Exclusive Bluenatic Interview with Author Murray Greenberg

Friday, December 12, 2008 |

When the talk around the tailgate turns to the subject of the greatest quarterbacks in New York Giants history, the conversation invariably turns into an argument over the respective merits of Charley Conerly, Y.A. Tittle, and Phil Simms. Eli Manning, fresh off his Super Bowl MVP award, also receives some consideration, (mostly from the tailgate's more junior attendees) as does Fran Tarkenton among those die-hards who came of age in the Giants "wilderness years." But rarely, if ever, is the name Benny Friedman uttered. And that's a shame, because as biographer Murray Greenberg points out in his fascinating new book Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football, Friedman may very well have been the best of them all.

Friedman, the Giants quarterback from 1929-1931, never delivered a championship to the city of New York. But as the game's first great passer and the league's top gate attraction, Friedman's outstanding talent and popularity may have single-handedly saved both the Giants and the National Football League from financial ruin and premature extinction.

Bluenatic recently had the good fortune to conduct an interview with Greenberg over email. Here it is, unedited and in its entirety.

MW: To begin, a somewhat embarrassing disclosure: I am, by trade, a book editor. And despite being a proud graduate of the University of Michigan, a Jew, and a lifelong New York Giants fan with a historical bent, I passed on this project when it crossed my desk a few years back. I told your agent at the time that it was a terrific proposal and precisely the kind of book I'd love to read as a fan, but not one that I could ever convince my bottom-line oriented Publisher to take on. Considering how Benny Friedman, as you wrote in the book's introduction, has been "largely forgotten" by history, I can't imagine that I was the only editor to respond in such a manner. So my first question for you is, how difficult was it for you to find a home for Passing Game, and how did you manage to finally convince the good people at Public Affairs to take it on? For what it's worth, I'm glad they did.

MG: Benny Friedman's story is more than a football story. It is a human interest story -- a story of the rediscovery of a genuine American innovator and a huge celebrity in his day who had become lost over time, a man who during the Roaring Twenties revolutionized football with the forward pass while becoming a hero to the American Jewish community. I've always felt that readers would be fascinated to learn of Friedman's groundbreaking career and remarkable life. A number of publishers, perhaps concerned with Friedman's relative anonymity, declined my proposal. I'm most grateful to PublicAffairs for the opportunity to rediscover the story of the sensation that was Benny Friedman.

MW: The first thing that struck me while reading Passing Game was the incredible depth of the research. The book contains perhaps the most extensive bibliography of any sports book I've ever encountered, and it's remarkable how detailed the book is considering the lack of living sources. As a first time author, how did you go about approaching the research phase of the project, and how did you manage to pull it all together? I imagine it must have taken years.

MG: I reviewed a great deal of material and it did take several years to research and write the book. But the work gave me the opportunity to indulge my love for sports and history, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process.

MW: Though you expose some of Friedman's faults, most notably his oversized ego, it is hard for you to suppress your admiration and respect for your subject throughout the biography. That said, you are careful not to speculate too much on the cause of Friedman's exclusion from the Pro Football Hall of Fame until 2005, more than twenty years after his death, or his general lack of recognition among the greatest athletes of his era. Looking back now with a fully informed perspective, why do you think Friedman's incredible career and contributions to the evolution of football offenses have been so overlooked? After all, this is a man whom Paul Gallico once called "the greatest football player in the world," and whose record for touchdown passes in a season (20) stood for 13 years. How much of this do you think can be attributed to anti-semitism? How much to the brevity of his pro career? And how much to the perceived stain his suicide might have left on his legacy?

MG: Occasionally, for various reasons and, sometimes, for no discernible reason, people who have made important contributions in their fields and attained great celebrity become lost over time. Friedman was one such man -- perhaps due to the fact that he played so long ago, perhaps for no discernible reason. Or perhaps due to anti-Semitism, though I've not come across any hard evidence to confirm that. Nor have I come across any hard evidence that would establish that anti-Semitism kept Friedman out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. However, anti-Semitism can be subtle. Given that, and given Friedman's singular contributions to the game and his peerless ability as recognized by the writers and players of his time -- the great Red Grange called Friedman the best quarterback he ever played against -- it is not unreasonable to consider anti-Semitism as a possible factor. That said, Sid Luckman was elected in the Hall's third class.

Some Hall voters may have felt Friedman didn't play long enough, but by the standards of his time, his career wasn't overly short. I don't believe Friedman's suicide -- which in any case occurred 19 years after the Hall's first class was inducted -- was a factor.

MW: The New York Giants have had some pretty darn good quarterbacks in their history. Charley Conerly, Y.A. Tittle, Fran Tarkenton, Phil Simms, Eli Manning, etc. Where do you think Friedman ranks among them?

MG: Friedman was the greatest quarterback of his time by a huge margin and, certainly as a professional, was widely considered the greatest football player of his time, period. He was unequaled as a field general, and his statistics surpassed his contemporaries' by such wide margins -- as for example in 1929, when he led the league with 20 TD passes while the great Ernie Nevers was second with six --that it was as if he was playing a different game. And he was. As football's first great passer at a time when the forward pass was usually used only in desperate situations, he changed the way football is played, launching the game toward the modern pass-happy era and grooming the path for the great passers -- including those you mention -- who followed him. Though Friedman's tenure in New York was shorter than that of other Giant quarterbacks, he must rank very high in the team's quarterback hierarchy.

MW: In 2005, less than a month before Friedman was finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Haaretz published a list of the twenty greatest Jewish athletes of all time. Friedman did not make the list. Sid Luckman did, as did a South African cricketer and two table tennis players. Where do you think Friedman ranks in the pantheon of Jewish athletes?

MG: In answering this question I would reiterate my answer to your previous question and add that Friedman helped save a fledgling NFL that was reeling in the midst of the Depression, as fans flocked to see him display his sensational talent. And at a time of rising anti-Semitism in America, a time when many young Jews looked to sports, particularly football, to smash stereotypes and gain a place in America's cultural mainstream, Friedman was a major hero to the American Jewish community. All of this surely earns him a place high in the Jewish athlete pantheon.

MW: You mentioned in the book that both Penn State and Ohio State passed on offering Friedman a scholarship coming out of Glenville High School in Cleveland, reporting that Penn State's Glenn Killinger ultimately decided that Friedman was "too small to play." But why did Ohio State pass on the local hero? Even Michigan, for whom he would go on to become a All-American, didn't offer him a scholarship. Was it just because of his size? I don't want to harp on this unnecessarily, but do you think it's possible that anti-semitism played a role? Could that also have contributed to Friedman being buried on the bench for so long at Michigan? You wrote that in 1925, Benny was one of only two Jews on Michigan's entire varsity roster.

MG: As I said in a previous answer, anti-Semitism can be subtle, but I did not come across evidence that anti-Semitism directly impacted where Friedman did or did not attend college. In the book, I discuss Friedman's view of the role of anti-Semitism in his struggles to crack the Michigan lineup.

MW: It's unclear, from reading the book, why Friedman chose to hang up his cleats after only eight seasons. Was it truly just the lure of a coaching job, of a more secure future? Or were there other considerations as well?

Again, Friedman's career wasn't overly short for its day. That said, although Friedman's sensational play and drawing power had helped the struggling NFL stay afloat, he had reservations about its viability. Those reservations, his desire to coach, and perhaps some weariness of the wear and tear that his skills and prominence brought him -- opposing players usually saved their most physical play for him, and fans eager to see him play wouldn't tolerate his removal from games for a breather -- likely hastened his retirement.

MW: In chapter fourteen, you write about how Friedman's star power helped turn around the economic fortunes of the New York Giants, the increased gates bringing them from a $54,000 loss in 1928 to an $8,500 profit in 1929. "It is no stretch," you wrote, "to say that in 1929, the sensation that was Benny Friedman very likely saved the New York Giants from extinction." Fascinating stuff. The NFL was still a fledgling league in 1929, and it is hard to imagine the league surviving without a franchise in the nation's biggest market. So if it isn't a stretch to say that Benny Friedman saved the New York Giants, is it a stretch to say, by extension, that he also indirectly saved the National Football League?

MG: Given Friedman's importance to the Giants, his sensational skills, and his magnetic fan appeal throughout the league, I believe Friedman played a crucial role in helping the NFL survive.

MW: In chapter twenty one, you write of how Friedman was openly critical of some of the "modern" pro quarterbacks of the 1960s and seventies: guys like Namath, Bradshaw, etc. How do you think Friedman would look upon the great quarterbacks of the present day? The Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of the world? Do you think he would be pleased with how the quarterback position has evolved?

MG: Friedman, not one to hesitate to offer his views on football, had some interesting views of the evolution of the quarterback position that I discuss in the book. Regarding present-day quarterbacks, Friedman admired great passers, and admired outstanding field generalship even more. Referring to the two quarterbacks you mention, I believe Friedman would think very highly of Brady and Manning, both of who are outstanding passers as well as outstanding field generals. They are also tough and (at least until this year in Brady's case) have avoided serious injury without sacrificing toughness and intensity. Friedman believed that too many quarterbacks -- such as Joe Namath, to name one -- unnecessarily expose themselves to injury.

Who Are These Guys?

Thursday, November 20, 2008 |

With 292 points through their first ten games, the 2008 New York Giants are the highest scoring team in the National Football League. They're averaging 29.2 points per game, have twice topped 40 points and have reached the 30-point plateau in each of their last three games.

Clearly, these aren't your father's (or grandfather's) Giants.

Or are they?

The traditionally defensive-minded Giants have led the NFL in scoring only four times in their storied 83-year history and only once since 1933, when Pro Bowlers
Y.A. Tittle, Frank Gifford, Del Shofner and the 1963 Giants outscored their nearest competitor (Jim Brown and The Cleveland Browns) by 105 points. 1963 marked the end of the Giants' incredible run of six Championship Game appearances in eight years (five of which they lost), and following their crushing, season-ending 14-10 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Bears they did not return to the playoffs again for 17 years. But 1963 was a glorious year for Tittle who, in the midst of a memorable 4-year renaissance in New York shattered the single-season record for touchdown passes with 36 (a record that would stand until 1984) and at age 37 was named the league's Most Valuable Player by the Associated Press.

Outstanding quarterback play was also at the center of the Giants previous three scoring titles. Decades earlier, when the Giants led the fledgling league with 312 and 308 points in 1929 and 1930 respectively, they were led by Benny Friedman, the celebrated University of Michigan All-American and the game's first great passing quarterback. So enamored with Friedman's abilities on the football field and potential draw as a Jewish sports star in the New York market, Giants' owner Tim Mara purchased and immediately disbanded Friedman's team, the Detroit Wolverines, for $3,500 (seven times what he paid for the rights to the New York franchise four years earlier) in order to obtain him after Detroit's owners, sensing Mara's desperation, refused trade offer after trade offer.

The season before, 1928, Friedman became the only player in NFL history before or since to lead the league in both passing and rushing touchdowns. And Mara's investment paid off instantly in 1929, as Friedman's league-leading 20 touchdown passes were 14 more than Ernie Nevers, who finished second, tallied. "It is no exaggeration," wrote Friedman biographer Murray Greenberg in his new book Passing Game, "to say that Benny's 20 touchdown passes in 1929 were every bit as astounding and groundbreaking an achievement as was Babe Ruth's 60 home runs hit two years earlier."

After a contentious financial dispute with Mara, Friedman bolted for the nearby Brooklyn Dodgers in 1932. But Mara exacted a measure of revenge a year later by signing Friedman's protege, the 5'8, 179 pound fellow Michigan man (and tribesman) Harry Newman, who as a rookie in 1933 led all NFL quarterbacks in pass attempts, completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns, in addition to leading the Giants to the league's scoring title for the third time in four years.

Why the history lesson? Well, not just to show off some of what I've learned reading Greenberg's exhaustively researched book (a full review is forthcoming once I've finished it) but also to illustrate just how long it's been since the New York Giants were a true offensive powerhouse.

One scoring title in the last seventy-five years? No Pro Bowl wide receivers in forty years
(Homer Jones, inventor of the spike)? It hasn't exactly been the Greatest Show on Turf, now, has it?

It brings me no joy to also note that the Giants failed to win the championship all four times they've led the league in scoring. They lost in the Championship Game to George Halas and his Chicago Bears in 1933 (in the first ever Championship Game) and again in 1963, and they finished second (to Green Bay) in 1929 and 1930, too, back when the NFL Champion was still determined by the season-ending standings.

Additionally, you'll have to go back to 1999, when the St. Louis Rams narrowly defeated the Tennessee Titans in the Super Bowl, to find the last NFL scoring champion to also lay claim to the Lombardi Trophy. So even though the Giants do appear to have a formidable defense to match their suddenly prolific offense I wouldn't start printing up any "Back-to-Back Champion" t-shirts just yet if I were you. Just remember what happened last year. Championships aren't won in the regular season, and anything can happen when you get to the playoffs. Just ask Tom Brady.

Still, it's remarkable what this offense has been accomplishing lately. Thirteen different Giants have found the end zone so far this season (yes, even Sinorice Moss). Brandon Jacobs, arguably the most punishing runner the NFL has seen since Earl Campbell, has found it a league-leading* 11 times while trucking rival defensive backs at an alarming rate.

And even though Eli Manning has thrown for less than 200 yards in six consecutive games and Plaxico Burress, the Giants top receiver, hasn't really gotten it going, the offense (with the exception of their inexplicable stumble in Cleveland) hasn't suffered as a result. Relying instead on their league-best rushing offense (5.3 YPC), the Giants have run the ball for 200 plus yards in each of their last three games despite facing the tough defenses of both the Eagles and Ravens (#1 against the run coming in) over that stretch. This is the first time the Giants have accomplished this since 1952, Frank Gifford's rookie year.

They're on pace to finish the season with 467 points, which would easily break the team record (set in 1963) of 448. And really, it all starts with the play of the offensive line. Those guys are just going out and mashing their opponents each week. It's almost unfair, the holes they're opening up for Earth, Wind & Fire. They're the kinds of holes Gifford could run through even now, and he's 78 years old.

And all of this is just to say enjoy it while it lasts, Giants fans. Do yourselves a favor and savor this season, because you might not see another one like it for a very long time.

* Tied with Lendale White and Maurice Jones-Drew

From Zeroes to Heroes

Thursday, October 16, 2008 |

"Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills,
One man gathers what another man spills."
-- Robert Hunter, Saint Stephen

Much positive media attention has been showered upon Jerry Reese for his outstanding first draft as General Manager of the Giants, and with good reason. Seven of the eight players Reese selected in April, 2007 made significant contributions to last season's Super Bowl-winning team, and these astute selections, combined with his other roster moves, now leave the Giants with a core of young talent primed to make legitimate championship runs well into the future.

Known for years as as one of the game's shrewdest talent evaluators, Reese rose quickly through the ranks of the Giants front office, going from low-level college scout to Director of Player Personnel in less than eight years.
In his four years as DPP (2003-2006), Reese not only coordinated the Giants’ college scouting operation, but was also placed in charge of the team’s draft preparation and the running of the draft room under General Manager Ernie Accorsi.

It was in this position that Reese helped to form the team that would become the champions of the world in 2007, including the selection of "sleepers" such as Justin Tuck (3rd round, 2005), Brandon Jacobs (4th round, 2005), David Diehl (5th round, 2003) and Barry Cofield (4th round, 2006), as well as the scouting and signing of undrafted
rookie free agents James Butler (2005) and Chase Blackburn (2005). And this isn't even mentioning the 2nd round steals of Osi Umenyiora in 2003 (56th overall) and Chris Snee in 2004 (34th overall).

Needless to say, Reese has come a long way.

But beyond his outstanding and much ballyhooed 2007 draft class, his eye for undrafted talent and his ability to acquire and plug veterans into positions of need without overpaying (see: Kawika Mitchell in 2007, Danny Clark in 2008), Reese also deserves high marks for, as another blogger recently noted, finding treasure in other teams' trash.

Consider if you will that Reese signed all of the above-pictured players (Madison Hedgecock, Domenik Hixon, Dave Tollefson and Derrick Ward) either off waivers or off the practice squads of other NFL teams. These players, who have all made significant contributions for the Giants over the past two years, were each considered expendable by seemingly talent-depleted teams such as the Rams (Hedgecock), Raiders (Tollefson) Jets (Ward), and Broncos (Hixon).

Reese saw something in these players that the other clubs couldn't, and through their stellar play he has been rewarded for his prescience.

* * * * *

With all due respect to fan favorites Jim Finn and Charles Way, Madison Hedgecock is the best blocking fullback the Giants have had since Maurice Carthon. In fact, he might be even better. His blocking was absolutely crucial to the success of the Giants running game in 2007 and a big reason why Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw (or Earth, Wind and Fire, if you prefer) are combining to average nearly 6.6 yards per carry thus far in 2008. An absolutely obscene number.

Hedgecock, a converted defensive lineman out of the University of North Carolina, was originally a 7th round (251st pick overall) draft choice of the Rams in 2005. The Rams waived him on Sept. 11, 2007, choosing instead to go with Brian Leonard, a 2nd round pick out of Rutgers they believed (incorrectly, it turns out) was the superior talent at fullback.

The always alert and opportunistic Reese claimed Hedgecock off waivers the very next day and the Giants immediately plugged him in as their starting fullback.
A year and a half later, Leonard is on Injured Reserve for the 1-4 Rams while Hedgecock is playing at a Pro Bowl level, clearing the way for the Giants gifted trio of runners.

I wonder what Steven Jackson,
the Rams' franchise running back, thinks of that brilliant personnel move now?

* * * * *

A converted safety out of the University of Akron, Wide Receiver Domenik Hixon was originally a 4th round (130th pick overall) draft choice of the Denver Broncos in 2006. He spent the entire 2006 season on the Broncos' reserve/non-football injury list with a foot injury and was waived by the Broncos on Oct. 2, 2007, just a few weeks after his special teams collision with Buffalo's Kevin Everett left Everett temporarily paralyzed.

As was the case with Hedgecock, Reese claimed Hixon off waivers the very next day. Hixon went on to play mostly on special teams for the Giants in 2007, enjoying some success and returning a kickoff for a touchdown in the Giants' regular season finale against New England. But it was Hixon's critical recovery of a R.W. McQuarters fumble
on a punt return in the NFC Championship Game in frigid Green Bay that proved his true worth in the 2007 season.

In 2008, Hixon is proving that he can contribute to the Giants offense as well. Subbing for a suspended Plaxico Burress, Hixon hauled in 4 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown in the first half against Seattle on October 5th, before exiting the game with a concussion. He also had one rush (an end around) that went for 15 yards. Through five games, Hixon has 11 catches for 197 yards and that one touchdown, and is now seeing the field with regularity when the Giants decide to spread the field with a four wide receiver formation. His stellar play (which began with a terrific preseason) has made it difficult for Sinorice Moss and Mario Manningham to get on the field, as Hixon has passed them both on the wide receiver depth chart.

What's perhaps most amazing about Hixon's emergence in New York is the knowledge that he came from Denver, where Head Coach/GM Mike Shanahan is regarded as being one of the game's best evaluators of talent. With wideouts like Brandon Marshall, Javon Walker and Brandon Stokely on the Broncos roster last season it's clear that there wasn't much room for Hixon, but still it's curious that a guy like Shanahan would let someone of Hixon's obvious physical gifts go for nothing. But his loss is the Giants gain, and Reese, Coughlin & Co. are happy to have him.

Who knows? Maybe he's got another one of these in his bag of tricks.

* * * * *

Originally a 7th round (253rd pick overall) draft choice of the Green Bay Packers in 2006, reserve defensive end Dave Tollefson was waived by the Packers on Sept. 2, 2006 and then signed to the Packers’ practice squad a few days later. The Oakland Raiders signed him off of the Packers practice squad in January of 2007, but waived him at the beginning of the season and, like the Packers, signed him to their practice squad. A month later, Reese signed Tollefson away from Oakland, adding more pass-rushing depth to what was already a formidable rotation.

While at this stage in his development Tollefson is just a reserve player who isn't always activated on Sundays, he has proven himself to be a valuable addition when called upon. As I wrote in an earlier blog post here at Bluenatic, Tollefson
showed flashes in limited action last season, impressing the Giants coaches with his play down the stretch against both Tampa Bay and Dallas in the playoffs.

"He affected (Tony) Romo on one play and on another play he made a great effort to prevent a first down," Giants defensive line coach Mike Waufle told Mike Garafolo of the Newark Star-Ledger. "He was effective in the fourth quarter in that game."

Tollefson is still a work in progress and struggles at times against the run and against the better left tackles in the league, but he's got a knack for getting to the quarterback and has a motor that won't quit. And though he's been inactive the past few weeks, Giants fans can certainly expect to see him contribute at some point this season.

And the Raiders? They could certainly use a pass rusher or two.

* * * * *

While Reese can't get 100% of the credit for acquiring Derrick Ward (Accorsi was still GM at the time), his signing may well be the Giants' shrewdest scrap-heap acquisition of them all.

Originally a 7th round (235th pick overall) draft choice of the New York Jets in 2004, Ward was w
aived and then signed to the Jets practice squad before the 2004 season opener. A month later, the Giants signed him.

Despite a promising 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Washington that first season, Ward was mostly an afterthought in the Giants offense for his first three seasons in blue, as he sat buried on the depth chart behind star running back Tiki Barber and his lesser-light backups, Ron Dayne, Mike Cloud (remember him?), and later the beastly Brandon Jacobs. In fact, Ward had zero rushing attempts in both 2004 and 2006 and only 35 in 2005. But Ward bided his time, practiced hard, hit the weight room, and when he finally got an opportunity to show what he could do in 2007, he played phenomenally well.

Last year, Ward was a revelation filling-in for the banged-up Jacobs (602 yards in 8 games), and was enjoying his greatest game as a pro (154 yards and a score) against Chicago in early December when a broken fibula ended his season.

But through five games this season, Ward leads all NFL running backs in yards per carry with an astounding 7.4. He (Wind) has proven to be the perfect complement to Jacobs (Earth) and Ahmad Bradshaw (Fire), as the Giants boast the league's top rushing offense.

Ward is a huge part of that, and he's earned every accolade he gets. While he's still not the starter, he is a key cog in the Giants offensive machine and with free agency looming in 2009, there's an excellent chance that he'll be starting for someone else (and getting paid for it) next season.

And the Jets? They're still searching for an adequate replacement for Curtis Martin. Since Martin's retirement after the 2005 season, the Jets backfield has been a revolving door of coulda beens, never wases, and if onlys, including Cedric Houston, Derrick Blaylock, Kevan Barlow, Leon Washington and the sometimes brilliant yet maddeningly inconsistent Thomas Jones.

You don't think they could use a guy averaging 7.4 yards a game this season?

* * * * *

Though it's been said a billion times, it bears repeating here: scouting is an imprecise science. One man's trash is another man's treasure. One man gathers what another man spills. Add your own cliche if you care to.

But make no mistake: Jerry Reese knows how to find talent, and Tom Coughlin knows how to utilize it. So don't be surprised if reserve tight end Darcy Johnson (UDFA, 2006) makes an impact at some point this season, or if guard/tackle Kevin Boothe (waived by Oakland, 2007) excels subbing in for an injured lineman. And next year, when Derrick Ward is tearing it up for someone else, don't be surprised when all of a sudden Danny Ware (waived by Jets, 2007) sees some carries and shows himself to be a player of considerable ability.

Don't be surprised because Jerry Reese won't be surprised. He knew what he had in those kids all along.

Exclusive Interview with Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News

Thursday, October 2, 2008 |

For a guy who's much more used to asking questions than answering them, New York Daily News Giants beat reporter Ralph Vacchiano sure has been granting a lot of interviews lately. In addition to dozens of recent radio appearances, he's talked to G-Men HQ, My Team Rivals and Gelf magazine in the past few weeks alone, and his celebrity appears to be growing exponentially.

Perhaps it has something to do with the recent release of his first book, Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback, an outstanding book which Sports Illustrated's Peter King called "a must-read for Giants fans."

Perhaps it's because Ralph has emerged as a breakout television star of the highest order.

Or maybe it's just because he pens what is by far the finest Giants-specific blog on the internet (this one included).

Our colleagues at The Sports Hernia Blog have their own theory, as well.

But whichever the reason for Ralph's sudden ascent into media super-duper-stardom, we here at Bluenatic were mighty pleased when he agreed to grant our little blog an interview of its very own.

Here it is, unedited in its entirety.


MW: I understand that you grew up a Giants fan in Oakdale, L.I. Who were your favorite Giants players as a kid? Are there any specific memories of Giants fandom that stick out to you from your youth?

RV: Probably the biggest memories are more personal than they are specific to the team. I recall watching the games with my dad, with him laying on the floor in front of the TV and me either leaning on him or sitting over on the couch. I was a fan of all sports, but I was way more into baseball (Mets) and hockey (Islanders) when I was growing up. I enjoyed watching football when I was real young, and I think I may have had a Steelers jersey at one point. But I didn’t become a serious football fan until I was in my teens. And of course, that coincided with the Giants’ revival and the arrival of Phil Simms and LT, who in turn became my two favorite players. Those teams were so great, and it was in my formative years as a fan, so there was almost no way I could avoid rooting for the Giants. Of course, it helped that my dad was a long-time Giants fan, too.

I suppose I should mention one other specific memory, which sort of makes me a footnote to a footnote in Giants history. I was in the marching band when I attended Connetquot High School out on Long Island and we were selected to play the national anthem and perform the halftime show at the Giants’ final game of the 1986 regular season – a rollicking, 55-24 win over the Green Bay Packers that sent them on to the postseason and, of course, their first Super Bowl championship. That was my first Giants Stadium experience, sitting on metal bleachers in the end zone, freezing my butt off in a very dorky band uniform. It’s strange. The contributions of the Connetquot Thunderbird Marching Band are rarely mentioned when the stories of the ’86 team are told.

MW: You attended the famed S.I. Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University, the same school which produced Marv Albert, Bob Costas, Mike Tirico, Len Berman, Sean McDonough, Dick Stockton and many others. At what age did you know that you wanted to be a sportswriter? And how did your experience at Newhouse help shape you into the journalist you are today? I'll be kind enough not to solicit your opinion of Greg Robinson's Orangemen this season.

RV: Thanks. And it’s for the best because my opinion of Greg Robinson’s Orangemen and the current state of the Syracuse football program are probably unprintable, even on the internet.

I’m not sure how old I was when I gave up on my ill-fated dream of playing centerfield for the Mets and realized that maybe I should be writing about sports instead. I have a vague memory of starting to write my first book when I was in sixth grade. Really. It was about hockey and I’m pretty sure all the characters were named after my sixth-grade classmates. I’m also pretty sure I never got past the first two pages. I also know that I started writing for newspapers in seventh grade, when I joined the staff of the Oakdale-Bohemia Junior High School “Penpoint”. Probably by then I knew that I really sucked as an athlete, but I knew I could write. I don’t ever recall wanting to do anything else, so I guess my desire to be a sportswriter goes back that far.

As for my experience at Newhouse, I’m not sure this is an opinion that’s going to get me the alumni club’s Man of the Year Award, but I left Syracuse way more impressed with the student newspaper than I was with the school. I definitely learned some things in my classes, and obviously education is invaluable. But I’d say 90% of what I learned about being a sportswriter, I learned from working at The Daily Orange, which I’m pretty sure is the only completely student-run daily newspaper in the country. Sitting in a class and learning how to write a lead or avoid a cliché is nothing compared to actually doing it. You can’t teach someone to be creative. You can’t discuss with them techniques for hitting tight deadlines, or cutting 300 words out of your story at midnight. You have to do all those things. A lot of it is trial and error. By working every day at “The D.O.” I found my voice and my rhythm in ways that the brilliant and well-intentioned professors at Newhouse never could have helped me do. I don’t mean to disparage the school or the people that teach there. But if you’re a writer, you can’t just sit in a classroom and learn about writing. You have to write. And thanks to The D.O., that’s what Syracuse allowed me to do.

MW: When you became the beat reporter for the Giants, did you find it difficult to separate the fan in you from the objective journalist you were trained to be? Is this something you still struggle with at times? If so, what was the experience of Super Bowl XLII like for you? Was there at least a little bit of cheering in the press box? And is there ever a situation in which it's appropriate for a beat reporter to act like a fan?

RV: I don’t think I ever really struggled with it, and it shouldn’t be difficult if you’re good at your job and professional about it. Plus, I’ve never thought being a fan was necessarily a bad thing. No, you can’t be a true fanatic and wear Giants clothing into the locker room, or stand up and cheer in the press box or high five the players. But being a Giants fan allows me to feel the joy and frustration that my readers feel, and to understand what different events and issues mean to them. I think that’s pretty important.

One of the best compliments I got in this business came at the end of my first year at the Daily News, when I was covering the Islanders – probably the least significant pro sports beat at the paper. My boss told me “You cover this team like you think it’s the Yankees.” His point was that I worked hard at it and made it seem important, even though in the big picture it probably wasn’t. That’s because I was an Islanders fan. Every win and loss was meaningful to me. Every little story line was significant to me. So I’d fight to get them in the paper because I knew the little stuff meant something to Islanders fans. And I think my readers appreciated that. In the same way, I don’t think I was a very good Devils beat writer for my three years on that beat, because I was completely unaffected by what the Devils did. When they won the Stanley Cup, I was excited to be covering it and I obviously knew it was important, but I didn’t feel the joy the way their fans did.

Now that I’m on the Giants, I really do totally relate to what Giants fans feel. I may not agree with them all the time (and certainly vice versa), but being a fan gives me a look at the perspective of my readers. And it definitely helped with the coverage of the whole Super Bowl XLII run. I knew the emotions Giants fans were feeling. I knew the frustrations from previous seasons, the doubts they had in Eli Manning and the team, the passion and excitement and pride they felt in the defense. It was probably very subtle, but I think my stories reflected that understanding.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get to experience any of that directly during the Super Bowl run. I’ve said many times before that I’m jealous of my Giants fans friends, who got to simply be fans during that wild, unexpected ride. I couldn’t do that. I had to work. I had to be focused on work. Sure, I marveled at what was happening and felt my nerves tingle occasionally. But my adrenaline couldn’t be channeled to a celebration. It had to be channeled towards the business at hand. So no, there was not even a little bit of cheering in the press box for me. As the final minutes of Super Bowl XLII was winding down and Giants fans were jumping out of the edge of their seats, I was simultaneously writing two game stories – one if the Giants came back and held on to win, and one if they didn’t. And then I was just trying to make sure I didn’t send in the wrong one.

MW: In his new book, A Team To Believe In, coach Coughlin wrote that prior to the 2007 season he held private, one-on-one meetings with various local beat reporters, in an effort to improve his relationship with the media. He mentions Neil Best of Newsday by name, but not the other reporters. Were you one of the reporters who met with Coughlin? If so, what was that meeting like? Was he as intense as one might imagine? And did the meeting have any effect on your professional relationship with coach Coughlin moving forward?

RV: Yes, I was one of the reporters and I thought those meetings were “off the record.” Funny, usually it’s the reporters who are accused of violating the “off the record” code (whatever that is). The meetings were strange. I really didn’t want to take part in it because they were designed to help Tom Coughlin form a better relationship with the media which, in turn, would help him keep his job. It’s not that I didn’t want him to keep his job. It’s just that, as a reporter, that should be of no interest or concern to me. My job is to cover Coughlin and his team, not to help him. If he gets fired or keeps his job, and how he does either is simply news for me to report. Reporters should stay out of the news at all costs and just report it. In this case, we were becoming part of the story.

I really believe that all the writers should have gotten together and said “No, this is not appropriate.” Because it wasn’t. Coughlin’s relationship with the press should have been irrelevant to the press. If he wanted a better one, that was up to him. It wasn’t up to me to go in and help him figure out how. However he acted, he was nothing more than a coach of a team I was covering. It should have stayed like that. Having said that, of course, I did go mostly because this is a competitive market and I didn’t want to be the only beat writer left out. It was scheduled for 30 minutes and I was there for more than an hour, and by then he had already had the discussion five or six times with others. It wasn’t tense or intense, it was an open an honest discussion. Tom did most of the talking while I was there, since he had already gotten an earful on the issues and he had responses prepared.

My only intention going in was to try to give him a better understanding of why the media was there. In his first three seasons, he treated us as a nuisance, with an alarming lack of respect, and a completely lack of understanding of our purpose. He had restricted access in every possible way and his press conferences were often nasty. I wanted to let him know that the reason we’re there and the reason we ask questions is to find out the truth and to relay the story of his team to the fans that pay his salary. If I ask him, “Why didn’t you call a pass there instead of a run?” it doesn’t mean I’m second-guessing him or calling him an idiot. It means I don’t know why he made that call, and I’m pretty sure the fans want to know, so I’m doing the responsible thing and asking. That’s my sole motivation. And I would think it’s in his best interests to have his side of the story out in the media, rather than let us make guesses all the time. I’m not sure he understood that before the meetings. That’s really our only intention every day. To get the truth. To give the readers the real story of what’s happening with the Giants. Not everything is a big conspiracy or an example of the media “trying to stir things up.” But I think that’s the way he saw us. He saw us as an invasion of his privacy. To an extent, he still does. But he’s less nasty about it.

My professional relationship with him is still the same, which is good, though there’s probably a little less of an edge to it. Now, is that because they’ve been winning or because of those meetings? I can’t really answer that. I guess we’ll know for sure the next time things are going badly.

MW: Your first book, Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback, was published recently by the good (and devastatingly handsome) people at Skyhorse Publishing. Congratulations. After having researched this book for four years and having covered every snap Eli Manning has taken as a professional quarterback, it's reasonable to assert that you now know more about him than any other journalist working today. So tell me, what's it going to take (short of another championship or an MVP-type season) for the national media to finally get on board with this kid and realize what kind of player he really is? There are a whole lot of writers out there who still aren't sold, who consider what happened back in January and February a fluke. Why do you think so many people want Eli to fail so badly?

RV: Well, first of all I disagree with the premise of your last question. But more on that in a moment. As for what he has to do to get everyone on board, I think more people are sold on him than you think. But the truth is all Eli Manning needs to win everyone over is one good, consistent season. He doesn’t need to rewrite the record books, he just needs to avoid the month-long (and longer) slumps that have often plagued him throughout his career. What he did during the Super Bowl run, even he describes that as “one good month.” In fact, he’s had better months, statistically. But they’ve always been followed not by a bad game, but by a string of bad games. Every quarterback has bad days, but Eli had a habit of stringing them together. He’d toss two interceptions and follow it with a 125-yard passing day, followed by a 39% completion day, followed by four interceptions. Then he’d have a 300-yard game, and then go back into the abyss. It was maddening to watch. Just when you started believing in him, he’d give you three reasons not to. Now this year he’s helped himself with a very strong start to the 2008 season. The real key will come when he has his first bad game. What does he do the following week? And the week after? Can he avoid the slump? If he does, and if his numbers continue to get better, everyone will start to believe.

And I don’t think that anyone wants him to fail. Maybe fans of the Redskins, Cowboys and Eagles, but if you’re talking about the media it's not about “want.” The issue has always been expectations. Because he was a Manning, because he was Accorsi’s hand-picked successor to the legends of Unitas and Elway, because he was a No. 1 pick, because the Giants traded four picks to get him, because he was in New York, because Ben Roethlisberger won a Super Bowl in his second season … because of all of that, Eli had to be great, not good, right from the start. Days after the Draft Day trade in 2004, people were already saying Eli had to win two Super Bowls to justify the trade. It’s ridiculous, but those are the standards by which he is measured. Even if you take away Super Bowl XLII, he has had a very good and very successful start to his NFL career. Unfortunately for him, for most people, it’s not good enough. And the truth is that some of those expectations are set so absurdly high that there will always be a few people that consider him a failure. My advice to everyone else is to ignore those people. The kid pulled off one of the most remarkable Super Bowl runs and Super Bowl upsets we’re likely to ever see. If that’s not enough, then your expectations really are way too high.

MW: Based on your interviews, observations and interactions with them, who would you say are the most intelligent Giants players you have covered in your twelve plus years on the beat? Conversely, which were the most, um, intellectually challenged?

RV: You know, it’s actually kind of hard to tell who the really smart ones are because most of my conversations over the years with players have centered around football. Some of them have certainly appeared to be very intelligent. Obviously Tiki Barber fancied himself to be smarter than the average football player, and that’s certainly the way he came off. Jason Sehorn was absolutely sure he was smarter than everybody. Kareem McKenzie, the current right tackle, seems to know a lot about a lot more than football. Actually, over the years, most of the offensive linemen I’ve covered have appeared to be very smart, well-rounded and well-spoken. And after researching all that goes into the quarterback position for this book, I’d have to put every quarterback that’s come through the Giants Stadium doors on the “most intelligent” list. The amount of things they have to learn and know would blow your mind.

I’m having a little trouble with this question, though, because it’s hard to separate actual intelligence from football intelligence. For example, I think Antonio Pierce has a brilliant football mind. He really understands the strategies and nuances of the game. But I have no idea how actually intelligent (whatever that means) he is. Plaxico Burress is another example. He doesn’t come off as being very smart, but he’s brilliant when it comes to breaking down and understanding opposing defenses. It’s also hard because in a locker room setting, it’s easy to mistake being soft-spoken or aloof for being dumb, which isn’t fair. Some guys are just quiet and are often unfairly labeled. I’ve pretty much done a nice job of tap-dancing around that question, haven’t I?

MW: You have taken your fair share of heat from Giants supporters over the years for some of your opinions, especially those related to former Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey. You've also taken some criticism for some of the more sensational headlines that have adorned your articles, such as the infamous "Eli the Terrible" one from last November. Beyond making the important clarification that editors, not reporters, write the headlines, how have you responded to your critics? And do their criticisms ever bother you?

RV: I have critics? I had no idea. Really, I thought everybody loved me.

Getting criticism is never fun, and anyone who tells you that they enjoy it, or even that it doesn’t bother them at all, is probably lying. But it’s part of the business and you learn to deal with it. My way of dealing with it has been to make sure I’m available to answer my critics. I answer every e-mail that I get. Sometimes it takes a while to sort through them, but everyone gets a response eventually. Even the nastiest e-mails that I get, I answer. Most of the time – but not all of the time – people seem surprised that I’ve written back, and their next e-mail is apologetic, or at least toned down. Some people are just nasty no matter what, and I give them their opportunity to rip me, but then eventually I tune them out. But I’m always happy to defend my position, explain my reasons for writing something, answer questions, or whatever. And sometimes I even concede the reader is right. Not all the time, but some of the time.

What really bothers me is the people who don’t bother to contact me. There are a lot of people that just like to talk tough on anonymous message boards and spout out things that aren’t true. Or they get angry when they don’t have the whole story. You mentioned the “Eli the Terrible” headline after last year’s Vikings game. The one that got me in the most trouble, actually, was the “Mad Plax” headline during Super Bowl week – when Plaxico Burress said he thought the Giants receivers were better than the Patriots receivers in some ways and it became front and back page news in the Daily News. Well, my story was completely fair and accurate (even Burress acknowledged that), but the headline was way too big, misleading and out of context. And not only do I not write the headlines, but I was furious about it. Anyone who bothered to e-mail me found that out.

As for my opinions on Shockey … well, I think my readers expect and appreciate my honesty. I thought he was a disruptive influence on Eli Manning, a bad guy, and what he did during the offseason (basically forcing a trade by throwing tantrums) was child-like behavior and the Giants are better off without him. I’m not going to not tell you that just so I don’t bother people. I’m going to tell you what I think. And if someone’s bothered by that, they can feel free to e-mail me and debate the point. It could even be a fun exchange. But I’m not going to shy away from that opinion if the subject comes up. And unfortunately, the subject will come up because how the Giants play without Shockey is one of the more important storylines, in my opinion, this year.

MW: As a journalist who has one foot in the print world (beat reporter) and the other in the online world (blogger), what do you make of the semi-recent clash between Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger and former Deadspin.com editor Will Leitch over the future of sports journalism and the role of blogs? Do you, like former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Marriotti, believe that print is a dying medium? Or do you believe that newspapers, in their present state, can be saved despite their limitations in what has become a true, 24-hour sports news cycle?

RV: I saw that exchange between Bissinger and Leitch, and I completely agree with the points Bissinger was trying to make. I just wish he made them in a more professional manner. If his point was that blogs too often show a lack of professionalism and dignity, by resorting to cheap shots, bad language and lots of innuendo … well, he certainly showed that he’s capable of getting down in that mud and muck, too. His point should have been that there are some extremely talented writers online who are becoming more “mainstream” (whatever that is) every day. But they do themselves a disservice when they resort to the cheap laugh or sophomoric humor instead of making an intelligent point. Sometimes those blogs and websites – including Deadspin – come off as mean-spirited, as if their entire purpose is to be nasty and embarrass someone. That’s probably why they’re so popular, but I can’t respect them when they do that. I would argue it’s pretty easy to sit in your basement and take basically anonymous shots at people when you don’t have to actually face them. Anybody can do it. And that’s being proven by the massive number of similar websites that seem to pop up all around.

The newspaper business is a struggling and changing industry, not a dying one. It was very late in adjusting to the modern world, and is only now beginning to realize what it has to do. Small newspapers are dying and the bigger ones are seeing a drop in circulation, so they’re focusing more attention on the internet. At the Daily News, we do blogs, video reports, audio reports, live chats, and whenever there’s breaking news it immediately goes up on the website and is updated several times throughout the day. It’s a ton more work for the writers (for not a dime more in pay) but those of us who are good at and care about our jobs are willing to do it. And newspapers still employ the reporters that get the news for everyone else. Kill off all the newspapers and where will Deadspin get its information? What will Jay Marriotti have to yell about on TV? The people in the Giants locker room every single day are still the newspaper reporters, and that’s true with every team and every sport. And it’s even more true in news departments, where the newspaper reporters are the ones talking to government officials, digging through records, and doing important investigative work. Without newspapers, there would be a lot less going on for people on TV and the internet to talk about. The industry definitely had to change to survive. But it’s far from dead.

MW: It's no secret that despite their denials, a lot of players read the papers. And they're not going to like everything they read. As a result, have you ever had any heated confrontations with players in the locker room, similar to the Antonio Pierce air horn or Michael Strahan donut incidents from the past few seasons? If so, please share. If not, feel free to relay the story of a particularly entertaining (or scary) confrontation you might have witnessed. Did it ever get Bonilla/Klapisch in there?

RV: Well, first of all, I was there for both of those Giants incidents and neither was close to approaching what I’m told the Bonilla-Klapisch episode was. That, apparently, was ugly and scary. The Strahan and Pierce things were also much different. Antonio Pierce was really, seemingly just trying to have some fun. Strahan was angry (by the way, it was peanut butter and jelly spewing from his mouth, not a donut), but he wasn’t physically threatening the reporter (Kelly Naqi from ESPN).

Personally, I’ve had only three times that I can recall a player getting angry with me and confronting me over something that appeared in the paper. One was a story on the poor play of the Giants’ defense that angered Strahan. It turned out that what really angered him, though, was that he was pictured with the story, which he somehow took as a sign that the story was all about him. I explained that I had no input into what picture ran with the story and that the story was fair, and that was it. Another incident was after a story I wrote at the end of Coughlin’s first tumultuous season. I interviewed a bunch of Giants about whether free agents would want to come to New York after reading and hearing all the horror stories about Coughlin and most of them said they were worried that his reputation would scare players off. The lead quote was from Amani Toomer, and the headline ended up being something like “Toomer: Nobody will play for Tom.” Amani was mad, and he was right to be mad. He was one of about five players I quoted, and that wasn’t even what he said. It was a terrible headline, but I think he eventually understood that I didn’t write the headline. The third was the famous “Mad Plax” incident. On Super Bowl media day, I asked Burress a question about how he’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind, and he ripped into my editors for that headline. I was actually pretty impressed. A lot of people don’t believe me when I say “I don’t write the headlines,” but he understood and knew who to target.

The common thread in those three instances is that while the players were angry, they were never physically threatening or obviously trying to intimidate. They were very professionally expressing their anger. And I welcomed that. In fact, I wish more players would. Much like I’d rather a reader e-mail me than post something anonymously on a fan site, I’d rather have a player confront me than privately stew about something I wrote. I’m happy to admit if I’m wrong. Really. And I might even run a correction (which is much easier to do now that I have a blog). I welcome any discussion or debate of the issues. I want to get things right, and if I don’t I should be told that I didn’t.

Oh, that reminds me, I forgot one other confrontation. It was in Tom Coughlin’s first or second training camp. I wrote a story about how, after a preseason game, Coughlin wasn’t pleased and he was more interested in the things his team did wrong in that game. The headline on the story was: "Tom Focuses On The Negative." Coughlin was mad and said something to me. I told him that writers don’t write their own headlines. He said, “A writer told me that 15 years ago. It was a lie then, and it’s a lie now.” Some people, I guess, are never going to believe me.

MW: It has been well documented here on this site that my father has held Giants season tickets since 1964. This is his 45th year. With the new stadium set to open for business in 2010, my father and countless other long-standing season ticket holders are now facing the harsh reality of exorbitant Personal Seat Licenses. In our case, we're going to have to come up with $40,000 if we want four comparable seats in the new building. Others will have to pay even more. Considering how much the Giants and Jets stand to make in naming rights, sponsorships and other new revenues generated by the new stadium, do you think that the Giants made the right decision to charge PSLs, or is this just another example of corporate greed? Sports as big business. Additionally, how do you think the Giants might have handled this situation differently if Wellington Mara was still alive?

RV: This is an enormous example of corporate greed and I think things would be much, much different if Wellington Mara were still alive. First of all, let’s call it like it is. The Giants and Jets aren’t selling PSLs to help them cover the costs of a new stadium. They’re selling PSLs to ensure that they’re going to make an enormous profit with the new stadium. They could cover the costs of construction with loans, advertising, naming rights, ticket prices, suite sales, and dozens of other revenue streams. But they wouldn’t be able to make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits by doing that. Now, it’s their right to make a profit. But they do it at the expense of people like you and your father. So loyalty – something Wellington Mara was famous for – is now gone. Greed is in. That’s fine. But like I said, let’s just call it like it is.

Having said that, I have two thoughts on this. The first is that I think PSLs are a scam and should be outlawed. It’s a ripoff for fans that you have to pay for the right to pay for tickets. Where else is that practice acceptable? You wouldn’t pay for the right to buy a car, or pay for the right to shop at a grocery store, would you? But they’re counting that you’re so emotionally tied to the Giants that you’ve got no choice. It’s not like you can say “Screw them. I’m a Jets fan now.” Sports fans are stuck, and the owners know it. So rather than thank their loyal customers, they’re going to take advantage of you instead.

My second thought is one you’re not going to like, though: It’s life. Prices go up. Way up. And just because you’ve had tickets for 45 years doesn’t mean you have a right to have them at a low cost for a 46th. It’s hard, but think of it from the perspective of someone on the waiting list who has been waiting for decades. This is the free-market system giving him a shot to finally get Giants tickets. If people are willing to pay $40,000 for two seats, why shouldn’t the Giants charge that? They’ve done their research. They know they could’ve charged $40,000 for every seat in the stadium and they still would’ve sold out. The demand is that high. And in every other business, people are allowed to charge what consumers are willing to pay. Plus, don’t you have the opportunity to move upstairs for $38,000 less? Who says you have the right to first-level seats forever? I used to sit in the Field Box at Shea all the time. Now I can barely afford the upper deck. Who knows what I’ll be able to afford when the Mets move to CitiField? But that’s life. My choice is pay it or don’t pay it. Complaining about it is pointless when plenty of people are willing to shell out unreasonable bucks.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to your plight. I think it sucks. I’m a fan, too. I pay to go to non-Giants events. I think the fan – the loyal, middle-class fan – is being constantly screwed. And because of that, I doubt our children will grow up to be sports fans like we were. When I was in high school, my friend s and I would take the train to Shea and see the Mets every Saturday they were home. Tickets were $5. How can kids today do that when the lowest-priced ticket is probably at least $20, maybe more? So I understand. It’s wrong and the owners should be ashamed of themselves for what they’re doing. I just see both sides. There’s no doubt sports fans are getting totally screwed. But really, sports owners are just catching up to the rest of the world with their screwing. It is what it is, as someone famous once said. The only way to stop it is to stop paying to go to games. And so far, fans in general haven’t been willing to take that drastic step.

An Open Letter to Giants Fans

Tuesday, September 2, 2008 |

Dear Giants fans,

Please step back from the ledge. Everything is going to be okay.

Yes, Osi Umenyiora is out for the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee and Michael Strahan isn't coming to the rescue by unretiring, but the Giants defense is going to be just fine. In fact, it's going to be better than fine. I promise.

Sure, it's never a good thing when a football team loses its two best defensive players in less than three months, especially when both players are team leaders. It's hard enough to repeat as champions in the salary cap era as it is. But now, with the loss of Umenyiora, the Giants enter the 2008 season without five of their defensive starters from the Super Bowl team (Umenyiora, Strahan, Kawika Mitchell, Reggie Torbor, and Gibril Wilson) that heroically held New England's record-setting offensive juggernaut to just fourteen points back in February. Together, those five players combined for 209 tackles, six interceptions, and twenty-six and a half sacks last season--more than half of the team's league-leading total. Their replacements, whether they be young players emerging from within the roster or newcomers acquired through the draft or free agency, are going to have a tough time matching those numbers this year. I fully concede that.

But let's not act like the Giants don't have significant depth and talent throughout the defensive roster.

The lone Pro Bowler on a championship team, it will be extremely difficult for the Giants to match Umenyiora's sack production this season. But make no mistake--Mathias Kiwanuka (pictured above mauling a middling quarterback) is a beast, folks. He's a natural pass rusher returning to his best-suited position at end, where he excelled as a rookie two seasons ago (44 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions in nine starts) after injuries to both Umenyiora and Strahan forced him into full-time action.

In addition to his outstanding pass rushing instincts, Kiwanuka has the kind of freakish athleticism that enables him to play standing up and to cover receivers (something Umenyiora and Strahan struggled with at times). These unusual physical gifts, which enabled the Giants to convert him to a linebacker last season, also make it possible for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to mix up his coverages and to disguise his blitzes, which come from everywhere. And while Kiwanuka may not be as strong as Umenyiora at the point of contact, he is, at 6'5, 265--believe it or not--bigger and heavier than him and his equal (if not his superior) in the speed department. A true sack threat coming off the edge, Kiwanuka has also not shown himself to be a liability against the run, containing plays by holding his corner ably.

"It is something that Kiwi, all of us, really, wanted," emerging star Justin Tuck told Dave Eisen of Giants.com regarding Kiwanuka's return to the defensive line, "but obviously we didn't want these circumstances for him to get back in that [meeting] room," It is a good thing for him; it is a good thing for this team. He is definitely a D lineman at heart, and hopefully he can just come back and not miss a beat."

Like their superstar forebears Umenyiora and Strahan, the largely unheralded tandem of Kiwanuka and Tuck form one of the most formidable pairs of young, pass rushing ends in the National Football League. This is precisely why the Giants inked Tuck to a five-year, thirty million dollar extension back in January--a deal which included $16 million in guaranteed money. This, several weeks before he went out and dominated the Super Bowl.

And as those of you who watched Super Bowl XLII know, Tuck is kind of a scary dude. At 6'5, 275, he is big and strong enough to line up at either end or tackle, yet quick enough to beat offensive linemen off the ball with his speed. And he's relentless in pursuit, posessing a motor that simply refuses to quit. As a key reserve the past few seasons, Tuck brought an intensity to the defense that energized the entire unit, and the Giants are confident that he will only continue to impress with starter's reps in 2008 and beyond.

This is a confidence that Tuck shares with his employers, as he has set high expectations for himself this season.

"I have individual goals like making the Pro Bowl, being an All-Pro and leading the team in sacks," Tuck told Ken Palmer of the Giant Insider. "But I’m more of a guy that sets goals as far as being the best defense, leading the league in sacks as a defensive line, things like that."

These are comments that underscore how Tuck, in only his fourth year, has already taken on--along with veterans Antonio Pierce, Fred Robbins and Sam Madison--a leadership role on the defense. And the one thing he has stressed all offseason in the interviews he's given is that he's not going to let this team rest on the accomplishments of last season.

"We really don’t put too much emphasis on what we did last year," Tuck told Palmer. "That doesn’t mean a hill of beans now. We’re looking forward to talking it one step at a time. We realize we’re going to get everybody’s best shot but we like it like that. I want to play teams that want to knock me off. And that brings the best out of me also. I think the reason why we’re going to be successful is because of our leadership, our coaching staff and because we really have a good group of guys that get it."

Considering how Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Mike Waufle like to rotate players, keeping the starters fresher late in games, it's critically important that everyone "gets" it. 

"Nobody I've played for has had a defense like this that is ever-evolving, that takes you on a journey," newly acquired veteran safety Sammy Knight told Thomas George of NFL.com. "One door of it opens to another door of possibilities. It has variety in blitzes and variety in everything it does. It's a press, it's a zone blitz, it's a man attack, with all principles in one. It's like a germ that spreads. It can be what we want it to be. We can take it again to a great place." 

One of the reasons Knight and his teammates believe they can take it to that "great place" is the Giants depth on the defensive side of the football, and the confidence the defensive coaches have placed on their valuable reserves.

Perhaps you've watched this clip a time or two over the past few months? Lord knows I have. If not, that large gentleman owning Tom Brady in the clip is Jay Alford, last year's third-round selection out of Penn State University. A seldom-used reserve defensive tackle last season, he is expected to see an increased role in the rotation behind Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins--the unit's captain--this year, using the confidence gained from his Super Bowl experience to make further strides towards improvement in his second professional season.

Also expected to make strides this season is little known end Dave Tollefson, who showed flashes in limited action after being signed off the Raiders' practice squad last October, including significant contributions down the stretch against both Tampa Bay and Dallas in the playoffs.

"He affected (Tony) Romo on one play and on another play he made a great effort to prevent a first down," Waufle told Mike Garofolo of the Newark Star-Ledger. "He was effective in the fourth quarter in that game."

If Alford and Tollefson's limited sample size concerns you, be comforted in knowing that other, more experienced reinforcements have also been brought into the fold this season, including versatile veteran Renaldo Wynn (most recently of Washington) and just released Eagles defensive end Jerome McDougle, the player who, back in 2004, gave Eli Manning his "welcome to the NFL" moment. Both players are sure to be inspired to exact a measure of revenge against their former employers--both fierce division rivals--when they face them this season.

In the back seven, the losses of Mitchell, Torbor, and Wilson will not hurt as badly as many of the national pundits have predicted in their short-sighted preseason analyses. All three players left via free agency for significantly more money than the Giants were willing to pay them, and while each played an important role last season, none were irreplaceable.

Obviously, teams never want to lose both of their outside linebackers at once, but as is the case with the defensive line, the Giants have other options at linebacker which they have confidence in. 

The jury's still out on third-year linebacker Gerris Wilkinson, but there was no way the Giants were going to pay Kawika Mitchell--a one-year stopgap last season--the $17.5 million Buffalo threw at him. Beyond that, it's time for the Giants to finally learn exactly what they have in the enigmatic former third-round pick out of Georgia Tech. Wilkinson has started only two games for the Giants in as many seasons, but enjoyed an excellent game (8 tackles) in the playoffs at Tampa starting in place of a gimpy Mitchell last year. He is also reported to be the best linebacker the Giants have in pass coverage, so it will be interesting to see how he fares against Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley on Thursday night. It remains to be seen whether or not Wilkinson can perform at a high level on a consistent basis, but the Giants coaches, including linebackers coach Bill Sheridan, appear to be high on him. A precipitous drop-off from the quality of Mitchell's play is not anticipated.

Kiwanuka's switch from linebacker to end also leaves a hole to be filled on the strong-side, where the Giants believe newly acquired veteran Danny Clark, most recently of Houston, will fit in nicely. Clark,
a seventh round draft choice of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2000, is the first former Coughlin player to rejoin him in New York. A nine-year veteran with 66 career starts under his belt, Clark has experience playing all three linebacker positions and comes to New York with a reputation for being an excellent special teams player as well. That's exactly that kind of versatility that will help him excel in Spagnuolo's ever-changing defense.

The depth behind Wilkinson and Clark may not be as strong as what the Giants will rotate up front, but Chase Blackburn and Zak DeOssie have both proven themselves to be capable backups and special teams contributors in the past. In addition to them, rookies Bryan Kehl (who had an outstanding first camp) and Jonathan Goff will also likely see action this season.

For years considered its weakest link, the Giants defensive backfield is perhaps its deepest unit heading into 2008. Losing Gibril Wilson, the team's top safety, certainly hurts, but not as much as it hurt Raiders' owner Al Davis' checkbook ($39 million over six seasons, with $16 million guaranteed). Wilson is a good player who made some big plays for the Giants during their run to the Super Bowl, but let's not kid ourselves--he is not even close to being a $39 million dollar talent. In his place, the Giants will open the season with Michael Johnson, one of their two seventh round picks from last season (Ahmad Bradshaw being the other), at free safety. The oft-maligned yet consistently solid James Butler returns as the starting strong safety.

Johnson is likely just keeping the seat warm for this year's first-round pick, the dynamic Kenny Phillips out of the University of Miami, though. The 6'2, 210 pound Phillips is the latest in an impressive line of outstanding safeties from "The U" which includes 2004 AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ed Reed and the late Sean Taylor. Judging by his performance in camp and in the preseason, Phillips looks to be an absolute steal as the 31st and final pick in the first round.

It hasn't taken Phillips long to catch the eye of his teammates and coaches, either.

"Looking at him, I definitely see a special player," safeties coach Dave Merritt told Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News. "I truly believe that he is going to be a special one. Athletically, Kenny is without a doubt one of the best I've seen. The kid has unbelievable range. He can get from the middle of the field to the sideline just like that."

“You don’t like playing against guys like that,” Plaxico Burress, the Giants' top wide receiver, told Joshua Robinson of The New York Times. “They can be in the middle of the field, the quarterback can look him off, throw to the other side of the field, and he’s right there to put his helmet under your chin or pick the football off. There’s only a few guys in the league that can do things like that." 

Instead of opening the vault to retain Wilson, the Giants went out in free agency and signed Knight as insurance against Butler and Johnson. Knight, a twelve year veteran and former Pro Bowl selection, ranks third among all active players in interceptions, having amassed 42 picks in 168 starts for New Orleans, Miami, Kansas City, and Jacksonville. He, along with veteran corners Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters, should be able to mentor the Giants young defensive backs as they step into larger roles this season.

Combined, the four safeties the Giants will bring into 2008 are slated to earn just $19.1 million over the length of their contracts, less than half of what Wilson will be earning out in Oakland. And considering how the sky appears to be the limit for young Kenny Phillips, the Giants certainly seem to have made a wise move by letting Wilson go. He was a good Giant and will be missed, but his departure is a reminder that football is a business, and that teams have to do what makes the most long-term business sense for their ball clubs.

At corner, the team boasts some legitimately quality depth this season. The playmaking Aaron Ross (last year's first-round pick)--who had three interceptions in nine starts as a rookie last season (including the Super Bowl)--returns as a full-time starter this season opposite Corey Webster, who not only resucitated his career last season but who also, through his outstanding play throughout the playoffs, is playing with as much confidence as he ever has in his three seasons in blue. If both Ross and Webster can build on their individual success of last season, they might be able to emerge as one of the best young corner tandems in the league. Go figure.

And because the NFL is a week-to-week league in which every starter is one play away from injured reserve, the Giants have solid veteran depth behind Ross and Webster as well. Sam Madison (a four-time Pro Bowler in Miami) and R.W. McQuarters enter the 2008 season with a combined 21 years of NFL experience, 51 interceptions, and both will undoubtedly see plenty of playing time this season. Rounding out the DB corps behind them are the fleet-footed yet raw Kevin Dockery and this year's second-round pick, the talented yet oft-injured Terrell Thomas from the University of Southern California.

With that kind of depth up and down the defensive roster, it's no wonder the Giants and their coaches are confident.

"We are crisper now than we were at this time last year," Madison told George. "We're in the second year with our defensive coaches and with this system. But this year's Giants defense is really up in the air. Everybody is speculating right now. For many of our young guys, this is their time. I don't know how good we are going to be or what we are going to do. But I know we won't be sitting back trying to find out. We'll be on the attack."

Amen, brother. No Osi, no Strahan, no Wilson, no Mitchell, no Torbor.... no problem! This is a defense with enough playmakers and depth to make things happen, and with Coach Spagnuolo dialing up his unique brand of blitzes and coverages, Giants fans can expect big things out of this unit again in 2008.

Like Michael Strahan told the Giants offensive lineman before they headed out for their final drive of the Super Bowl: "Believe it and it will happen." Yes, Big Blue can be great again this year, regardless of what all the "experts" are saying.

So please, Giants fans, I beg of you. Step back from the ledge. Until further notice, the Giants are world champs, and we might as well enjoy it as long as we can.