Why Eli Manning will still face tough questions in 2014

by Jun 5, 10:51 AM
Andrew Weber / USA TODAY Sports

Eli Manning is forever a hero among New York Giants fans for two drives, two spectacular throws, and two Super Bowl wins. We don’t talk about the fact that one of those catches required a sprawling, leaping sideline grab, and the other happened when David Tyree experimented with helmet magnets.

Two throws established a legacy. But how many can tear it down? I’ll put that number at about 27. That’s how many interceptions little brother Manning threw in 2013, a career high.

After free agency, after the draft, and after the hiring of a new offensive coordinator, there’s some bubbly optimism around Manning, and reasons to believe again. Or at least there are reasons to convince yourself a rebound is coming, a sort of regression correction.

Let’s talk about that. There are indeed reasons to be hopeful, but soon we discover it’s the false kind of hope, with still looming questions delivering a roundhouse kick.

Reasons to feel happy

The good vibes start on the offensive line. Manning was sacked 39 times in 2013, another painful career high (his previous single-season high was 30). Completing passes while under duress is challenging for a quarterback like Manning who isn’t exactly fleet of foot, and the result was success on only 32.6 percent of his attempts while facing a blitz, according to Pro Football Focus.

Enter Geoff Schwartz, the former Chiefs guard signed early in free agency who is versatile, and can play all over the line. He has experience at tackle too, and was rated the league’s 11th best guard this past season by PFF.

Then there’s new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. Under former coordinator Kevin Gilbride, the Giants’ offense was stuck using a system better suited for the NFL of about five years ago. That was a time when cornerbacks weren’t as massive, and linebackers weren’t fast enough to cover deep downfield. Teams could be beat with an almost strictly vertical approach.

Now with McAdoo coming over from Green Bay, the Giants offense will be more dynamic and modernized. He’ll introduce west coast tendencies, utilizing the speed of Cruz and first-round pick Odell Beckham Jr. in space.

More importantly, minimizing the mountain of option routes that were a staple of Gilbride’s thinking will -- in theory -- lead to better chemistry between Manning and Rueben Randle. Both receiver and quarterback need to see the same thing and respond accordingly for option routes to be effective, which didn’t happen often. That miscommunication became ugly when eight of Manning’s interceptions came on balls intended for Randle.

Lastly, there’s the either new or rising offensive weapons. Randle can climb the depth chart to be a better version of Hakeem Nicks (or at least he’ll be someone who cares about football), supplying the size and physicality to battle for throws up the middle, while Beckham brings the speed on safer, high percentage crossing routes.

Meanwhile, Rashad Jennings has been inserted into the backfield now, supplying burst after 1,025 yards from scrimmage in Oakland despite starting only eight games. That also includes two games with over 70 receiving yards. Then there’s rookie Andre Williams, the human hammer who led college football in 2013 with 2,177 rushing yards.

Great, so we’re feeling all warm and pleasant now, right? About that.

What about Will Beatty?

The quality of any offensive line begins and ends with the left tackle. For the Giants that’s Will Beatty, who’s recovering from a broken leg suffered in the 2013 season finale. Hopeful words have been said about his recovery, but he’s still not expected to be ready until training camp, and there’s a possibility he’ll miss regular-season time.

That could force Justin Pugh into left tackle duty before he’s ready. Or worse, Charles Brown could be tasked with protecting Manning’s blindside. He’s little more than emergency depth after being benched in New Orleans last year.

There’s a more important concern: can Beatty even be effective again when healthy? In 2012 Beatty allowed only three sacks on Manning over 967 snaps. Then he followed that up with 13 sacks allowed this past season.

Does a quick offensive fix exist?

No, of course it doesn’t, yet there’s often the perception that a new coordinator can bring over his shiny new playbook, and immediately have sustained success. Sometimes that happens, but more often it doesn’t, and Manning having a fresh rookie as one of his primary receivers complicates matters.

Manning has spent the last six years in one offense, running the same concepts. Now quickly a quarterback who hasn’t exactly mastered decision making recently with two +25 interception seasons over the past four years has to digest an entire new way his O’s will attempt to beat the X’s.

For the first time in his career Manning won’t have Gilbride on the sideline, either as his position coach or coordinator. Just as we saw a few years ago in Pittsburgh when Ben Roethlisberger was working through Todd Haley’s offense, an adjustment period is far more likely than a honeymoon period.

Tight end, anyone?

A reliable tight end who could bring a warm feeling of security was missing for Manning in 2013. And with Brandon Myers gone, that void has grown into a gaping crater.

Something called an Adrien Robinson now leads the depth chart at tight end. He’s a freakjob at 6’5” with 4.56 speed in the 40-yard dash, but he’s never been able to stay healthy and has played only three career games.

Eric Ebron would undoubtedly be a Giants employee had he fallen to them in the first round, but he came off the board two picks earlier. Then for reasons only general manager Jerry Reese understands, the Giants didn’t use any of their remaining six picks on a tight end.

A season ago when Manning had the comfort of Martellus Bennett’s magical Black Unicorn wingspan, he didn’t throw an interception on nearly five percent of his passes, as he did in 2013 (4.9 percent). Instead that rate rested much lower at 2.8 in 2012, while Bennett finished second on the team in receptions (55) behind only Victor Cruz.

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It’s been six months since the New York Giants season ended (with a 7-9 record), and the vast gap between 2013 Manning and the 2011 Manning is still jarring.

The latter won the Super Bowl while throwing that pinpoint pass to Mario Manningham, and it came after a season when he threw for 4,933 yards at an average of 8.4 per attempt. That’s Manning at his finest, but since then his YPA has dropped to 6.9, and his yards per game has fallen by 71.7. At 57.5 his completion percentage was the lowest since 2007, and his passer rating crashed to 69.4.

Those are the dark numbers of a 33-year-old quarterback set to enter the second last year of his current contract, one who looked far less composed under pressure, leading to bad decisions. He desperately needs to rebound if he has career aspirations beyond 2015, wanting to play into his late 30s like big brother Peyton.

There may be optimism from McAdoo’s offense, a rejigged offensive line, and several new weapons. But with Manning’s rapidly declining ability to complete a forward pass with accuracy and to the right colored jersey, bracing for another flop is much easier than embracing hope.

Feature photo courtesy of Andrew Weber / USA TODAY Sports