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Giants' 2014 Training Camp Preview: Eli Manning at a crossroads

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Will Manning bounce back in 2014 after a horrendous 2013 season?

Eli Manning during mini-camp
Eli Manning during mini-camp
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Does New York Giants' quarterback Eli Manning have more championship-caliber football left in him or, entering his 11th season, has he played his best football and begun to decline? Or, based on last season's career-worst performance, to crash and burn?

It really is a simple question. Yet, it is one that probably does not have an answer until we see how the 2014 season unfolds. And make no mistake, that answer is critical not only to the Giants' fortunes in 2014 but to the direction of the franchise for the five years or more.

There is something amazing about Manning. There always has been. The first post ever written for Big Blue View, way back on Feb. 19, 2007, entered into a discussion of whether or not Manning would ever be good enough to lead the Giants to a championship.

That question, of course, has been answered -- twice. The questions and discussions about Eli have never really gone away, they just change over the years. Is he elite? Is he as good as Peyton? Where does he rank mong the quarterback class from the 2004 NFL Draft? Would the Giants have won those two Super Bowls with Ben Roethlisberger or Philip Rivers at quarterback? Does he make players better, or does he need a certain talent level around him to succeed? There have always been questions about Eli. There always will be.

Entering 2014, that hasn't changed. Only now, the question is new. Was he just a victim of all of the problems around him last season or was he also deserving of a good chunk of the blame? Regardless, can he reverse the decline in his fundamentals and his decision-making that was evident as last season wore on?

Now, the question that is the real elephant in the room about Manning. What happens if he can't? What do the Giants do at the quarterback position then?

Manning has two seasons left on his six-year,$97.5 million contract. Needing money for their free-agent splurge, some wondered why the Giants didn't reach out to Manning, who carries cap hits of $20.4 million this season and $19.75 million next season, to re-negotiate.

The answer was unspoken, of course, but it is because the Giants have to be wondering the same thing everyone else is wondering. Is Eli Manning still a championship-caliber quarterback, or do the Giants need to begin laying the groundwork for a future without him?

Giants' co-owner John Mara famously called the Giants' offense "broken" after the 2013 season. Manning's career-worst 27-interception, 69.4 passer rating was part of the problem, no matter how much he was or was not to blame for the miserable offensive showing.

The Giants aggressively set out to solve that problem in the offseason, and the result is a massively overhauled coaching staff, system and personnel group around Manning. If you have followed the offseason you know how deep the change goes:

  • A new offensive coordinator, Ben McAdoo, who has brought with him a new West Coast-based system much different than what Manning spent his first 10 seasons in.
  • Several new faces, and more veteran depth, on the offensive line.
  • A new group of running backs.
  • A remodeled group of pass-catchers, both at wide receiver and tight end.

What it all adds up to is this -- the pressure being placed squarely on Manning to show that he can adapt and be part of the long-term solution. Manning has indicated that learning a new offense for the first time in 10 years has challenged him and forced him to work and study harder than he has in a long time. That can only be a good thing. Another sloppy season and you can most likely forget the idea that the Giants would extend Manning's contract. More likely, the Giants would begin too look in earnest for a new franchise quarterback to take over when Manning's contract runs out after the 2015 season, or sooner.

The Giants already have Ryan Nassib, a 2013 fourth-round pick they traded up to draft a year ago. Nassib, though, has yet to show he can trusted to be the team's backup quarterback. It is hard to imagine, at least right now, that the Giants see Nassib as a franchise-type quarterback who could eventually replace Manning. Maybe that will change down the line, but right now Nassib doesn't look like the guy who can do that.

Would the Giants use an early pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on a quarterback? If Manning doesn't bounce back in 2014 they might feel like they have to. Here is a look at the current top-rated quarterbacks in the 2015 NFL Draft class. Anyone on that list appeal to you?

The best-case scenario, and the thing that from thing vantage point seems most likely to happen, is that Manning has the bounce-back season the Giants are looking for and earns a long-term extension to lead the team for several more years. Undoubtedly, Manning's decision-making and to an extent his mechanics broke down a year ago as he grew frustrated due to the pounding he was taking and the mistakes being made by receivers. The new offense, based on many quicker throws and simpler routes, combined with work being done by McAdoo and quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf on his fundamentals, better protection and more reliable backs and receivers, should help. Mostly, if the Giants can make Manning comfortable in the pocket there is little reason to think he won't play well.

Somewhat like the situation with head coach Tom Coughlin, though, if things don't go well that puts the organization in the position of having to make a decision it would really rather not have to face yet.

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