- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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In truth, there is very little to tie Eli Manning and Tony Romo together. One was the No. 1 overall pick, the other undrafted. One has won two Super Bowl MVP awards, the other has become the poster child for blowing it in big games. They play in the same division and are about the same age, but their stories are divergent.
Yet there they sit right next to each other, Romo at No. 61 and Manning at No. 62, on this year’s #NFLRank list (see chart, below right). And when you see it like that, you start to imagine where they’ll be on this list a year from now. It’s easy to realize that this is a pretty big season for both of these guys. For different reasons, each faces the question of whether he’s in decline.
Romo is 34 years old and has had back surgery twice in the past two years. He’s set up to produce big numbers as the quarterback of a Dallas Cowboys offense loaded with skill position weapons. For the first time in his career, it appears he has enough elite offensive line talent to protect him. Given the sorry state of the Cowboys’ defense, Romo is going to have the opportunity and responsibility to put up a lot of points.
So the question is whether he can, physically, or whether the back issues will continue to be a part of Romo’s story from here on out. If they are, the rest of the story likely gets a lot shorter and a lot more uncomfortable to watch.
Cowboys people say they’re happy with the progress Romo has made from this year’s back surgery and that the priority now is to make sure there are no further setbacks. If there aren’t, there’s no reason to think there’s reason for long-term worry with Romo. He’s up one spot from his place in last year’s rankings, which indicates that perception of him as a player hasn’t changed much. He’s set up to succeed on the field as long as he can stay there. For Romo, this season is about proving he’s healthy enough to make the next chapter of his career a substantial one.
Manning is in a different spot. As consistently healthy a quarterback as the NFL has, Manning had ankle surgery this spring and missed almost no practice time. He’s fully healthy and expecting to play all 16 games, as he has in every season since 2005. The question with Manning is not whether he’ll play, but how he’ll play.
Manning led the league last season with a career-high 27 interceptions. The Giants’ offense fell apart around him so completely that the organization engaged in a full-scale overhaul, bringing in a new offensive coordinator, installing a new offensive system and making sweeping personnel changes at running back, wide receiver, offensive line and tight end.
While some pieces (Victor Cruz, Justin Pugh) remain in place around him, the most critical constant is Manning, whose 2013 performance was alarming enough to drop him from No. 17 to No. 62 in these rankings. The question hanging over his tousled head as 2014 dawns is whether he was a victim of a system meltdown or an active creator of the mess. Manning is 33, and the way the league is built to preserve quarterbacks now, as long as he’s healthy, there’s no reason to think he can’t play five or six more years, easily.
But Manning has no contract beyond 2015, and the fact that the Giants didn’t extend him this offseason, when doing so would have helped them significantly on cap room, indicates that there are questions about his future. They have said, publicly and privately, that they don’t consider Manning to be a quarterback in decline. They believe he has and will continue to take to the new offense and help everyone else with the ease of the transition. He’s eager to put 2013 behind and play better going forward. He acknowledges his role in the mess and is working to make sure he doesn’t repeat it.
However, another bad year could easily change the narrative here. There’s no doubting Manning’s ability to elevate a team to greatness over a one-month or two-month span, as he has twice, to the chagrin of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. But can Manning be a consistent-enough performer in the regular season to shorten the Giants’ rebuilding phase and return them to annual contender status? Or are his best days behind him?
The Cowboys and the Giants could be in for rough seasons. Dallas’ defense appears noncompetitive on paper, and the Giants’ offense is a work in progress that might not be ready for the start of the season. It would be a mild surprise if either team contended for the division title, though it’s important to note that the NFC East always surprises to some extent.
Within that framework, though, Romo and Manning face important seasons from individual standpoints. Regardless of their teams’ final 2014 records, each is going to emerge from this season having addressed a major question about what to expect from the remainder of his career. Five months from now, we’re going to have a lot more information on which to base future expectations for these franchise quarterbacks. Based on the manner in which these players answer these key questions, their teams will either be breathing sighs of relief or addressing huge new questions about the most important position on their rosters.