Three times in the fourth quarter Sunday, Eli Manning and the New York Giants' offense took the field. All three times, they ran three plays and punted. A combined total of negative-9 yards and no first downs in a fourth quarter into which they carried a 10-point lead. They lost the game to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and after the game all they could say was that, well, they're used to owning the fourth quarter and they weren't sure why they didn't this time.
What they won't say, since this is a team game and you're not supposed to put it all on one person, is that they're used to Manning winning the game for them in the fourth quarter. And when Manning isn't hitting his fourth-quarter throws, the Giants honestly don't know how to handle that. They're as hopeless as the New York Knights were during Roy Hobbs' epic slumps, as lost as the Hickory Huskers were when Jimmy Chitwood refused to play.
This cannot be.
Manning has been the Giants' rock now for a year and a half. He has routinely won games for them with fourth-quarter heroics and in spite of failings elsewhere on the roster. No matter how bad things got last year or early this year, it always seemed as though Manning would deliver in the fourth quarter if they kept it close. That's what made Sunday so jarring. Manning didn't even make it interesting. Even if he'd hit a couple of third-down throws, moved the ball into Pittsburgh territory and fallen short, or thrown an interception, that would have felt more familiar -- heroic in the striving if not in the ultimate result. Manning wasn't even able to offer that, and while there's little reason to believe he won't pull out of this slump in which he finds himself, it sure would be nice for the Giants if they could figure out a way to win when he's having an off day.
If you posit Manning's slump as a four-gamer -- the current four-game stretch in which he's thrown two touchdowns and four interceptions and his passer rating has dropped each week -- you are correct in pointing out that the Giants won three of the four games. But he didn't play badly in San Francisco, when they leaned on the run game, he made the game-winning throw in the fourth quarter against the Redskins and he did lead them on field-goal drives to win the game in Dallas. So Sunday's was really the first game in which that old Eli magic was needed and didn't show up.
The issue is the degree of impotence the Giants exhibited without it. Somebody on the line has got to figure out how to hold his block a beat longer. Hakeem Nicks is going to have to shake a defender. Ahmad Bradshaw's got to figure out how to make the first guy miss. Someone other than Manning, one of these weeks, is going to have to do something spectacular, because if you're always counting on the same one guy to do that, you're going to look pretty silly on the weeks in which he doesn't.
The Giants had been getting away with this offensive slump, as I already mentioned. But they weren't ignorant of it. There were changes made Sunday in an effort to get things clicking. David Diehl was back at right tackle. Victor Cruz came off the field in two-receiver sets in favor of rookie Rueben Randle, and played the slot pretty much exclusively when he went back in. Tom Coughlin and the other Giants coaches see that something's not right, and while they may be used to Manning covering up the team's flaws, they're wise enough to know they can't keep asking him to do it week after week.
This may all be moot, and to some extent they're champagne problems. The Giants are 6-3 and in firm control of the NFC East. Manning appears to be healthy, and his track record more than indicates he'll be fine. But that doesn't mean there won't be the occasional week here and there, down the road, in which he struggles. And the next time he does, the Giants would probably feel a lot better if they knew they could count on someone else to pick him up.