The stage was set, both literally and figuratively, down in Dallas for the New York Giants to take a definite step in the direction of a post-Eli Manning Era last May. Armed with the second overall selection in a top-heavy quarterback draft, new General Manager Dave Gettleman was in a prime spot to pick from four of the top passers in the class.
As we now know, he decided to move in a different direction.
The Giants now face a 2018 season with a revamped running game thanks to Saquon Barkley, a new left side of their offensive line with the acquisition of Nate Solder and the selection of Will Hernandez, and at least one more season with Manning at the helm. Under new head coach Pat Shurmur one might expect the offense to take on more of a West Coast flavor, given Shurmur’s coaching roots, but incoming offensive coordinator Mike Shula is well-versed in the downfield, Air Coryell system, a similar system to some of Manning’s better days under Tom Coughlin.
Despite the excitement about a potential new face at the quarterback position for New York, there were some who - perhaps quietly - made the case for the team to address other positions and make a final run as the Manning window drew to a close. I was one of them. To help support that position I’ve pulled together five different throws to make this case. These involve not only scheme, but also some quick processing, adjustment, improvisation, velocity and aggression from the quarterback himself. If what we see on these first five throws is the Eli Manning we see in 2018, the Giants could surprise many people.
But if we see the Manning on display in the sixth throw, well, Gettleman might want to avoid listening to the radio for a few months …
What was fascinating about watching Case Keenum’s success with the Minnesota Vikings last season was how reliant the Vikings were on using play-action passing designs to give Keenum opportunities down the field. I’ve previously argued that Shurmur would be wise to bring that kind of a structure to the Giants, but here we can take that a step further. The evolution of the RPO in the professional game allows offenses to change the numbers equation in the box, and gives the quarterback a few different outs on any given snap.
Now, no one would consider Manning to be a threat to burn teams with his legs. But with the addition of Barkley to the offensive backfield, New York can implement more RPO plays that can keep defenses guessing. Here is one example of this in action from last season. Back in Week 3, with a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. in the lineup, the Giants went down to the wire with the eventual Super Bowl Champions. Early in the second quarter New York faced a 2nd and 11 on their own 33-yard line, and lined up with Manning in the backfield next to Shane Vereen. Two receivers aligned in a slot to the right, with Beckham on the outside. Philadelphia countered with their 4-2-5 nickel package and they showed Cover 3 before the play, with the corners off the ball and a single safety in the middle of the field.
The Giants run an RPO design here, with Manning meeting Vereen at the mesh point but quickly pulling the football and throwing to Beckham on a slant route. The reason? Watch as the “fake” to Vereen holds the playside linebacker for just a beat:
With the cornerback playing off, and the run action freezing the linebacker for a step, Manning can fit this throw into the window before it closes, and the Giants have themselves a first down.
These types of designs can be effective with Manning, even if he is anything but a threat to run. With the additions of Barkley, Solder and Hernandez the much-maligned Giants’ running game should be improved. Designs that put the fear of the ground game into the minds of the opposing linebackers only help to open these throwing lanes for Manning, and he can deliver in those spots like he did on this occasion.
As a former quarterback, and perhaps because I was a rather poor one, I remain fascinated by the chess match at the line of scrimmage. I love seeing a quarterback fooled by a defensive scheme, and I also enjoy when the QB deciphers a pre- and/or post-snap look and makes a defense pay. That requires incredible processing speed from the quarterback, and sometimes even a bit of luck.
In Week 14 against the Dallas Cowboys Manning and company faced a 1st and 10 near midfield late in the second quarter in a scoreless tie. The pre-snap phase of the play begins with Manning aligned under center and the Giants using 11 offensive personnel. But the quarterback sees ... something and decides to make an adjustment:
My best guess, based upon the shift and the corresponding slide protection from the offensive line, is that Manning is worried about a blitz coming from the left edge. He shifts into the shotgun and his running back slides to the left of the quarterback. When the play begins, the offensive line slides their protection to the left.
Manning made the right read, as a blitz indeed comes. But it comes from the slot defender on the other side of the formation:
Manning peeks at a vertical route from the single receiver on the left, and comes to his tight end Evan Engram on a corner route to the other side of the field. He makes this throw under duress but drops this in perfectly to his tight end, who is open due to the blitz and rotation in the secondary.
This is a prime example of a quarterback displaying incredible processing speed. Manning gets fooled a bit in the pre-snap phase as his adjustment ends up exposing him to the pressure from the slot. But he recognizes that quickly enough and knows right where to go with the football, making the defense pay in the process.
Improvisation is not a trait most commonly associated with Manning as a quarterback, but over the course of his career Manning has displayed the ability to make plays outside the pocket and off-structure. This was still present at times in 2017. While the offensive line on paper seems to be improved, with the additions of Solder and Hernandez, there might still be times when Manning will be forced to pull a rabbit out of his hat while in or outside of the pocket.
Here is one example of the veteran quarterback doing just that last season.
Late in the 2017 campaign the Giants were locked in a tight game against the eventual Super Bowl Champions, and faced a second-and-10 at their own 25-yard line with just under four minutes remaining in the contest. Manning aligned in the shotgun as the Giants used 11 offensive personnel in a 2x2 alignment, with the tight end to the right side of the formation. The Eagles countered with a 4-2-5 nickel defense and showed a single-high safety before the snap.
The Giants ran two different passing concepts on the play. To the right side of the formation they ran a “HOSS” or “hitch-seam” concept, with Engram releasing vertically on a seam route while the outside wide receiver ran a quick hitch. To the left side of the formation they ran a bubble-slant, with the slot receiver running a bubble screen while the outside receiver, Roger Lewis, ran a slant route.
Philadelphia runs a pattern-matching Cover 3 on this play, and when the bubble-swing combination takes place, the defenders do not stay in zones but rather stay on their receivers. Manning, who expects to throw the slant route versus a traditional Cover 3, now sees that slant route covered in man-to-man with a linebacker lurking inside. The quarterback starts to drift out of the pocket, and seeing the coverage, Lewis breaks vertically. Manning reads this and hits him in stride:
(The flag on the play was for defensive holding, which was declined).
The ability of a quarterback to make lemonade out of lemons, and deliver in situations off-script, is essential to success at the position. It might not be Manning’s best trait as a quarterback, but it’s something he can still call upon if necessary as the situation breaks down around him.
Over this past offseason, Manning showed up at Duke University for some voluntary passing workouts under the eye of current Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, who was Manning’s offensive coordinator in college. According to Cutcliffe, “the velocity on Manning’s passes was still maintaining, and his body torque and hip strength were good.”
Velocity is often an area to watch as quarterbacks age. While it is true that Peyton Manning was suffering from a neck injury that made it difficult to grip and feel the football, at the end of his career there was a noticeable drop in velocity when he was throwing passes for the Denver Broncos. A cottage industry has grown that observes Tom Brady and waits for the eventual dip in velocity.
So when reviewing Eli’s 2017 film, this throw certainly stuck out:
This throw came on Thanksgiving night against the Washington Redskins. Facing a third-and-14 in their own territory early in the second quarter, the Giants run a vertical concept to the three-receiver side of the formation. The inside receiver runs a flat route as the other two make it seem as if they are blocking, before releasing vertically. Manning pumps on the flat route, which causes the play-side cornerback to crash down on that route.
But Manning keeps the ball and immediately throws the vertical route along the boundary. The Giants catch Washington in a Tampa 2 coverage here, so Manning has to get this ball on his receiver before the safety can rotate over. Which he does, with the necessary velocity and precision placement.
During the 2016 season, with a healthy Beckham and a struggling running game, the Giants faced a lot of Cover 2 or Cover 2/Man Under coverage. The reason is two-fold. One, with Beckham the idea of dedicated safety help to each side of the field keeps defensive coordinators comfortable and two, with an offense that struggles to run the football, a defense does not need to drops a safety into the box to help against the run.
As argued in this piece on Big Blue View from late 2016, one of the ways to combat this coverage is via the running back and the tight end. When the Giants drafted Engram in the first round of the 2017 draft, many believed his acquisition was made with beating Cover 2 in mind, myself included.
Until Barkley and the Giants’ ground game can get going, however, you might expect that Manning and company see a lot of Cover 2. Which will make throws like this necessary:
Late in the first half of what would be a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Rams, Manning and the Giants face a third-and-6 in their own territory, and face a Cover 2 look from the defense. Engram beats the middle linebacker on his seam route, and Manning puts this throw exactly where it needs to be to move the chains.
If teams insist on rolling out Cover 2 in the year ahead, Manning and Engram will need to connect on routes like this early and often. This is an aggressive throw, but the right read and Manning puts it in a perfect spot.
Now, the throws highlighted here are ones that give me confidence that Manning can produce in 2018, making the decisions to date from Gettleman seem reasonable in hindsight. But it is no secret that Manning’s production dipped over the last season. Now that could have more to do with Ben McAdoo’s offensive designs, injuries and protection problems than anything else, but the quarterback still needs to go out there and make plays.
If, rather than seeing plays like the five previously listed, we see more plays that look like this, then we can revisit the notion of Manning rebounding into form:
Facing a third-and-10 near midfield in the second quarter, and holding a 13-point lead over the Eagles, Manning makes a brutal mistake. He tries to throw this deep curl route toward the left side of the field, and is much too slow with his read and decision. That allows Ronald Darby to read his eyes, jump the route and create the turnover. Of course, the placement on the throw also does not help.
If Manning’s processing and play speed look more like this in 2018, then there might be a cause for concern.
Sitting here in July, I still believe that there is a solid 2018 possible for Manning, given the return of Beckham, the continued growth from Engram and the additions of Solder, Barkley and Hernandez. He can still improvise, he can still react and adjust, and he can still dial up velocity as needed. It remains to be seen whether he can do that on a consistent basis in 2018, but I for one am cautiously optimistic.