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Eli Manning has backing of Giants’ brass — will he justify that faith?

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The Giants have given Manning a better supporting cast, now he needs to show he can still take advantage of it

NFL: New York Giants at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Feb. 19, 2007. That is when we began arguing at Big Blue View about the viability of Eli Manning as quarterback of the New York Giants. Now, 4,145 days, two Super Bowl titles, four Pro Bowls, three coaches, and thousands upon thousands of written words later, we are still arguing about Manning and his viability.

Now, it isn’t because we don’t know if he will ever amount to anything. We know that he did, becoming a two-time Super Bowl MVP and one of the most prolific passers in NFL history. For the sake of both reference and nostalgia, here is part of what I wrote about Manning the first time I put fingertips to keyboard for this website:

I certainly have my issues with Eli, and have been aggravated to no end at times watching him. Yet, I think he will have a long and successful career at the helm of the Giants.

No, he will never be as good as his brother, Peyton, but only a handful of quarterbacks have ever reached that level -- Unitas, Montana and a couple of others.

Yes, Eli still makes too many mistakes, tends to focus in on only one receiver and turns away from the rush sometimes while throwing. Truth be told, that is the thing that worries me most. Courage in the pocket is not something that can be taught, and it is the thing I fear he may truly lack.

Yet, I think quarterback will not be the Giants biggest problem this coming season, or in the years to follow. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Eli will eventually justify Ernie Accorsi’s decision to give up so much in order to acquire him.

For what it’s worth, I think I was right. Except for that whole “courage in the pocket” thing.

Well, now we fast forward to 2018. We are no longer talking about the Accorsi decision, the trade that brought Manning to New York. We are now talking about the Dave Gettleman-Pat Shurmur decision to go all-in on the 37-year-old 15th-year quarterback, binding the Giants’ fortunes to Manning’s right arm for 2018, quite possibly 2019 and maybe even beyond that.

Let’s dive into the discussion as we have reached the Manning Moment in our series of player-by-player profiles of the Giants’ 90-man roster.

The basics

Height: 6-foot-5
Weight: 220
Position: Quarterback
Experience: 14

2017 season in review

This will be remembered mostly as ‘The Year in Which Ben McAdoo Snapped the Streak.’ After 210 consecutive regular season starts, second all-time among quarterbacks to Brett Favre, then-coach McAdoo controversially ended Manning’s streak by starting Geno Smith in a Week 14 game vs. the Oakland Raiders. The handling of, and reaction to, the move hastened the in-season firings of McAdoo and GM Jerry Reese.

Things weren’t good for Manning on the field, either.

Poll

How many touchdown passes will Eli Manning throw in 2018?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Less than 20
    (48 votes)
  • 24%
    Between 20-25
    (282 votes)
  • 42%
    Between 25-30
    (504 votes)
  • 28%
    30 or more
    (340 votes)
1174 votes total Vote Now

The Giants offense he led failed to score 30 points in a game for the second consecutive season. Manning’s 231.2 passing yards per game was his lowest since 2008. His QBR of 41.7 was the second-worst of his career. His passer rating of 80.4 was his worst since 2007. His 6.1 yards per passing attempt was a career low. For the first time in his career, he did not lead a fourth-quarter comeback.

Of course, there were plenty of extenuating circumstances. Odell Beckham Jr. played in only four games, and wasn’t completely healthy in most of those. Brandon Marshall, brought in to be the No. 2 wide receiver and a red zone threat, played only five games and was disappointing in those. Sterling Shepard played in only 11 games. Manning was sacked 31 times, the second-highest total of his career. He was sacked on 5.1 percent of his drop backs, the fourth-highest total in his career. The Giants were 26th in the NFL in rushing yards per game and 22nd in yards per rushing attempt.

How much of Manning’s poor season was due to those extenuating circumstances and how much was due to slippage in his arm strength or mobility in Year 14 of his career? It’s impossible to put a percentage on it, but the Giants are committed to finding out just how much the 37-year-old has left in the tank.

NFL: New York Giants-GM Dave Gettleman Press Conference Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

2018 outlook

The first major decision of Gettleman’s tenure as GM [with apologies to Bobby Hart] was to stand with Manning as the team’s quarterback, a choice that became public knowledge before Shurmur was hired as head coach.

Gettleman has said that he believes his film study shows that Manning’s best 2018 game, 37-of-57 for 434 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles, “was not a mirage.”

“I’ve watched Eli’s first eight years, nine years of his career and watching the games, going through them chronologically, I still saw a quarterback that knew what he was doing, had plenty of arm talent and can win games,” Gettleman said back in January.

Gettleman has admitted that “there is no ability to predict” how much time Manning has left. The drafting of Davis Webb by Jerry Reese and Kyle Lauletta by Gettleman are hedges against the inevitability that Father Time will eventually sap Manning of his ability to play quarterback effectively at the NFL level.

Ask the experts

Gettleman and Shurmur aren’t the only ones who believe that time, despite last season’s miserable results, has not yet arrived.

Mark Schofield, quarterback analyst for Inside the Pylon, and Matt Waldman of The Rookie Scouting Portfolio, both believe Manning still has plenty left. Both were guests in recent months on the ‘Locked on Giants’ podcast.

“I still believe in Eli Manning as a quarterback,” Schofield told Patricia Traina and myself. “I think he can still play this position at a pretty high level.

“I certainly believe he can still be a highly competitive quarterback at this stage in the game. That’s not just coming from the perspective of a Pats fans who was on the edge of two Super Bowls where he just drilled daggers into our hearts with incredible throws at the end. It’s because studying him last year there were times when he was let down due to injuries, due to protection problems up front but he’s still out there making some pretty impressive throws to all levels of the field.

“There’s still three, four years of Eli Manning playing at a pretty high level in front of them.”

While Waldman spends the bulk of his time studying collegiate skill players, he does also break down current NFL players. He gave a detailed perspective on why he believes Manning can be a viable quarterback for the Giants.

“I’ve certainly watched my share of Eli Manning and I can understand why the Giants are all in on Manning for the next year or two, longer if they have good signs to go even further than that,” Waldman said.

“The reason being teams are deathly afraid of not having a good quarterback. When you look at the quality of players on the offensive side of the ball, especially the skill players, you need to have rapport with a quarterback. You also feel like if you’re close, if the line is getting close to developing at a certain level you want to be able to keep that veteran as long as you can and as long as his game’s not breaking down severely.

Waldman agreed with a point I have often made, saying that the 2017 season “wasn’t a very fair way” to analyze Manning, due to the injuries and ineptitude he was surrounded by.

“You can put the ball where it’s supposed to go, or you can put the ball out and give the receiver a chance, but if they can’t catch it or if you have defenders hitting you while you’re throwing the ball there’s not much the quarterback could have done there,” Waldman said “There’s no special Star Wars-like power to make the ball go in a direction that it’s supposed to go when you don’t have the help around you to make it happen.

‘From that perspective I just think Eli Manning had a rough year that had a lot less to do with his play than it did to his surrounding talent.”

NFL: New York Giants-OTA Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Pat Shurmur’s impact

Shurmur’s hiring is one of the reasons to feel good about Manning, and the Giants offense in general. In various stops across the league, he has had success with a variety of quarterbacks. He has had first-round talents like Donovan McNabb and Sam Bradford. Last season, undrafted Case Keenum went 11-3 as a starter and nearly got the Minnesota Vikings to the Super Bowl. Shoot, Shurmur won nine games over two seasons with Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden quarterbacking the Cleveland Browns. He has had success with both mobile and immobile quarterbacks.

The diversification the Giants should experience with Shurmur designing the offense and calling the plays should help Manning and the unit as a whole. Ben McAdoo was reliant on a slant-heavy scheme and the use of ‘11’ personnel — one back, three wide receivers. In 2016, the Giants were heavily criticized for being in ‘11’ personnel an astonishing 92 percent of the time. Per Sharp Football, that dropped to 54 percent last season due to injuries, Mike Sullivan calling plays much of the season, and McAdoo’s firing.

In 20217, Shurmur’s Vikings used ‘11’ personnel 57 percent of the time (league average was 59 percent). Minnesota was in ‘12’ personnel 22 percent of the time, above the league average of 19 percent.

During the spring, the Giants appeared to be preparing to use ‘12’ personnel, with tight ends Rhett Ellison and Evan Engram both on the field, often.

The offense also appeared to be less predictable not only in terms of play selection, with Manning lauding the ability to throw the ball down the field more often, but with players being moved around more to create potential mismatches.

Run-pass balance and true under-center play action are also two things that have largely been missing in recent years, and that should see a resurgence under Shurmur.

Prior to McAdoo’s arrival in 2014, Manning’s single-season career high in pass attempts per game was 36.8 in 2011. Over the past four seasons, he averaged 37.9 passes per game. Thus, the Giants have been putting more on his plate instead of less as he has gotten older. The Giants hope that improvements at running back, the offensive line and on defense will lessen the load on Manning.

The under-center play-action is more anecdotal because the only data we have is passes in shotgun vs. passes from under center. This may also be skewed because around the NFL putting the quarterback under center is going the way of the dinosaur.

In 2013, the final year in which Kevin Gilbride was the Giants’ offensive coordinator, Manning threw 400 passes (72.5 percent) of his 551 passes from under center.

Here are the numbers under Gilbride:

Eli Manning Shotgun vs. Under Center

Year Shotgun attempts Passer Rating Under Center Attempts Passer Rating
Year Shotgun attempts Passer Rating Under Center Attempts Passer Rating
2014 501 87.2 100 116.7
2015 538 91.9 80 105.2
2016 526 84.8 73 95.9
2017 460 78.4 110 83.7

[NOTE: The caveat to these numbers is that Mike Sullivan, who worked with Gilbride, called plays for 10 of the 15 games Manning played last season.]

Over that four-year stretch, 2,025 of Manning’s 2,388 pass attempts came from shotgun. That’s 84.8 percent, from the formation in which the data shows us that he is least effective.

Last season, Case Keenum threw 352 of his 482 passes (72.9 percent) from shotgun. So, perhaps there is hope that lopsided distribution of pass attempts will change. It is also noteworthy that the Vikings utilized play-action more often last season than any other NFL team.

Something else Shurmur and Gettleman have done, that McAdoo often failed to do, is to show public support for Manning. Remember McAdoo blaming “sloppy quarterback play” for the failure to take a late-game timeout he could have called himself during a 2017 Week 2 loss to the Detroit Lions?

“It helps. Obviously when you feel that the coaches and the GM and everybody is excited about working with you, has your back and looking forward to good things,” Manning said back in April. “Obviously I have to prove that and do that every day and get on the field and make sure I’m making the right decisions, protecting the ball, making good throws and learning this offense quickly. I think we’re off to a good start, but we have a lot of football left.”

NFL: New York Giants-Rookie Minicamp
Saquon Barkley
Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

Barkley and Beckham

We have gotten this far without discussing the dynamic duo of Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr. The Giants’ last 1,000-yard rusher was Ahmad Bradshaw (1,015 yards) in the ancient times of 2012. We have seen from the pass attempt numbers above that the Giants have increasingly become a pass-first offense rather than a balanced one. In 2017, the Giants had 608 passing attempts to 394 rushing attempts, meaning the Giants threw the ball 60.6 percent of the time.

The Giants drafted Barkley No. 2 overall, along with guard Will Hernandez in Round 2, hoping to change that. The believe Barkley and Hernandez, Nate Solder and Patrick Omameh can help them improve the running game.

“You have to run the football not just for your offense, but for your team,” Gettleman said after drafting Barkley. “I have seen the effect that a great running back can have on teams.

“If you think about it, this kid makes our quarterback better, he makes our receivers better, he makes our O-line better. He makes our defense better because he has the much stronger ability to hold the ball.”

Throughout spring practices, the Giants showcased a desire to use Barkley and Wayne Gallman as receivers, and to challenge defenses by using them on downfield routes and not just screens and check downs.

One of Manning’s strengths, something Sullivan often talked about during his time as offensive coordinator, is his ability to identify defenses and get the Giants into the right play at the line of scrimmage.

With Barkley in the backfield, and receiving options like Beckham, Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard, Manning should be able to use his 14 years of experience to find the mismatches and the right plays. The options at his disposal, and the number of ways the Giants can threaten a defense, should make him more effective.

Final thoughts

Manning threw the ball crisply all spring. He doesn’t have the howitzer that Davis Webb has, but he still appears to be able to fit the ball into tight windows. He also connected on a fair number of deep balls during spring practices open to the media. During sessions I witnessed, I can’t recall any deep throws where I thought “oh, that’s a duck,” or “man, Eli’s arm is turning to spaghetti.” To me, it looked like he can still get the ball where it needs to be.

“Thirty-seven is not old,” a laughing Manning said in the spring. “I think 37 is young, so it’s all perspective.

“I feel good. I’m moving around well. I’m always working on my flexibility and my conditioning and offseason lifting and everything, so I haven’t relaxed on that in any sense. I know I need that to kind of keep up with those other guys, but I feel good in that sense and I have to keep it that way.”

There is no telling when his arm will turn to spaghetti, the way his brother Peyton’s did at the end. Or, when his famously durable body will give out. Or, for that matter, if a time will come when the Giants simply think it is time for them to let Webb and Lauletta play.

The Giants have set the table for Manning. Maybe it’s not a Super Bowl table, but the furniture and the place settings should be vast upgrades over what we’ve become accustomed to seeing Manning have to work with.

As long as his arm and his health hold out, the view here is that Manning should still be able to play quality football during the upcoming season.