Ralph Vacchiano has been the Giants' beat writer at the Daily News since 2001. He also covered the Giants from 1993-97 for the North Jersey Herald & News before joining the NYDN for temporary duty as a hockey writer (Islanders and Devils). The Long Island native began covering the NFL in 1991 after graduating from Syracuse University. Ralph covers the Giants every day at The Blue Screen, and he was nice enough to sit down with me this week and answer some questions for Big Blue View.
Ralph also authored the book Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback, which he also talks about with us.
Ralph thanks for taking the time to talk with us on a very busy week.
1. Ralph, Have the Giants now re-established themselves as the best team in the NFL?
I think so. I haven't seen them all, but I find it hard to believe there's a team out there as good and as deep and as motivated as they are. They have everything you're looking for in a team right now. An outstanding defense, a dominant offensive line, a powerful running game, a quarterback who can get the job done in a big spot, speedy receivers and good possession receivers, a good pass-catching tight end, pass rushers, cover corners, excellent special teams ... That's not to say there aren't flaws, but they are built for playoff success and when they're playing at their best they have the tools to beat anybody. Who else are even the contenders? The best teams in the AFC are Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, probably Indianapolis. The Giants beat two of those teams. The Colts don't have the defense or run game that the Giants do. And Tennessee doesn't have the quarterback or passing game to match the Giants. In the NFC, the Giants have beaten everyone of significance. Now, they could certainly still lose in the playoffs or the Super Bowl. Like I said, they're not without their flaws. But if I were ranking the teams based on their talent and how they've played this season, yes, I'd put the Giants at No. 1. I wasn't so sure they were still there, but the resiliency they showed against Carolina proved to me they haven't lost a thing.
2. Ralph, now that home field is all locked up, the Minnesota game is meaningless. How will the Giants approach this game?
Very, very carefully. I know Tom Coughlin is all about playing to win. He believes in momentum and the integrity of the game and for both of those reasons you won't see him just bench everybody and give it a half-effort. But he's not a stupid man, either. There are other factors involved. For one thing, there are many key players who are hurting who he needs for the playoffs. Now, I have a hunch they'll all play -- and that includes Brandon Jacobs if his knee is OK -- but I don't think they'll play much. And I do think he'll start pulling starters as much as he can in the second half, including Eli Manning. He might have done it last year, too, if the game was relatively decided in the third quarter. But last year was different because the Giants were playing an undefeated team and they needed a feel-good performance before the playoffs. The Giants don't need that this year. They feel pretty good after beating Carolina.
There's another factor to consider, too. In three weeks it's very possible that the Giants will face the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round of the playoffs. So if you're the coaches, how much do you want to show them in this game? It means nothing to the Giants, so why expose how you'd game plan for Adrian Peterson, where your blitz is coming from, that great new trick pass play you're working on. Yes, you want to win, but you'd also like to give the Vikings very little film to be able to study if you face them in a few weeks. That has to be factored in, too.
So, like I said, they will be careful on all fronts. They don't want to get anyone hurt. And they don't want to lose their edge.
3. The last 3 weeks, the Giants seem to be very vulnerable at linebacker. Do you see that as their biggest weakness?
Yes. And it's not necessarily because of the players on the first team -- though for years I've wanted them to find themselves a game-changer at that position. It's because of the depth. Already they've got a middle linebacker (Chase Blackburn) playing the weak side and I don't know what happens if anyone else gets hurt. Bryan Kehl looks like he's going to be a player, but he's a rookie and who knows how he'll hold up during the playoffs if he has to play extensively? Gerris Wilkinson is always hurt, and when he's been in the lineup it's not like he's been overwhelming anyone with his talent and potential. Zak DeOssie is still a complete unknown. They picked Edmond Miles off the scrap heap. So yes, the starting three have been vulnerable lately. But it's the guys behind them that should really have us worried.
4. The Giants locked up Corey Webster last week with a long contract extension. Any chance they do the same with Brandon Jacobs before the end of the season? And a follow up to that question: After missing 5 games last year, and 2 games so far this year, are the Giants concerned with signing him to a long-term deal?
From what I'm told, there's no chance of a deal before the end of the season. I've heard there have hardly been any talks at all -- or at least any substantive talks with any progress. The Giants seemed to really want to wait and see if he could make it through the season healthy, and once it looked like he was on his way to that Jacobs wanted to wait until he was closer to free agency when his bargaining power would be higher. They'll have a few weeks in February to talk, and I'm sure they will. The Giants want Jacobs and Jacobs wants to stay. But his price tag is huge at the moment, and it's only going to get higher the closer we get to early March. The Giants love him and they understand how unique he is, but how high are they willing to go with a player who has had so many injuries the last couple of years? That's a good question. They are definitely concerned because there's no way around it: He's injury prone. He's a big, physical guy who likes contact and plays hard and is going to get hurt. It's not that they don't feel like he's worth $7, 8, 9 million per year. It's that they're worried that if they give him that much over five or six years, he'll get hurt and they'll have a lot of money committed to a player not in the lineup. Yes, I suppose that's a worry for every player. But for him the risk seems to be even greater because of the way he is and the way he plays.
5. Looking ahead, what areas do you think the Giants need to focus on in the off season?
That's an interesting question, because it depends on a lot of factors. Just looking at their roster as it is now, I'd definitely say linebacker. They need depth and I'd really, really like to see them find a true impact player at that spot. I like what Antonio Pierce does for them, but I don't sense that anyone is changing up their game plan because of him. That would be my No. 1 need, I think -- again, based on their current roster -- and No. 2 would probably be a tackle. They have not been good at finding and developing a young tackle the last few years. Guy Whimper never quite made it, and it's starting to look like Adam Koets won't, either.
But, as you know, there are other factors to consider. For example, can they sign both Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward? Or can they even sign one of them? I assume they'll sign one of them, and that Ahmad Bradshaw will become the No. 2 back. If not, obviously, running back becomes a top priority. But I think if they don't bring both back, they'll still at least have to draft another young running back. And the other big factor is: What do they do with Plaxico Burress? I don't believe they'll be bringing him back next year (and even if they do, you've got to assume he'll be suspended for the first four games of the season, at least, for violating the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy). I think they've got an array of good receivers, but remember, Amani Toomer is a free agent and 34. They need to find themselves a true, No. 1 receiver. Preferably a big, physical guy, too. I think there will be several intriguing options available on the free-agent market. So if they do choose not to bring back Plax, receiver might be their No. 1 area of concern.
Finally Ralph, you wrote a great book entitled "Eli Manning, The Making of a Quarterback". When you wrote this book, what were some of the things you were surprised to learn about Eli Manning?
First of all, thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed it. And the truth is, there was a lot I was surprised to learn when I was writing this book. That was shocking to me because I've been covering him since the day the Giants got him and I've probably written over 100 stories on him for the Daily News. I assumed I knew it all. But there were two things that surprised me the most. One isn't necessarily about him, but about the trade that brought him to New York. I learned that the trade nearly didn't happen because Wellington Mara almost nixed it just days before the draft. If anyone doesn't know that story by now they'll have to read the book to find out, but Mara's thoughts on the deal really made Ernie Accorsi think before pulling the trigger. And the other surprising thing I learned is that Eli is more emotional than I thought. He's human. That's hard to see in his press conferences and public dealings. He's so even-keeled and ... well, emotionless sometimes. But I did find a few examples where he showed another side to other people. I learned about him expressing his frustrations with his teammates and the way he was treated by the press -- something we absolutely never saw at the time. I learned about how much he was really bothered by Tiki Barber's infamous criticism two summers ago. And I learned of other instances where his emotions did manage to bubble over, privately, just a little. He has a well-earned reputation for being unflappable, for being able to handle any situation, any pressure, by just brushing it off. But the truth is, he's affected by it, just like any other human being would be -- he just works hard, for some very specific, well-thought reasons, not to let it show.
Thanks again Ralph, for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this. We look forward to you covering the Giants hopefully all the way to Tampa!
If you guys haven't picked it up already, you can get your copy of Ralph's book, "Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback", it's available here on Amazon.com