Commentary

Eli Manning's career at a crossroads

If we don't see a revival in 2014, the Giants may need to take more drastic actions

Updated: July 23, 2014, 5:31 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

With the Giants just a few days into training camp with their new offensive coordinator, an up-in-the-air offensive line and an owner, John Mara, who seems to have inched into public view a bit more to ratchet up the feeling of urgency, Giants quarterback Eli Manning has reached an interesting little crossroads in his career.

Where Manning ranks anymore as an NFL quarterback is a bit up for grabs. The "Is Eli elite?" question that grew so tiresome a few years ago has been re-opened. And great swaths of what to expect from him this season defies hindsight or predictions.

Over the offseason, Justin Tuck and Chris Snee joined all the Super Bowl-winning teammates who had already walked out the door, and Manning admitted Monday he's noticed their absence. Kevin Gilbride, the only NFL offensive coordinator the 33-year-old Manning worked with since 2007, has been replaced by Ben McAdoo, a West Coast offense guru from Green Bay. The answers about what it all means are just going to have to play out.

Monday, even Manning allowed he's still adjusting to it all, saying: "Yeah, it is different. You come into the season a little nervous."

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
AP Photo/Seth WenigAfter struggling last year, Eli Manning has felt an extra push from Giants brass ahead of the 2014 season.

Eli? Nervous?

"You have a good feel for [the new offense], but not to where I want it to be," he continued. "That just comes with repetition and more plays. It is a different feeling at this time of year than in previous years. Still have a lot of work to do, a lot to improve on to get comfortable myself and get comfortable with my teammates and everything that goes on with being successful in an offense."

This is new, all right. After missing the playoffs four of the past five seasons, it's probably smart the Giants concluded that even if they didn't blame Eli for all of it, Eli needed his cage rattled a little bit, too. And that it was important that a shove come from in-house, not just from those opposing pass-rushers or media critics who kept hammering him last year.

For so long, Manning has been a made man. He had those two Super Bowl rings and a familiar coaching staff around him. He's been embedded in one of the gold-standard franchises in his sport, a temperate organization that chooses saneness and stability even when the playoffs are missed.

But last season's regression made Mara finally draw a line. The 0-6 start was a switch from the previous years of late-season swoons. But it was still another typically wild swing for a Tom Coughlin-Manning team. And it finally left Mara believing change had to be made for winning's sake -- not merely for the sake of change.

And so, Mara griped about GM Jerry Reese's draft approach and results. He gave Coughlin a we'll-see contract extension rather than a career-achievement sweetheart deal. And even Manning wasn't spared.

At last season's end, Mara groused to reporters that all he kept hearing was the interception total was going to go down, but then "nothing ever changes."

If Manning didn't notice, he should've. Gilbride saw Mara's displeasure and retired rather than be fired.

Manning himself won't really be moving into some late-career crosshairs until the Giants make a trade or use a serious draft pick on his eventual successor. But when it comes to the Giants' offense -- and by extension, Manning himself -- it's hard not to miss how "too comfortable" and "stagnant" have kept cropping up in Coughlin's or, more ominously, Mara's remarks.

Nobody questions Manning's work ethic. But Ron Jaworski, the former Eagles quarterback and current ESPN analyst, has rightly pointed out that a great many of Manning's interceptions in 2013 were his fault. Nobody else's. When Jaworski did his typically-exhaustive film study to compile his 2014 quarterback big-board rankings he put Manning at a pedestrian No. 11, trailing the likes of San Diego's perennial bridesmaid, Philip Rivers, as well as more recent title winners like Russell Wilson and Joe Flacco.

Why? Jaworski wrote that his study showed: "There's no way to sugarcoat it: Eli had an awful year in 2013. Throwing 15 interceptions in his first six games and 27 overall is simply unacceptable for a quarterback of his experience level and talent. ... Based on last season, Manning should be in the bottom third of these ranks, but his career accomplishments earn him this spot."

All of that is true. Manning deserves to be called out.

And still, what makes rating Manning's 2013 season so hard to extrapolate forward from is he was pummeled so viciously behind a bad, injury-wracked Giants offensive line. (He eventually needed offseason ankle surgery.) He has also left it to other people to note the Giants didn't have a reliable tight end as a safety valve for him. Or a fully committed Hakeem Nicks to complement slot receiver Victor Cruz. Or a running game Manning could count on.

The Giants' running backs on average gained only 1.9 yards per carry before contact last year, which ranked next-to-last in the NFL.

Manning is too good of a teammate and too proud a quarterback to push back or complain, "What did you expect from me?"

But after watching last season firsthand, I'll always believe that some of those interceptions Manning threw were because he looked around last year and privately decided he didn't have as much help as he'd like, so it was up to him to make something happen, to go out and win games by himself. Especially during that shocking 0-6 start that just kept getting worse.

You could actually argue that, if anything, he deserved a sort of perverse admiration for not caring how ugly another interception would look on his stat line. He was just trying to win the damn game. Get it?

Was it the right decision? Probably not. And again, some critics have decided that wasn't his problem at all. They theorize Manning is beginning his decline.

We'll see.

That plot line is one of the reasons this Giants season sets up as so fascinating. We're either going to see a Manning revival and get acquainted with the next generation of winning players like the departed Tuck and Snee. Or Mara is probably going to be pushed into asserting himself even more than he has. Heads may roll.

For now, suggesting Eli is in decline rather than the team around him declined seems hazardous. And of course Eli doesn't buy it, either. He comes from tough, uncomplaining stock. He hasn't missed a start in 162 straight games, including playoffs. Except for that rare admission of some nervousness Monday, the rest of what he said is what he's supposed to say: He's excited about the new season. He's embracing this new challenge. He knows he has to do better.

And if he still feels a bit uncomfortable anyway? Good.

He should.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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