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Friday, December 9, 2011
Air Eli? Giants are a passing team now

By Dan Graziano

Eli Manning
Led by quarterback Eli Manning, the once-rugged Giants have changed their personality this season.
The New York Giants are supposed to be one of the furniture franchises of the NFL. You know where you stand with them. There's a reliable consistency to the way they conduct themselves, operate their franchise and play the game. When you think about the Giants, you think about tough defense and gritty offense. You think about running backs grinding out yards -- three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust-type stuff that works no matter the era, no matter the windy, cold late-season weather in northern New Jersey.

Which is why it's a little jarring to see that this Giants team -- the one that heads to Dallas on Sunday for a critical NFC East showdown with the Dallas Cowboys -- bears so little resemblance to its run-focused forebears. The 2011 Giants are a passing team, plain and simple. And with Eli Manning as their quarterback, they've become one of the best passing teams in the league.

"They're explosive at all of the skill positions," Cowboys safety Abram Elam said in a phone interview this week. "You've got a lot of guys to account for, and you always have to be aware that they can beat you with the big play in the passing game."

That sounds like the Patriots, and it sounds like the Saints and the Packers and maybe the Peyton Manning Colts. But it's still a little bit surprising, given what we thought we always knew about the Giants and their place in the NFL establishment, that such a description could apply to Big Blue. This year's Giants still wish they could run, and they still open the game trying to run. But there they sit at the very bottom of the stat sheet -- 32nd in the league at 3.3 yards per carry and 83.8 rush yards per game. If a team that really considered itself a running team put up numbers like that, it wouldn't win any games at all.

Fortunately for the Giants, they've turned into a high-octane passing offense. They rank fourth in the league in passing yards, behind only the Saints, Patriots and Packers. They have one wide receiver, Victor Cruz, who's already cracked 1,000 receiving yards and another, Hakeem Nicks, who's only 140 yards away. Manning is fourth in the league in passing yards and fifth in attempts, and he's 295 yards away from 4,000 for the season. That would be the fifth 4,000-yard passing season in Giants' team history. It would also be Manning's third in a row.

"Everybody last week was talking about Aaron Rodgers being a Super Bowl MVP, and he is a great quarterback and having an unbelievable year, but we have the same thing on our side behind us," Giants left tackle David Diehl said. "At the beginning of the season when he compared himself in the same caliber, he got a lot of heat for that and people said 'how can he do that?' But Eli's having an incredible year."

When the Giants need a play, Manning throws the ball. He has shrugged off the departure of Steve Smith and the injuries to Mario Manningham and helped turn Cruz into a superstar wide receiver on the opposite side of the field from the brilliant Nicks. He found tight end Jake Ballard in key situations on a game-winning drive this season in New England. He hooked up with tight end Travis Beckum for a long touchdown pass last week. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw returned after four missed games because of injury, and Manning started last week's game with a screen pass to him.

"The way he's playing, everybody's going to be looking to him," Nicks said of Manning. "He's leading our offense. He's staying confident until the last minute, motivating guys in the huddle, making sure everybody knows when the play could come to them. He's got that energy and that confidence in himself and in everybody else, and everyone on our offense feeds off of him."

They can resist it all they want, and preach the importance of balance on offense. But it doesn't look like this year's Giants, with a banged-up Bradshaw, a faded Brandon Jacobs and all of the offensive line problems they have had (not to mention their injury-riddled defense), can really make good on that.

The Giants are poised to make a run and, in spite of their current four-game losing streak, win the NFC East and get into the playoffs. They have four games left, two against first-place Dallas, and their fate is in their hands. They've had a chance to win every game they've played this season except the one two weeks ago in New Orleans, and there's little reason to think they can't or won't have chances to win these last four. But when they do get that chance, this season's Giants are going to do something the Giants of years past weren't known for doing. They're going to ask their quarterback to air it out. Because that's what this year's Giants do best.