this season to the Mets from 2006 to present day. You have the regular season collapse and postseason embarrassment of 2008 after the loss of Plaxico Burress situation. There’s the epic collapse of 2009 (after the 5-0 start), and the most recent collapse (this time in the final minutes of the game against the Eagles) from last season. Now the injuries are mounting, free agents have left and their division rival in Philly is as stacked as that city’s baseball team.

Now, sure everyone is 0-0 right now and the season is still a couple of weeks away from starting, but things just don’t look good for the G-Men right now, or maybe I’m worrying too much about the state of the Giants? I’m not sure what’s worse: The idea that Eli’s two security blankets are gone in Smith and Boos, or that they lost a starting cornerback and possible Pro Bowler in Thomas for the entire season. In your mind, what has been the biggest loss for the Giants during the offseason and preseason up until today?

Vacchiano: First of all, you worry too much. Really. It’s the preseason and when you think about it, the Giants still haven’t suffered the type of injury or loss that could kill their season. No doubt Terrell Thomas is important and so is Osi and so were Boss and Smith. But they still have Eli Manning. They still have two receivers that combined for 140 catches, 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. They still have two running backs that gained 2,000 yards and about 20 touchdowns. They still have Justin Tuck. Plus they get Mathias Kiwanuka back … Now, if they lose Eli Manning or maybe Hakeem Nicks or Tuck, then I’d be really worried, too. But for now, this is still the core of a pretty good team. I think.

Forget the injuries for a second. What did they lose in free agency? A receiver (Smith) who barely played half of last season. A center (Shaun O’Hara) who barely played. A guard (Rich Seubert) who probably wouldn’t have been ready until November, if then. A tight end (Boss) who caught 35 passes. Is any of that impossible to replace? And then look at the defensive injuries. Most are depth players. But at cornerback and defensive end they have first-round picks (Aaron Ross, Jason Pierre-Paul) ready to step in. How many teams can say that? Say what you want about Ross — and I’m sure many will — but he’s a first-round talent who has mostly been undone by injuries. If he’s healthy, he could be very good.

So calm down, OK?

As for what the biggest loss is, I think the one that will be felt the most is Boss, mostly because I don’t see a viable replacement. Maybe Travis Beckum will be it, eventually, but he’s not much of a blocker and he’s been very injury prone. I think the offensive line will be fine. So will the defense. And so will the receivers. But I don’t know that the tight ends will be fine. Based on the blocking I saw during the preseason and the lack of using them in the passing game, I’d be a little worried about that.

Keefe: OK, I’m calm now. But Matt Dodge is a name that makes me no longer calm and he became a Twitter favorite of mine last year the same way that the Yankees’ Boone Logan is (and rightfully so). Dodge was terrible in 2010 and there’s no denying that, though I don’t blame the Week 15 collapse against the Eagles on him since way too many things went wrong before we got to his infamous punt directed at DeSean Jackson.

Steve Weatherford’s ability to kick directionally seems to be what ultimately made the decision in a close battle for the punting job. After watching Jeff Feagles make the job look easy for so many years it was hard to watch and adapt to a rookie struggling to find any sort of consistency or groove last year. For now, at least, it looks like Coughlin made the correct decision by going with experience and keeping Weatherford.

Do you think Coughlin made the right call here? Are you surprised at how close the competition was between the two?

Vacchiano: I think Coughlin made the only call he could. Imagine if he had stuck with Dodge — who by the way had a terrific training camp and preseason and looked much improved. What would’ve happened if Dodge bobbled another snap or kicked a ball inbounds after being told to kick it out? Imagine the screams and the questions! Last year at least the Giants really had no other options. For better or worse they tied themselves to the rookie from the moment they drafted him, which was just a few hours after Jeff Feagles told them he was retiring. This year they had a ready-made option: A good, veteran kicker with a strong leg who is an expert at directional kicking and knows the Meadowlands winds. How could he go with a second-year pro who was so shaky as a rookie? It would’ve made no sense.

Of course, last year I didn’t think he could go with Dodge, but he did. I like Dodge. He’s a good kid, and I’m sure he’s going to be a good punter some day. He’s got one of the strongest legs I’ve ever seen. But putting a rookie at that position was a huge risk and you just knew it was going to come back and bite them at some point. And it was such an un-Coughlin-like move, too. He knows better. He knew he had to have a veteran in that spot. I guess he was seduced by Dodge’s leg or maybe the front office gave him no choice. I don’t know. But he went with a shaky rookie who had never been taught how to directional kick and nobody should’ve been surprised when the Eagles game happened.

But was I surprised the competition was so close? No. Not at all. I don’t know if it was really a competition. I think Weatherford was always going to win. But like I said, Dodge is going to be very good and sometimes it takes punters a little while to develop. He started to show some signs this summer.

Keefe: After calming down, the Giants lose Jonathan Goff to a torn ACL, which adds him to the list of CB Terrell Thomas (knee), LB Clint Sintim (knee), DT Marvin Austin (pec), CB Bruce Johnson (Achilles) and CB Brian Witherspoon (knee). Not to mention that Prince Amukamara (foot) and Osi Umenyiora (knee) will miss a few weeks as well.

Everyone identifies the New York Giants with defense and in the past their linebackers, but that hasn’t been the case the last few years. Now that the starting defense is falling apart without a game having been played and the team has been forced to bring in Kawika Mitchell, who has played just six games in the last two years, things aren’t exactly getting better.

I know it’s way too early to go through the schedule and try to figure out wins and losses (and nearly impossible to do so), but going off paper, which is all we can do right now, the Giants will face several good and elites offenses in the Eagles (twice), Cowboys (twice), Patriots, Saints, Packers and Jets. And while I’m actually optimistic about this season (though it doesn’t appear that way), I can’t shake the image of some of these games ending as lopsided as games in the second half of 2009 because of defensive problems. Am I wrong to think that way?

I guess what I want to know is how good can this depleted defense be in 2011, and what do you think will happen with the linebacker decision before the season opener?

Vacchiano: Yeah, well, they do say timing is everything, right?

Goff is a big loss, no doubt. I still don’t think the Giants are in a ton of trouble. They’re getting closer with every injury. But Giants fans weren’t sold on Goff to begin with and now they’re panicking because he’s out? Maybe Greg Jones will turn out to be a star, who knows? Maybe with Goff out it just means the Giants have to run more of the three-safety alignment they used last year. I still say it’s too early to panic. This isn’t the loss of Eli Manning or Justin Tuck or even Ahmad Bradshaw or Brandon Jacobs or Hakeem Nicks. … Of course, I keep saying that and the truth is that the more Goff-like players the Giants lose, the tougher their task becomes because they just don’t have much depth. I mean, keeping four rookies as backup linebackers made for a nice story, but it because a potential disaster as soon as the first starter goes down.

I don’t particularly like to go game by game through the schedule before the season starts either, because it’s usually much more about when you play them than it is who you play. They get the Cowboys twice in December, for example, and who knows what they’ll look like by then? But you’re right, on paper there are a lot of good offenses that have multiple receivers and can throw the ball. That’s what would really worry me. This defense, as good as it was statistically, had a penchant for missed tackles and late breakdowns last year. They seemed to give up an awful lot of plays in the middle of the field and some ill-timed big ones. Now you’re taking away a middle linebacker who was going to be used in nickel situations and a talented corner. They can probably survive the loss of Thomas by using three safeties. It doesn’t help that he’s gone, of course, but they might be able to get away with that. The loss of Goff creates all sorts of problems in nickel packages — something they might have to use a lot. Jones is a rookie, so using him in coverage could be tough. The worst part of Mathias Kiwanuka as a linebacker is his coverage. So in nickel situations, what do you do now? Obviously Boley plays, but there’s supposed to be a second linebacker. If you use Deon Grant as a pseudo linebacker, then who is the nickel corner/safety? Rookie Tyler Sash? Michael Coe or Joe Burnett? All of a sudden you’re handing those high-powered teams an obvious place to target on the field.

You know the old saying that you’re only as good as your weakest link? That’s how good I think the depleted defense can be. Answer the question of who that last guy is in the nickel and how well he’s going to play and I think you’ll have your answer. If he’s terrible and the Giants have to compensate, that’ll just open up holes elsewhere. I think we’re going to find out just how good Perry Fewell is in a very tough situation.

Oh, and the linebacker situation I think is pretty much set. Greg Jones will be the starter in the middle. Then next week they’ll probably sign Kawika Mitchell for some depth. They can’t do it now because any veteran on the opening day roster has his salary guaranteed for the season, according to NFL rules. So since Mitchell (or Chase Blackburn, or whomever) probably wouldn’t have helped much this week anyway, it makes more sense to bring him in on Tuesday and then he can always be cut if a better option comes along.

Keefe: I know it’s not going to be easy for the Giants to make the playoffs with the amount of injuries they have sustained without having played a single game and the way the NFC East is built. I do think the Giants will surprise people that have already written them off before Week 1 and I think they can win the division, and that’s why I have them going 10-6. Maybe I’m delusional since none of this seems very possible. But like you said, it’s impossible to predict what will happen between now and Week 17, and who’s to say the Eagles or Cowboys won’t have their own injury problems to deal with by then?

All I can hope for is that the season ends better than it did the last two years. And with the way it ended in 2009 and 2010, I will take any playoff berth in any possible way. Give me the No. 6 seed and a path to the Super Bowl built around road games. I don’t care. I just want to watch the playoffs with the Giants in it, and I’m not sure if I can emotionally and physically take another collapse that forces the “Should Tom Coughlin be fired?” discussion for weeks after the season. And despite his contract extension that takes him through the 2012 season, does Tom Coughlin have to make the postseason to be back in 2012?

Vacchiano: I actually predicted the Giants would go 9-7 and not make the playoffs, but A) I’m usually wrong, and B) I made that prediction before they lost Goff. Because it was printed in our paper on Wednesday, I also had to make it earlier than I usually like to do. That’s a long-winded way of saying I fear I may have overestimated them, but it’s too late to back down now.

I guess the best way to sum up my feelings on the Giants is this: They have enough talent to compete in the NFC East and the NFL. No, they are not a “Dream Team”. I wouldn’t put them up there right now with the Patriots or Packers or any once you’d consider in the Top tier. But a lot of NFL teams are the same, kind of grouped in that notch below. That’s where I’d put the Giants, even with all their injuries. What happens next, though, is never clear this early. Who would’ve thought the Giants would fall apart at the end like they did last year? Just like who would’ve thought the Giants were about to become a Super Bowl winner late in the 2007 season. So much of the “on paper” stuff from the preseason just doesn’t matter. It’s about what happens when the season goes on. Who gets hot? Who gets breaks in the schedule? Who stays healthy? Who unearths stars we didn’t know about before? How can you really know if the Giants defense is going to be any good until you see if Jason Pierre-Paul becomes the star everyone thinks he can be, until you know if Greg Jones is up to the task of playing middle linebacker, until you know if Aaron Ross can recapture his old form and stay healthy? And of course none of the analysis matters if Eli Manning gets hurt in Week 1.

Last year the Giants had the talent and ability to win 12 games. They won 10, totally blew the Eagles game and surely could’ve won one more somewhere along the way. They also could’ve easily lost a few, so they also had the inconsistency and enough holes to go 8-8. I don’t think their downside this year is much lower than 8-8. Barring an Eli-like injury, they have too much talent on offense and too good of a pass rush to turn into a 4- or 6-win nightmare. So I think you’re looking at 7-10 wins depending on how their cookies crumble. I suppose given all the injuries, I shouldn’t say “crumble,” so let’s just say depending on how things break … although maybe “break” isn’t such a good word either.

Their penchant for second half collapses under Coughlin definitely is concerning, especially given what their schedule looks like. But even with that, I’ll stick with 9-7 and say I think the Giants have enough talent to make a run at the playoffs, but that they’ll probably fall just short because of all their injuries, new players, and obvious holes. And no, I don’t think Tom Coughlin necessarily has to make the playoffs to be back in 2012. I think barring a disaster — like 4-6 wins — he’s probably coming back no matter what. The owners love him. They love the fact that he’s a professional, honorable man. He’s a leader they are proud of. He won them a Super Bowl. And maybe more importantly in almost every one of his seasons he’s either had them in the playoffs or in the hunt right until the end. Think about that. Every year since 2005 Giants fans have been in a playoff race. Then look back and see how many times that has happened under the previous coaches. Look around the NFL and see how many current coaches can say that. I know fans are frustrated with no playoff wins outside of the Super Bowl run and all those collapses. But really, it could be worse. Much worse. And the owners know that, too.

Jerry Reese, on the other hand … I don’t expect them to make any changes at all, barring disaster, but I can’t help but wonder if his seat will be a little warm. He spent a lot of their money over the last few years and clearly the Giants got caught in a salary cap bind this year. He mishandled the Osi Umenyiora situation and you can make a good argument that the Steve Smith situation was botched, too. Could he be forced out after a 7-9-type season? I wouldn’t count on it, but I can’t really rule it out either.

In the end, though, I guess my prediction is 9-7, no playoffs, and no big changes to the front office or coaching staff. And by the way, if they do go 9-7 with all the injuries they’ve suffered so far, it really would be a pretty good job by everyone involved, when you think about it. If I had said 6-10 for the Giants after this summer of doom and gloom, a lot of people would’ve said, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe