When historians look back on 2014, they will see that season as the beginning of Eli Manning's renaissance period. The two-time Super Bowl MVP rose from the ashes of Kevin Gilbride's blazing self-made sarcophagus and proved that the system was broken, not the machine. Ben McAdoo's West coast offense brought new light to a period of Manning's career that had descended into turnovers and soil. The quarterback was eating dirt under Gilbride, and compensation was futile.
McAdoo installed a new offense; one based on timing and lateral separation. Eli flourished and was reborn as a reflective player content with letting the other players do the work. Forty-yard throws into double coverage were no longer a staple of the offense. Manning's numbers accelerated as he expanded his knowledge of the new scheme. There were hiccups and misfires to begin - there always is -- but those evolved and took form as the season progressed. Sure, he got help from his receivers (more on that later), but the ball didn't magically travel from the center to the pass-catcher. There was an intermediary, and a damn good one at that, but this was not an offense that simply viewed the quarterback as a middle-man -- someone to carrying out sports transactions by distributing the football to the important players - nor did it project the colossal responsibility of Gilbride's monster. McAdoo found a comfortable valley somewhere between the two, and there, he created a savior.
In 2014, Manning was close to reaching his maximum output in several categories. His 4,410 yards, his 30 touchdown passes, his 2.3 interception percentage; they were all second-best of his career, but they were accomplished without the crippling inefficiency that had plagued him in previous years. For all intents and purposes, Manning was fixed.
So, why am I worried?
In like Flynn
Manning had a superb 2014 campaign that was dogged by a poor won-loss record. Wins are not an individual player statistic (though ESPN's talking heads will tell try and convince you otherwise). The 10 losses of 2014 do not fall on the quarterback's shoulders, and while accountability is important, blame is poisonous. Manning did his part. The team and coaching let him down.
Here's hoping things turn around for 2015, but, so far, there's little to be excited about. The preseason is a beast of notorious statistical anomalies and should be treated as such, though certain things can be salvaged from the wreckage of data. Determining trends based on a small sample size is common practice and generally problematic. Think the Seahawks signing Matt Flynn to a huge contract after just two games. Treat the preseason like Flynn.
As such, I shouldn't freak out about Manning's preseason, which was effectively the opposite of Flynn's good period. During his three game streak of exhibition appearances, Manning was not the same player we saw torching defenses towards the end of 2014. In the preseason, he completed 20-of-38 pass attempts (52.6 percent) for 159 yards, zero touchdowns and one crushing interception. For 38 passes to yield just 159 yards is spectacularly unspectacular. His 4.2 yards per attempt is a huge drop from the 7.3 YPA he posted in 2014. His 52.6 completion percentage is a free fall from the 63.1 percent he managed last year.
What's going wrong here? Is it simply a case of taking it easy in the preseason? One can only hope, because last year, this was excusable. This was something we could toss aside and blame on offensive growing pains because we saw those issues extend into the regular season and correct themselves with time and experience. For 2015, if we see these issues persist; the YPA, the completion percentage, the general uncomfortability with the game; then we may see a return of the fabled Bad Eli.
I'm not thinking about it too much yet. We're going to Flynn this thing, but it's there in the back of my mind and I keep asking myself; "How big a sample size before this becomes a genuine problem?"
Protect this house
I belong to the school of thought that believes the majority of Manning's problems throughout his career stem from his compulsion to compensate. Think of any game in Manning's dumpster tape collection and you can probably see him trying to do too much, trying to make up for the difference between the other team and his team by pushing himself beyond his limits. He is prone to the most mind-boggling of errors, and those are his fault - no doubt - but his supporting cast have let him down more than the other way around. While he has had some great receivers in recent years -- Steve Smith, Victor Cruz, that rookie from LSU -- his offensive line has been a problem area.
Early in his career, and as recently as 2011, we have seen Manning survive sub-par line play and still post big numbers. Look to the last few seasons and we see a different story though. In 2013, the Giants' offensive line ranked 31st in Pro Football Focus' pass blocking efficiency metric and Manning placed 39th in QB rating (minimum 25 percent of team snaps). Both areas improved together last year, placing 11th and 15th respectively.
A large part of this concern is injuries, and the Giants' propensity to suffer them more than others. By the last game of 2013, the team were starting James Brewer, Kevin Boothe and a broken shell of the player formerly known as David Diehl. Last year was much better; Geoff Schwartz may have been the only big name to miss significant time. but already, now as we approach the season opener, the left-tackle Will Beatty is on the Physically Unable to Perform list, meaning he will miss a minimum of six weeks in 2015.
As it stands, the starting offensive line will consist of a pair of first-round picks in Ereck Flowers and Justin Pugh, second-rounder Weston Richburg at center, and two free agents on the right; Schwartz and Marshall Newhouse. The problem here is that one more injury pushes John Jerry into the lineup. A third would see either Dallas Reynolds or seventh-round rookie Bobby Hart. Realistically, this crew is two injuries away from oblivion. The Giants are unlucky with injuries. It's highly unlikely that they get through the year without seeing some unwanted faces take snaps with the starters.
Even without injuries, the line has been shaky. Admittedly, it's a Flynn-size sample, but over this preseason they ranked 23rd in PBE. Manning's QB rating tumbled too, coming in at 72nd out of 76 QBs (again, out of that 25 percent snap minimum). Causation? Maybe not. Correlation? Certainly.
Slack or scaffolding
While Manning may not have much room to breathe in the pocket, his 2015 season is poised to include a lot of help in the receiving department. Manning's safety blanket, Cruz, is returning from injury. Odell Beckham Jr. is, well, Odell Beckham Jr. He was the most talented rookie since Randy Moss and even then, there's an argument to be made that he was better. Add to this Rueben Randle - who clearly progressed late last season -- and you've got a solid trio of wide-outs.
Personnel-wise, it still gets better. The Giants head into the season with a duo of play making tight-ends in Larry Donnell and newcomer Jerome Cunningham. Both should provide an immediate impact in the pass-game and give Manning a pair of seam-splitters. Daniel Fells isn't half bad either. He's a veteran presence who knows a trick or two.
One last thing; Shane Vereen. New York added the shifty running back in free-agency and he should act as a reliable option on third downs. Expect to see him as a Darren Sproles or Danny Woodhead type in the Giants' offense with plenty of room for screens, motions and gadget plays.
It appears as if Manning's pass-catchers will generate a good deal of slack for the signal-caller. Ideally, yes they would, but the problem here is the same as the offensive-line. This team is top heavy on offense. One or two injuries could entirely derail the team.
If Beckham misses time, Cruz likely moves outside and Dwayne Harris takes the slot. Does Cruz -- coming off a knee surgery and currently dealing with a calf injury -- have the same juice as his 2011 season form? I love the guy -- he's my favorite player -- but I don't know if he can return to full strength this season. Harris is a relative unknown and could be a major regression from Cruz' explosive slot production. Even if the team kept Cruz in the slot, then they would have to put either Preston Parker or Geremy Davis on the outside. You think Manning would be okay with Randle, Parker and a less-than-full-strength Cruz? I don't.
That's just one example. You can do the same thing with pretty much any pass-catcher on this offense, whether it's Donnell pushing Fells into a starting role or Andre "Blockhands" Williams taking some of Vereen's workload; it's all a massive Jenga sculpture waiting to crumble on the unfortunate Manning.
And that's not taking into account Manning's durability. He currently has the longest active streak of games started in the league. That's no mean feat, but sooner or later, they all miss a game. Brett Favre managed to get to 297. What's Eli's magic number? If it's anywhere between 168 and 183, the Giants have a problem. It's silly to speculate as to when, but it's important to acknowledge it's a possibility. Manning is 34 years old. He isn't getting any younger.
Predicting the future
What's to come in 2015? I don't know, but my best guess isn't a happy one. I think Manning has the tools at his disposal to put together another season like 2014. I am in no way doubting his talents or those around him. What keeps me up at night is something much more frustrating. It's what makes sport worth watching. It's luck.
Manning has bet against the house many times in his career -- with mixed results. In 2013, he learned the house always wins. In 2014, Manning found a lucky penny in a rookie named Beckham. Next season is not a Red-Or-Black scenario. There are countless ways this could unfold, but the outcomes -- when I go through them in my head -- seem to favor the damned.
There are too many spinning plates for Manning to make it through this season as a successful passer. Whether it's an already leaky offensive line, a heroes-and-zeroes wide-receiver group, or his own streaky dance with the devil; it's clear that Manning is uninsurable right now. It's basic risk assessment.
Football Outsiders has a metric called Adjusted Games Lost. It charts the impact that injuries have to a given NFL team over the course of the season. Last year, the Giants were dead last with a 137.1 lost to injury. What's worrying is that, in 2013, they were also the most affected by injury with a 141.3 score. That's not good. We're playing golf here, not bowling. In fact, the Giants have ranked 22nd or worse in each of the last five seasons; a time-span that includes just one playoff qualification.
What I'm getting at is that the Giants are not a lucky, or healthy, or whatever enough team for Manning to be as successful as he was in 2014. I don't think he tops 4,000 yards. I don't think he throws for 30 touchdowns. A big part of me -- the logical risk assessment part -- thinks that he might not even play all 16 games.
Manning's career isn't finished by any means. The 2014 season was too good for that to be the case. It's simply that asking me to predict a good 2015 for Manning is like purchasing a small wooden cabin in Tornado Alley on a 50-year mortgage. At some point, your luck runs out. If you're smart enough, you'll get out before it's too late.