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Eli Manning: Giants' season, future is in his hands

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Manning is coming off a career-worst season. At 33 and with an entirely new offense, can he rebound? If not, will the Giants have to begin earnestly looking for a new franchise quarterback?

Eli Manning
Eli Manning
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

There is no doubt Eli Manning is about to embark upon a critical year in his career. It is an overused axiom, but go ahead if you must and say Manning is at a career crossroads.

He is a two-time Super Bowl champion who was utterly brilliant in those two championship runs. Yet, he is also a quarterback coming off an atrocious season. You know how this goes -- a brutal league-leading and career-worst total of 27 interceptions, six lost fumbles, a career-worst beating that ended with 39 sacks and an ankle that needed to be surgically repaired, a pitiful passer rating of 69.4. We know much of that was not his fault. Too much of it, however, was. Too many forced throws, too many off-target throws with poor fundamentals, too many times when he didn't protect the ball with the pocket collapsing.

Plain and simple, too much bad play from a guy with pedigree that tells you the type of season he had in 2013 should never happen no matter what is going on around him. Manning's history tells you he should have been able to rise above the fray and at least give the Giants a fighting chance. Rather, he succumbed to the misery he was surrounded with.

What will happen in 2014? Manning is, course, quarterbacking an offense where the landscape has changed dramatically since he hobbled off the field at halftime of last year's season finale against the Washington Redskins with a high ankle sprain that eventually forced him to go under the knife.

There is a new offensive coordinator, with Ben McAdoo and his vastly different rhythm passing attack replacing the play-action vertical stretch game Manning spent 10 years in. There are new faces all around him at running back, receiver, offensive line and tight end.

How will Manning ultimately handle the transition? Will he have a resurgent season, much like Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers did when he was forced to learn a new system last season? Will we see more of the frustrated, fundamentally unsound, all-over-the-map Manning that we saw in 2013?

Carl Banks told me earlier this week that Manning, in addition to digesting the nuances of the McAdoo offense, "has to display early on that he doesn't suffer from PTSD from last years' beating."

Preseason indications on that front weren't exactly encouraging. There were still forced throws. There were times when the ball sailed high because Manning did not step into throws. There were times when he bailed out of the pocket when he didn't have to.

The Giants hope -- they have to hope -- that as an offensive line that is more talented than the one they had a year ago learns to play together the protection improves and Manning settles down, learning to trust that he will have a place in the pocket to throw from.

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, who of course has been with Manning his entire Giants career, said "I don't think there is any question" that Manning is motivated to make sure last season's performance is not repeated.

"To come back and have a good, solid year is his goal and all of our goals," Coughlin said. "He doesn't have to verbalize it to me either. I just look at his face."

The conundrum with Manning is well-known to Giants fans. The highs are as high as you can go. The lows? Well, they are pitifully low. Much lower than anyone should expect from a quarterback who has had the type of success Manning has enjoyed.

The question is simple. Can Manning still reach those highs? The answer? Not so simple.

Known for his even-keeled demeanor, Manning denied that he is more motivated this year than he has been in other seasons.

"My feeling is just going out there and trying to get some wins," Manning said on Thursday. "I definitely want to play better than I did last year, that's for sure. I am just trying to go out there and do my job."

Manning has, however, admitted at other times that things are different with a new offensive coordinator. He doesn't know every play before it is taught. He has to study more, he has to master some footwork that hasn't been required of him in the past.

Maybe he will get it. Maybe, as they have been promising, preseason is just preseason and what we saw in those five games is not a harbinger of things to come.

What, however, if it is? What if Manning doesn't get it? What if he spends the year looking, as he too often did in 2013, like a frantic, confused rookie instead of a savvy, elite, two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback?

What do the Giants do then?

Manning has two seasons left on his current contract. In an ideal world Manning plays well in 2014, shows that he can flourish in the new offense and that the Giants can believe he can continue to play at a high level into his mid- and late-30s. That would bring him a contract extension.

If Manning doesn't show signs that he can return to championship level, what then? The Giants would likely enter territory they have not been in for quite some time -- wondering who their next franchise quarterback will be.

Monday night at Ford Field in Detroit we get our first clue as to which way this will go. Right now it's anybody's guess.