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November 25, 2007: Vikings 41, Giants 17

It’s always darkest before the dawn.

Eli Manning gives up the ball after being sacked in the seco Photo by Michael Appleton/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

It’s been a painful 2023 season for New York Giants fans. After the Giants’ thrilling ride to the playoffs in 2022, led by Daniel Jones’ seeming coming-of-age late in the season, the wheels seem to have come off in the first month of 2023.

The focus has been on the abject performance of the offensive line, which on Monday night reached new lows thought not possible after the first three games. Now, though, attention has begun to focus on Daniel Jones. Jones has only had one good half of football this season, but the OL’s performance shielded him from some of the blame. Monday night, though, he was in the crosshairs, not only of the Seattle pass rush but also of the fans and media. Jones fleeing the pocket at the first sign of pressure, passing up open receivers farther downfield in favor of short passes, and throwing two terrible interceptions has revived the talk of whether the Giants need to move on.

Dan Orlovsky had a damning analysis of how six of Jones’ 10 sacks and one of his interceptions on Monday night were his own fault rather than the OL’s, caused by Jones not recognizing the defense pre-snap and changing the call at the line of scrimmage or reading the coverage incorrectly and throwing to the wrong receiver:

Suddenly fans are wondering whether the Giants can actually be worse than Chicago and Carolina and win the Caleb Williams sweepstakes.

Fans who witnessed the Giants’ thrilling run to the Super Bowl title in 2007 now view that season, and their sainted quarterback, Eli Manning, through rose-colored glasses. Who wouldn’t after defeating perhaps the best football team of all time?

This week, though, it may be helpful to remember that things weren’t always so rosy for that team and its as-yet unproven signal caller.

The backdrop to November 25, 2007

Manning took over for future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner midway through his 2004 rookie season and mostly played terribly as the Giants compiled a 1-6 record. He was established as the Giants starter in 2005, and in that season and the following one he was the starting quarterback as the Giants went to Wild Card playoff berths.

Manning was not a great quarterback at that time. Here are his stats for his first four seasons, courtesy of Pro Football Reference:

Data from Pro Football Reference

Manning barely completed half his passes his first two seasons. He never reached 60% during his first four years and he only had a few more touchdown passes than interceptions. In the 2007 Super Bowl season Manning led the NFL in interceptions. The Giants’ playoff visits in 2005 and 2006 were one and done: A 23-0 beatdown at home by Carolina the first year, and a last-second 23-20 loss in Philadelphia the next year. The 2006 team lost seven of its final nine games.

When 2007 began with a 45-35 loss at Dallas and a 35-13 thrashing at home by Green Bay, questions about the Giants began to arise. The Giants righted the ship with wins in 7 of their next 8 games, but Eli wasn’t really the reason. In those eight games he threw for over 300 yards only once, and he had games with 129, 186, 139, 49 (yes, 49), and 194 passing yards.

Vikings vs. Giants

The 4-6 Minnesota Vikings came to Giants Stadium the Sunday after Thanksgiving to face the 7-3 Giants, a game the Giants were heavily favored to win. It didn’t work out that way. Manning threw four interceptions, three of them pick-sixes, as the Giants fell 41-17 to the Vikings, who had the lowest ranked pass defense in the NFL. Here are the “highlights,” so to speak.

To put it into a current context, Pro Football Focus gave Eli a 39.9 passing grade that day, almost identical to Jones’ grade against Seattle:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

The Daily News ran this on its front page the next day:

John Branch of the New York Times reminds all of us who look back on 2007 fondly that the jury was still out on Manning in his fourth season, writing in his report of the game:

The result is sure to fuel the omnipresent discussions about Manning’s ability to carry the Giants (7-4) and rekindle doubts about the Giants’ ability to finish a season strongly.

Manning completed his first three passes, for 45 yards. The rest of the first half, he completed 3 of 17 for 47 yards. Throws were so far off the mark that it looked as if Manning and his receivers were working from different playbooks.

Both of Manning’s first-half interceptions came deep in Giants territory and on throws made while he leaned back, away from pressure.

In the Twin Cities Pioneer Press writeup of the game, they pointed out that intercepting Manning was nothing new to the Vikings:

In November 2005, the Vikings upended the Giants 24-21, due in large part to four interceptions of Manning, including one that was returned 92 yards by safety Darren Sharper for a touchdown.

Things were a little different in 2007, though. In 2023, we heard Devon Witherspoon after the game telling a reporter that they knew that Jones focuses on his first read. In 2007, the opposition was more reserved:

Afterward, the Vikings were diplomatic, with Sharper politely declining to talk about why the Vikings thrive against Eli Manning.

“We might end up playing these guys in the playoffs,” he said, “so I don’t know if I want to say that just yet.”

I’m not cherry-picking one bad 2007 game - Eli also had games with PFF passing grades of 50.4, 45.4, 54.1, and 49.5 passing grades. It’s not as if Manning took off after that Minnesota game, either. In his final five regular season games he passed for 181, 207, 168, 94, and 237 yards. That 94-yard game was the one that clinched the Giants’ playoff berth in Buffalo. It was won by the Giants’ rushing game, not by Manning.

It was only in the 2007 playoffs that the Eli Manning legend began to form - first by finally getting off the playoff schneid with a win in Tampa Bay, and then major upsets in Dallas, Green Bay, and of course over the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Eli’s situation vs. that of Daniel Jones

2007 Eli Manning had two distinct advantages over 2023 Daniel Jones in carving out his legacy. First, Eli was blessed with Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, and Jeremy Shockey as receivers in that game, and he still got intercepted four times. Second, Eli had an elite offensive line in 2007: Rich Seubert, Chris Snee, David Diehl, Shaun O’Hara, and Kareem McKenzie. They all pass blocked well in that game:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Manning was pressured 17 times in that game, but he was only sacked once, and four of his offensive linemen graded above average. Daniel Jones has probably never experienced pass blocking like that since he graduated from high school. For the 2007 regular season, Manning was pressured 175 times in 16 games.His PFF score under pressure was 44.0 (it was 70.5 overall for the 2007 regular season). Jones has already been pressured 79 times in 4 games.

But a light seems to have turned on for Eli Manning late in 2007. Look at his PFF grades and stats for the five seasons after 2007 compared to before (PFF grades only go back as far as 2006):

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Manning was a different quarterback for the five seasons after that first Super Bowl. From 2009-2012, his PFF passing grade was 10-15 points higher than in his early years. His INTs and turnover-worthy plays (TWP) didn’t change systematically - Eli was always a gunslinger. His big time throws (BTT), though, went from fewer than 25 per year to consistently greater than 30 over the four-year stretch 2009-2012, including an amazing 53 in 2011. That put him in the company of older brother Peyton for a while. His average depth of target (ADOT) also systematically increased, from 8.7 yards the year before his first Super Bowl to more than 10 for three years in a row, including his second Super Bowl. The memorable Manning-to-Manningham Super Bowl throw was no accident - it was a feature of Eli’s play during those later years.

In between 2007 and those peak Eli years was 2008, when the offensive line was still good and the Giants still had a potent passing attack. That may have been the best Giants team of the Super Bowl era...until Week 12, when Plaxico Burress went to a night club and threw away his shot. This is as close to a controlled experiment as you can get in the NFL:

  • Weeks 1-12 (Giants 10-1): Manning 211 yards/game, 1.6 TDs/game, NFL passer rating 92.5
  • Weeks 13-17 (Giants 2-3): Manning 184 yards/game, 0.6 TDs/game, NFL passer rating 75.4
  • Playoff (Giants 0-1): Manning 169 yards, 0 TDs, NFL passer rating 40.7

Same Eli, worse results. Blocking talent and receiving talent both matter to a quarterback’s success.

We don’t know if Daniel Jones has it within him to rise to the occasion in a way that’s similar to what Eli Manning finally did at the end of his fourth year, and for an extended stretch beginning in his sixth year. It’s disconcerting to see all the mental mistakes from Jones, but it must have been disconcerting to Eli’s teammates to see all the mistakes he continued to make through most of the 2007 season. We’ll never know if Jones can play smarter and less conservatively if he doesn’t get better pass protection. He gave us a glimpse in the first playoff game he played that he has it in him to play well on a big stage. Can he move past the bad habits that have resurfaced and return to the way he played late last season? Can he go beyond what he did last season? He only has 13 games to show that he can.

Maybe if Andrew Thomas returns soon, Justin Pugh still has some effective play left in him, and John Michael Schmitz’ injury is not serious, the performance of the offensive line overall will begin to stabilize and we’ll get a chance to see. The last time Brian Daboll blew up at Jones on the sideline, in Tennessee last year, Jones began to play better. The question of what his ceiling is remains, though, since the Giants have not provided a ladder to get him to it.