Saturday, October 20, 2018
Eli Manning has weathered a storm or two in his day, but he’s always made it back to land safely. But this time, he might be in too deep.
From the minute Manning arrived on the scene 14 years ago and refused to play for the team that drafted him (the Chargers, formerly of San Diego), we knew he’d be a polarizing figure. And that’s still the case today. No quarterback in recent memory has seen as many peaks and valleys as the younger Manning sibling, who has expertly toed the line between historically-great and deeply mediocre. Winning is the currency that matters most to Hall of Fame voters and certainly Manning has done his fair share of that throughout his career. His time in New York has brought him a pair of Super Bowls, both coming against the hated Patriots and the greatest quarterback of all-time (apologies to Joe Montana and Eli’s older brother). That accomplishment alone will probably get him a statue outside of MetLife Stadium in a few years. But this isn’t about Manning’s legacy or how the Giants will honor him once his playing days are over. It’s about right now. And right now, Manning looks like he’s on borrowed time.
It’s been Struggle City for the 37-year-old, who has dished out all of six touchdown passes over his six contests this year. When your ace in the hole has the same number of touchdowns as Mitchell Trubisky had in one GAME, that’s a problem. Judging by the rest of his stat line—1,662 passing yards (277 per game), a 68.7 completion percentage (a career-high) and a 90.9 quarterback rating (his highest since 2015)—you wouldn’t know that Manning is having one of his worst seasons. But the eye test tells a much different story as the former No. 1 pick has looked alarmingly skittish in the pocket, continually checking down to Saquon Barkley in the flat rather than looking to stretch the field vertically. If Julio Jones’ kryptonite is reaching the end zone (something he hasn’t been able to do in his last 11 regular season contests), then Manning’s Achilles heel is throwing the ball more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Odell Beckham, the Giants’ flamboyant and—thanks to a recent five-year, $95 million mega-deal—exceedingly well-compensated wide receiver, has been vocal about the team’s struggles and Manning hasn’t been immune to his criticism. “It’s been, you know … cool catching shallow [routes] and trying to take it to the house. But I’m, you know, I want to go over the top of somebody,” said Beckham in a recent interview with ESPN’s Josina Anderson and, for some reason, Lil Wayne. “I haven’t been in the place where I felt like I could really go out and do everything that I’m capable of doing.” Naturally, Beckham’s thinly-veiled shot at Manning didn’t sit well with owner John Mara, who said the sharp-tongued 25-year-old needs to “do a little more playing and a little less talking.” Sounds like everyone is getting along just fine. With all the grumbling going on in East Rutherford, the famously cutthroat Patriots are starting to seem functional by comparison.
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When did all the tension begin? Easy. November 28, 2017. That’s when the Giants’ then-coach (if only for a few more days) Ben McAdoo lit the fuse by inexplicably benching Eli Manning for Geno Smith. With Beckham hurt and the Giants well out of the playoff hunt, giving third-round rookie Davis Webb an extended look wouldn’t have been the worst idea. But handing the reins to Smith, a draft bust who had already flamed out with one New York team and was once punched in the face for getting under a teammate’s skin?
McAdoo was, by all accounts, an awful coach (or at minimum an awful dresser) and a terrible fit, but he may have actually been ahead of the curve on Manning. He saw the decline coming but rather than test the waters with Webb like a rational person, he chose poorly and wound up getting fired for it. Even with Manning very clearly on the back nine (more like the 18th hole) of his career, you don’t disrespect a legend and franchise cornerstone by rolling out the red carpet for the sport’s preeminent turnover artist (36 career interceptions compared to only 29 touchdown passes). That’s a low blow.
Obviously, Webb was not the answer—he didn’t even make it out of training camp this summer and currently resides on the Jets’ practice squad. But luckily for the G-Men, their pitiful 3-13 record afforded them the second overall pick in this year’s draft, allowing them to start a new future with any quarterback not named Baker Mayfield, who the Browns selected at No. 1. They wouldn’t have to kick Manning to the curb right away but at least they’d have a quarterback in waiting, similar to how Kansas City stashed Patrick Mahomes, essentially giving him a red-shirt year to learn from Alex Smith (who Mahomes has quickly surpassed in every facet). Sam Darnold seemed like the obvious choice at No. 2 but instead of laying the groundwork for the post-Eli Era in New York, GM Dave Gettleman selected a running back in the first round (Saquon Barkley) for the second time in as many years.
The Barkley selection was one of the most polarizing picks in recent memory and for good reason. In less than half a season, Saquon has confirmed what we already knew about him—that he is a prodigious talent, a complete physical specimen (or speci-man, if you prefer Rob Gronkowski’s pronunciation) capable of setting NFL records. Barkley has been as good as advertised, rumbling to 811 yards from scrimmage (second among running backs behind some no-name who goes by Todd Gurley) and six touchdowns through his first six NFL appearances. He is an excellent, perhaps even generation-defining player, but not the one the Giants needed.
Where have Barkley’s heroics gotten them this year? New York heads into a very difficult Monday night game in Atlanta needing a win to avoid falling to 1-6. Saquon has been everything the Giants hoped he would be but with Manning in freefall, New York will have a hard enough time climbing out of the NFC East basement, let alone contending for a Super Bowl.
Drafting Darnold wouldn’t have solved everything that ails the Giants. Even after signing Nate Solder to man left tackle and solidifying the left guard position by investing in second-round pick Will Hernandez (currently No. 10 out of 73 qualifiers in PFF’s guard grades), New York’s offensive line is still an area of weakness. Only Deshaun Watson and Josh Allen have taken more sacks than Eli this year. Beyond that, Evan Engram’s knee injury has further weakened what was already a thin receiver corps while former All-Pro Janoris Jenkins has quickly shed his shutdown label by allowing a league-high five touchdown passes.
But passing on Darnold, a 21-year-old with superstar written all over him, just to appease Manning after McAdoo did him dirty seems like a drastic, wildly short-sighted measure. Had the Giants hitched their wagon to Darnold or a similar quarterback talent (perhaps Josh Allen or Josh Rosen), New York could already be a year into its inevitable rebuilding movement. But with nothing resembling a backup plan behind Manning—undrafted journeyman Alex Tanney is next up on the team’s QB depth chart while third-string rookie Kyle Lauletta remains little more than a long-term project—2018 will likely go down as another lost season for the Giants.
Imagine knowingly putting out an inferior product, prioritizing running back over the team’s greatest need and essentially holding an entire fan base hostage just to tell your fading franchise quarterback, “sorry we benched you that one time.” That’s a ludicrous approach to team-building and a major reason why the Giants enter Week 7 as the low man on the NFC East totem pole. Beckham’s sideline tantrums have run the gamut from mildly childish to locker-room-destroying volcanic eruptions, but at least he cares enough to blow a gasket when the Giants aren’t performing up to expectations. We’ll never see that same fire out of Eli, who will keep pocketing checks while the Giants continue their downward spiral, marching further into the depths of irrelevance.
Manning isn’t the first quarterback to overstay his welcome and he won’t be the last. Brett Favre didn’t know when to call it quits while Eli’s older brother Peyton limped to the finish line in 2015, though Von Miller and the Broncos’ defense were kind enough to chip in for a Super Bowl ring to give him as a going-away present. God knows the kind of hell Tom Brady will raise when Bill Belichick decides it’s time for him to go (Emperor Bill was this close to ditching him for Jimmy Garoppolo last year). We’ve seen quarterbacks play into their 40s before but with Manning in steep decline, he doesn’t appear to be one of them. It’s the question all teams must face when productive veterans reach the autumn of their career—where do you draw the line with loyalty? Do Manning’s two Super Bowl rings afford him a lifetime pass even as the struggling Giants sink further into the abyss? In Foxboro, Bill Belichick has always been of the school that it’s better to be a year early than a year late when moving on from a declining veteran, but clearly Gettleman doesn’t subscribe to that way of thinking.
As Manning reaches the end of his illustrious career, it’s worth asking, was it really that illustrious? What separates Manning from the Joe Flaccos and Andy Daltons of the world? Is it just the postseason hardware or the fact that both of his out-of-nowhere Super Bowl wins came at the hands of Tom Brady, the NFL’s equivalent of a final boss?
Manning’s career numbers paint the picture of a productive starting quarterback but not necessarily a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The perception of Manning and the discussion of where he belongs among the all-time greats is particularly fascinating in comparison to Philip Rivers, the player he was traded for on draft night back in 2004. Rivers has been a superior player to Manning in almost every aspect, except that he’s never had a Lombardi Trophy to call his own. When looking back at this generation of quarterbacks (keep in mind two-time Super Bowl champ Ben Roethlisberger was in the same draft class), should Manning be regarded as the more successful player even though Rivers has soundly out-produced him for the bulk of his career? I suppose that’s for Hall of Fame voters to decide.
Gettleman held off on pressing the reset button, thinking the Giants could win now but even if Manning hadn’t descended into a bottomless pit of mediocrity (which even McAdoo, of all people, could have predicted), what would this team’s ceiling have actually been? 8-8? 9-7? That’s good enough to maybe squeak out a wild card berth, but not low enough in the draft to realistically pursue a franchise quarterback like Oregon’s Justin Herbert. Though it wasn’t what Gettleman scripted, the Manning-led Giants have tanked anyway and unless the team suddenly comes to life in the second half, they should be able to land the quarterback of their choosing next April. You know, unless the Giants’ running-back-hoarding GM decides he has to have Bryce Love.
What’s the fantasy rub?
Even in two-quarterback settings, Manning isn’t someone I’m anxious to play, though with four teams on bye this week, you likely won’t have much choice on the matter. Eli will face an attackable Falcons secondary indoors this week, so that checks off a couple boxes. Still, Eli’s jittery pocket presence and diminishing arm strength are both worrying trends. With no one waiting in the on-deck circle, this is Manning’s ship to sink and no one else’s. Not that this took much expertise to figure out, but obviously Eli’s propensity for checking down immensely benefits Barkley, who leads all NFL backs in both catches (40) and receiving yards (373). Beckham hasn’t quite fallen from the upper-tier of the WR1 ranks yet, but with Manning all but abandoning his deep ball, Odell will have to make his living off screens and slant routes and hope he can break a big play or two along the way. Engram’s return this week should give Manning a slight boost but unless the Giants start filling their Gatorade jug with water from the fountain of youth, the old Eli isn’t coming back. Not this week. Not ever.