Twice during his career on this day we have watched Eli Manning and the New York Giants take on — and take down — Brady and the Patriots. Both of those times Manning was the games MVP.
Will we ever see that again? Is there even a path for the Giants to get close to that level while Manning remains at quarterback?
Despite the protestations of those who gave up on Manning long ago and believe the Giants should have already moved on, they appear ready to bring Manning back as their starter once again in 2019.
Perhaps there will be a highly-drafted young quarterback on the roster waiting to take his job, like Manning was with Kurt Warner back in 2004. Perhaps that won’t come until 2020, depending upon how the 2019 NFL Draft plays out. That time, though, is coming.
The immediate question, at least the one I’m focused on today, isn’t who’s next. It is can the Giants win in 2019 with Manning at quarterback?
This is what Odell Beckham Jr. said about Manning at the end of the 2018 season:
“There’s a lot of things you want in life. You can’t always get what you want, but at the end of the day I want him to be able to go home and talk trash to his brothers. When it’s his time to go out, I want him to go out the right way,” Beckham said. “I want him to go out with a trophy so he can go home and, not rub it in their face, but he’s got three rings, they got two, or whatever it is. That’s what I want for him. That’s how I want him to finish.”
Honestly, that might not be realistic. Manning isn’t what he was. The biggest difference to me? Not arm strength or mobility. His game was never based on those things, anyway. The biggest difference to me is that after 15 years of taking NFL hits, the last several of those spent playing behind putrid offensive lines that got him hit way too much, Manning simply doesn’t stand in the pocket as confidently and take hits as willingly as he once did. In 2018 we saw that when Manning was comfortable in the pocket he was effective. When he didn’t trust what was happening around him, he wasn’t.
The other issue with talking Super Bowl? Right now, Manning’s supporting cast isn’t at that level. Not close. He’s got Offensive Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley. He’s got Beckham. He’s got Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard. That’s not enough.
‘All quarterbacks need help’
That was Mark Schofield appearing Friday on ‘Locked on Giants’ with Patricia Traina.
“Yes there are some [quarterbacks] that can create off structure like Patrick Mahomes, like Aaron Rodgers, but you can’t do that on a consistent basis,” Schofield said. “We’d all love to have the perfect quarterbacks playing for our teams, but all quarterbacks need help and Eli Manning is no exception.”
So, what help does Manning need? We’ve been over this, and to diehard Giants fans it is probably all old news, but we still need to cover it.
The Giants need a better offensive line. Between sacks (47) and quarterback hits (97), defenders got a piece of Manning 144 times in 2018. Compare that to some other senior citizen quarterbacks. Drew Brees got sacked or hit a total of 72 times, Brady 89, Ben Roethlisberger 96 and Philip Rivers 120. Those numbers show clearly that other teams with aging pocket passers are doing a far better job than the Giants have been at giving them a chance to succeed.
The Giants need a more efficient running game. Barkley is phenomenal, a human highlight reel, a potential big play every time he touches the ball. SB Nation’s advanced stats show the Giants as the league’s most explosive rushing team in 2018. Still, the Giants had 42 runs go for negative yardage and were near the bottom of the league in rushing efficiency. For all of his brilliance, Football Outsiders said that only 41 percent of Barkley’s 2018 carries were successful, 40th in the league among backs with 100 or more carries. That leads to too many long-distance third-down situations, where the Giants were only 22nd in the league in conversions at 36.9 percent.
The Giants need a third wide receiver. After Beckham (77 catches/12 games) and Shepard (66 catches), Bennie Fowler had the Giants’ third-most wide receiver receptions with just 16. Maybe a full season from Cody Latimer or Corey Coleman would help, but the Giants need better production out of the No. 3 receiver spot. It would also help if, as we detailed last month, the Giants could get more consistent production from Engram.
They need to use Barkley better as a receiver. Wait? What? The guy caught a record-setting 91 passes as a rookie. He led the team in receptions. How much better can they use him?
Schofield also alluded to this, but I’m going to make the case that the Giants actually used Barkley better as a receiver over the final eight games, when he caught 33 passes, than over the first eight, when he caught 58. Barkley did average 7.0 yards per target over the first eight games and 5.1 over the final eight, but anecdotally it seemed the Giants split Barkley out as a receiver or found ways to use him as a weapon over the final eight games rather than Manning throwing him the ball in desperation.
The defense has to be better. At all levels. We have written about this a lot already, and GM Dave Gettleman has acknowledged that the Giants don’t have enough play makers on defense. Because they don’t. It’s my contention that you just can’t play winning defense in the NFL without the ability to get sacks, to create turnovers, to make the splash plays on defense that change field position. The 2018 Giants couldn’t do that often enough.
Manning needs to hold up his end, too. Hanging in the pocket a little better, a little more like the younger Manning, would help. So, too, would better play in the red zone. Manning completed only 47.7 percent of his red-zone throws in 2018. Per Player Profiler, that’s 43rd in the NFL. Player Profiler also lists Manning as the league’s 28th-most productive quarterback overall.
The Giants will hope that the improvement they saw over the second half of the season, going 4-4 and averaging more more than 27 points per game, is sustainable. That it wasn’t just bad teams making the offense look better than it really was.
Where does that leave the Giants?
It leaves them with uncertainty. They have missed the playoffs six of seven years. Everyone involved would like to see Manning go out like John Elway rather than like an aging and obviously incapable Muhammad Ali getting pummeled by Larry Holmes.
“I think there is a slippage [in Manning[ to a certain extent. I think that the Giants could still be s functional offense next year if they decide to stay with El,” Schofield said.
“The question is going to be how effective can they be? What is the ceiling with Eli Manning as their passer next year? I think if they involve Saquon Barkley more in the passing game as a receive rout of the backfield his talent is perhaps unparalleled … too early in the year I think they used him behind the line of scrimmage on passing plays, they should involve him down the field a little bit more.
“I think this can be a competitive team and win some games. The question becomes what’s the ceiling? That’s what Dave Gettleman and Co. need to figure out.”
It seems like we’re all going to figure that out together.
Love Manning or wish he had been ousted long ago, he’s the best quarterback the Giants franchise has ever had. Let’s hope that whenever his exit comes, it comes with his dignity intact. Exits for franchise quarterbacks aren’t always easy, and are seldom graceful.
Let’s also recognize that at this point finding the right successor and building the rest of the roster for future success is more important than worrying about Manning. How well the Giants are set up for what comes after 2019 is, truthfully, more important than the results of 2019 itself. Regardless of how much success the Giants have in 2019, and how much everyone loves to argue about Manning.