As we continue our player-by-player profiles of the 90-man roster the New York Giants will bring to training camp later this July, we have arrived at perhaps the most important piece of the Giants' puzzle. That would be quarterback Eli Manning. So, let's break down Manning's 2013 season and look ahead to what will hopefully be a better 2014.
2013 Season In Review
Ugh! Yes, for the sake of being complete we have to revisit this. Whatever reasons you want to attach to it -- injuries around him, no pass protection, no running game, receivers who couldn't run the right routes, Kevin Gilbride, all of the above -- Eli was awful in 2013. His play was unbecoming for any NFL quarterback, much less one with a pair of Super Bowl MVP trophies. You probably have the numbers memorized, but here they are just in case you need to reminded -- a pitiful 27 interceptions to only 18 touchdown passes, a 57.5 completion percentage, a 69.4 passer rating. All of those numbers were career worsts.
2014 Season Outlook
The 2014 offseason has been pile on Eli Manning time. Everybody seems to want a piece of Manning. We have seen ESPN call him the league's most overpaid player. We have seen NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt say Manning is behind Ben Roethlisberger when it comes quarterbacks from the 2004 NFL Draft class. We have seen some pundits opine that Manning, at 33, is broken beyond repair. We have seen, and Big Blue View community members have participated in, plenty of discussion that it is time for the Giants to begin laying the groundwork for life after Eli.
So, what is the truth and what can the Giants expect from Manning in 2014?
The truth, from my vantage point, is this. Manning's numbers were what they were, and there is no point in re-hashing them any further. The Giants were a bad football team for a lot of reasons in 2013, and they desperately needed their two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback to rise above the mess, to carry them on his shoulders and lead them out of the morass that poor personnel decisions and a rash of injuries left them in. Instead, Manning succumbed to the decaying structure around them. He could not rise up and toss the Giants a life raft. Rather, he went down with the ship. In fact, in the end his frustration and poor play helped sink it.
The truth is, Manning has never been a 'beautiful' quarterback. He has only completed at least 60 percent of his passes four times in a 10-year career, and he has a 58.5 career completion percentage. His career passer rating of 81.2 screams mediocrity, even though we know that when Manning is at his best he is as good as anyone.
What Manning has always been is a courageous quarterback with a tremendous will, with fearlessness, with the guts to relish the biggest situations. Despite his inconsistencies, and those times when his play will make you do your own version of the Manning Face, he has again and again been able to summon greatness when it was required. The two Super Bowls are examples, as Manning is 49-of-74 (66.2 percent) with three TDs, one interception, a 96.2 passer rating, two game-winning drives, two titles and two MVPs.
So, what is Manning today and what can we expect in 2014?
First, off he is 33. He is not 38 or 39. There should be no decline in him physically yet, no loss of arm strength or ability to read defenses. He is coming off ankle surgery, sure, but he already seems fine. He participated fully in the offseason program, so his physical condition or ability is not a concern. Manning, barring major injury, should be physically able to play for several more years.
The multi-million dollar question, on which not only the success or failure of the 2014 season but the future direction of the franchise rides, is what kind of player will Manning be going forward? Manning doesn't buy the talk that he is in decline:
"I think I have many more years ahead of me," Manning told the Daily News. "I think this year will definitely be a better year. I’m looking forward to it. All I can worry about is coming to work every day, getting better, and make sure I’m doing everything I can to make sure we have a better year.
"And I think we will."
Manning's fate, of course, is tied to how well he meshes with new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and how well he learns, and adapts to, a West-Coast based offensive scheme much different than anything he has ever played in.
"On the outside looking in I've always admired Eli. I've had some rough days versus Eli in the past but I admire him as a pro. He's a smart player, I like the way he thinks about the game and I'm excited to see him grow," McAdoo said. "We have a value system that we believe in. Humility is one of those values. Respect is another and dedication is a third. Eli is very humble. He is a guy that is very anxious and very excited to be a part of something. He didn't have the year that he wanted to have last year so we didn't talk about this but what I see is a guy who is a consummate pro and is excited to move on."
Much has been made of the idea that, while taking the worst beating and suffering through the worst performance of his career, Manning's fundamentals became something less than pristine. Maybe in part because of that, and also because the new offense requires him to do some things he has been unaccustomed to, work on those fundamentals has been a big part of Manning's offseason.
"We've spent a lot of time fundamentally throughout the spring, both footwork and everything from ball fakes, ball handling to throwing accurately to dropping back," said quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf. "There's a little bit different of footwork that we're using, some of the routes that he's used to, and we're timing it up with the receivers so there's a little bit of fundamental work but he's a veteran guy and a pro that's had success for a long time so we're not doing anything, drastic changes, but just trying to fine tune and tweak a few things."
The type of offense the Giants will be running, with shorter, quicker passes less dependent upon option routes from wide receivers, should result in an uptick in Manning's completion percentage and a downturn in his interceptions. Under Kevin Gilbride, the Giants at their best were a quick-strike offense capable of hitting the big play and piling up impressive numbers. When things didn't go well or when the Giants simply didn't have the personnel to assimilate and execute Gilbride's complex offense, bad things had a tendency to happen.
The system is different now and there should be less mis-communication, the offensive line and running game should bet better, there is potential for excellence in the receiving corps. What will it all add up to?
Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers set the precedent a season ago. After two sub-par seasons in 2011 and 2012, the guy the Giants traded for Manning back in 2004, had a great bounce-back year in 2013 with a new head coach in Mike McCoy and new offensive coordinator in Ken Whisenhunt. Rivers completed a career-best 69.5 percent of his passes in 2013, throwing for 32 touchdows with just 11 interceptions along the way.
All indications are that the Giants have given Manning a better set of tools to work with in 2014. There is no reason he shouldn't be able to follow Rivers' lead and have a big bounce-back season of his own.