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Monday, August 11, 2008
Updated: August 13, 4:37 PM ET
32 Questions: Did Eli turn a corner in the playoffs?

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Did his Super Bowl win represent a breakthrough in development for Eli Manning, or merely one lucky month?

I can sum up the whole Eli Manning package for you in one word: confidence.

For a while, he seemed to lack it; he has long been in a situation not conducive to building it; yet in the waning moments of last season he seemed to finally capture it. I'd like to address each of those three points, one by one.

For a while, Eli Manning seemed to lack confidence.

This one's as simple as turning on your TV set, and watching Manning go about his business (or, at least, business as usual for him pre-January 2008).

Eli Manning
Eli Manning came into the NFL with a lot of hype. Will he finally live up to it?

For the first three full calendar years of his NFL career, he looked like an overmatched quarterback. He made poor reads, he struggled with his accuracy and often looked deflated when he made a mistake. Worse yet, those problems often led him into a downward spiral, with more devastating errors soon to follow.

From a pure scouting perspective, there wasn't a lot to like about Manning, at least not in comparison to the lofty expectations of being a member of a talented family, being selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft (in 2004) and having steered himself to his team of choice, the New York Giants, and a six-year, $54 million contract.

Incidentally, if you're anything like me and like to quantify your player evaluations with statistics, well, Manning's career rankings among active quarterbacks tell a similar story:

Passing yards per game: 199.7, 17th.
Passer rating: 73.4, 25th.
Yards per pass attempt: 6.3, 27th.

That's a poor start to what was supposed to be a storied NFL career, and the fact that Manning for a long time qualified as a huge disappointment, I think, directly caused Point No. 2 …

Manning has long been in a situation not conducive to building confidence.

NFC East Blog

Matt Mosley covers the NFC East for ESPN.com. He breaks down every team, including the defending world champion New York Giants.
NFC East Blog

No, he might not be scrutinized like Alex Rodriguez, but Manning hasn't been close to as successful as the Yankees slugger, either. And when you're the starting quarterback for an NFL team that calls New York -- face it, East Rutherford, N.J., is less than eight miles from Manhattan -- its home, you're going to find yourself beneath the microscope.

Ask yourself this: How would you like your work performance scrutinized, analyzed and criticized on a daily, even hourly, basis? You might find sleep a bit tougher each night, among the other things increased stress might cause.

To be fair, that's part of the reason Manning gets paid like he does, and by forcing a deal to the Giants in 2004, then inking a monstrous contract, effectively means he asked into this situation. There's no denying that, but we can also imagine that maybe, just maybe, the constant criticism got into Manning's head, affecting his performance.

If you don't believe that -- and I've got any of several New York-area bridges to sell you if you don't -- then do this: Check any of the New York media outlets' archives, scroll back to September 2007 and see what was being said about the guy. I did this, and found multiple stories that went as far as to speculate on the possibility Manning might be released at the conclusion of the season at the rate he was performing.

I specifically remember a certain talk-radio program that, as late as December, theorized that Manning would never get his career in New York back on track until he turned in at least one accomplishment that might get the fans back on his side. I think it was a good point, and I've shared that sentiment for some time. Which is why, conveniently …

Late last season, Eli Manning seemed to finally gain confidence.

I won't recount the details of the Giants' impressive playoff run, because I have a hunch, knowing who they beat, you heard all about it. If you don't, then, welcome to the NFL! Glad to have you aboard, where have you been all these years?

No, what I'll provide you are the simple statistics, because that's the one thing about the Giants' run few people really discussed. Counting Manning's Week 17 contest against the Patriots -- one his team hung in and actually almost won -- and his four playoff games, he completed 62.3 percent of his passes, averaged 221.6 passing yards, completed 10 touchdown passes and was intercepted twice.

Extrapolate those to a 16-game season and Manning would total 3,546 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. By comparison, if you scale all his career numbers, both regular-season and playoffs, to 16 games, he'd amass 3,179 passing yards with 22 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.

Not that I'm foolish enough to think a five-game (mostly playoffs) sample size represents the be-all and end-all of player evaluation, but those are high-pressure affairs. Manning, the Super Bowl XLII MVP, stepped up, became the player everyone expected he might become, and got the proverbial monkey off his back.

Or, at least, that's how I see it.

At the bare minimum, Manning bought himself at least one season's worth of benefit of the doubt. He earned his fans a championship, and for that, they'll most likely be more patient with him, perhaps for the first time in his NFL career. Having everyone off his case could work wonders for him. Or it'll buy him a year before the criticism resumes.

Even in the latter instance, you're looking at an especially attractive bargain candidate, if you missed out on the pricier quarterbacks. Manning will go for a relatively cheap price for a defending Super Bowl MVP, 11th among quarterbacks in average ESPN live drafts through Monday, and I'd argue that he has as much potential for improvement as anyone currently outside the top 10. Not that you should pick him much higher than that -- he still has his faults and it's his low ranking that makes him appealing besides -- but there's upside.

After all, in the worst-case scenario, Manning will do what he always has: dominate for two months and then go into the tank for the final two. Go back and look at his game logs if you don't believe that, but the numbers, in plain black and white, show it. Here they are (excluding his brief time as a starter in 2004):

First eight games: 218.6 passing yards per game, 42 touchdowns, 23 interceptions, 6.8 passing yards per attempt, 57.0 completion percentage
Final eight games: 212.3 passing yards per game, 29 touchdowns, 32 interceptions, 6.1 passing yards per attempt, 54.1 completion percentage

That screams, at the very least, first-half standout, so if you draft Manning cheap and see something you don't like in his body language in-season, shop him as Nov. 1 nears. Knowing his strong early-season track record, which this year most of your counterparts would probably read as him building upon his recent postseason heroics, I can't imagine you'd have a tough time moving him if he underwhelms again.

But -- for the record -- I don't think he will.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.