An inordinate amount of attention has been paid this offseason to the quarterbacks behind Eli Manning on the New York Giants’ roster, more than in any season in recent memory. How will third-round pick Davis Webb adapt to the NFL? How quickly will he be ready to play, and how many seasons will it be before the Giants try to make him the starter? Will the No. 2 quarterback behind Manning in 2017 be Geno Smith or Josh Johnson?
Thing is, when it comes to the 2017 Giants the quarterback that matters is the 36-year-old Manning. Over the years it has been said that it really didn’t matter who was backing up Manning — if the unthinkable happened and the iron man Manning finally were to succumb to a debilitating injury the Giants were toast.
Even though the Giants have acknowledged with the drafting of Webb that a Manning-less future is coming sooner rather than later, the 2017 quarterback situation for the Giants is really no different than it’s been for the last decade.
If Manning suffers a major injury, or if age really begins to rob him of the ability to make the plays the Giants will need made, the Giants’ dreams of doing something special this season will go down the drain. Think about what happened to the Oakland Raiders last season when Derek Carr got hurt, the Arizona Cardinals a couple of years ago when they lost Carson Palmer or the Dallas Cowboys when Tony Romo got hurt and Dak Prescott was still in college. Johnson or Smith could be acceptable alternatives for a game or two, but the Giants are not winning championships with either guy. Webb might one day be a franchise quarterback who can win titles, but you’re in fantasy land if you believe he will be ready to do that in 2017.
Either Manning is healthy and still the Eli who can play his best football on the biggest stages, or the Giants aren’t going to have the season they hope to have.
Let’s examine Manning’s 2016 play in greater detail and look at what we might see in 2017 as we continue our player-by-player profiles of the Giants’ 90-man roster.
2016 Season In Review
There were a lot of things wrong with the Giants’ offense in 2016. The running game wasn’t good enough. The play of the offensive tackles left the Giants more concerned about passing the ball quickly than passing it effectively. The tight ends didn’t give the Giants, receiving or blocking. Stuck in “11” personnel with three wide receivers on the field most of the time, the Giants didn’t have three receivers who could consistently get open.
It can’t be a surprise, then, that many of Manning’s statistics from last season don’t look great. His touchdown percentage of 4.3 was the worst of his three seasons with Ben McAdoo, and below his 4.7 percent career mark. Manning’s yards gained per pass attempt (6.7) was his lowest since 2007. His adjusted yards per pass attempt of 6.4 was nearly a full yard below the 7.3 he averaged during his first two seasons in McAdoo’s offense. Manning’s yards gained per completion (10.7) was his lowest since 2006. His adjusted net yards per pass of 5.95 yards was his first mark below six yards per attempt since 2007.
Manning’s completion percentage of 63 percent was fine, one-tenth of a percentage point off his career best and he surpassed 4,000 yards passing (4,027 yards) for the sixth time in his career.
Still, the overall numbers weren’t great.
How much of this was the fault of the dysfunction around him, from personnel that wasn’t good enough to play-calling that was as boring and predictable as the guy who goes to your favorite ice cream place — the one that that has a gazillion flavors you may never have even heard of — and orders vanilla with rainbow sprinkles?
How much of the Giants’ impotence on offense was on the two-time Super Bowl MVP himself? How much of his tendency to get rid of the ball at an insanely quick rate was really caused by the pass rush, and how much by skittishness and a desire to avoid pressure that wasn’t yet there? How much of the impression that the offense only worked when it was Manning throwing to Odell Beckham Jr. was true, and how much of that was Manning forcing the ball to Beckham when he had other options? How much of the magic that brought the Giants two Super Bowl titles remains? How much has Father Time already stolen from the right arm of the guy who has been the Giants’ franchise quarterback since the middle of the 2004 season?
We can probably argue all day long about who should get what percentage of the blame for the offensive failings of 2016. There is blame for everyone, Manning included. Head coach Ben McAdoo, who also gets some of the blame, acknowledged as much when he met with media at the NFL Combine.
“I think it’s a combination. ... The offensive line, they need to play better. I agree with that. I think Eli needs to do a better job of playing with fast feet, and I think he needs to sit on that back foot in the pocket,” McAdoo said. “We’re seeing a lot of man coverage, so the receivers it’s gonna take a little time for them to get open, so everything may not be rhythmical. So he’s gotta play with fast feet, he’s gotta sit on his back foot and be ready to hitch into a throw. Things aren’t always clean in this league, but you watch film of the end zones throughout the league and you’re seeing a lot of dirty pockets.”
It’s not hard to read between the lines of that statement that McAdoo believes his veteran quarterback did not handle the pass rush well in 2016. That’s a belief backed by this tidbit from Pro Football Focus:
He wasn't blitzed often, but it made an impact when he was. pic.twitter.com/YyIFwYC4ZO— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 22, 2017
Still, McAdoo was also adamant during the offseason that he still believes Manning has good football left.
“Each and every day we all have something to prove in this business. Each and every day we have to go out and prove it,” McAdoo said. “I don't see anything from this year that says he can't play at a high level.”
2017 Season Outlook
That is general manager Jerry Reese talking about Manning’s future with the Giants.
The question of how many years that is, and when Webb will get an opportunity to become the next franchise quarterback — because it is almost certain he will get that opportunity unless he is an unmitigated disaster — is really for another time and place.
Our focus throughout our series of profiles has been on 2017. Thus, the question for us to address is whether Manning is still a championship caliber quarterback? Can he play at a high enough level that, if the Giants don’t get where they want to go, his decline is not pointed to as the thing that them back?
Pro Football Focus has never seemed to grade Manning favorably, and the graphic below might indicate that the signs of decline we are searching for actually began several years ago:
The Giants believe that Eli Manning has a lot left in the tank, but he needs to reverse this trendline for that to be the case. pic.twitter.com/cQ7st9NdGO— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 24, 2017
Maybe that’s right, maybe it isn’t. Whatever you believe about Manning as he enters his 14th season was ingrained long ago and nothing written or said now is going to change that.
“I know I have to play better,” Manning said during the spring. “I have to complete more passes, throw more touchdowns, throw less interceptions, and I am going to work to do that.”
Though there will always be those “Manning moments,” the belief here is that Manning can still play at a championship level. Maybe he has lost just a little bit off his fastball, though even that is probably debatable. He isn’t, however, the noodle-armed version of his brother, Peyton, at the end of his days with the Denver Broncos.
Give him real help, give him play makers and blockers he can trust, a running game that is respected enough to make play-action a real part of the offensive arsenal, and a play book that is diverse enough to put some guess work into what the Giants are going to do and the view here is that Manning can prove his coach and GM correct.
The Giants believe they have done that. They have added Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram to the passing attack. They have added Rhett Ellison as a blocking H-Back/tight end. They have turned the running game over to promising second-year man Paul Perkins. They believe their young offensive tackles will be better.
Do we have hard evidence those pieces will fit together? That Manning will be able to keep Father Time at bay long enough for one more special season? No. We, of course, have to wait and see how the 2017 season unfolds.
The Giants have to hope Manning can. They aren’t winning big if he can’t.