Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings and three seasons leading the NFL in interceptions. The 2017 season could decide his legacy.
The New York Giants have lived or died on the arm of Eli “3li” Manning since they drafted him in 2004. He has driven them to the highest heights of NFL stardom (Super Bowl victories in 2007 and 2011) and some of the lowest lows possible in the NFL (five third-place finishes in the NFC East, three-time single-season leader in interceptions, six seasons of .500 or worse finishes).
There isn’t a whole lot of in-between to Eli’s game— especially not recently. His play in 2015 led the Giants to top-ten finishes in both points and yards on offense. The Giants ranked sixth in passing attempts, seventh in yards, first in passing touchdowns, 19th in interceptions and 11th in net yards per attempt. Unfortunately, the 2015 Giants defense was one of the worst the team has fielded in recent memory and they finished the season third in the NFC East with a 6-10 record.
2016 was a better year for the Giants, but a worse year for the Giants on offense. They finished 26th in points and 25th in yards, dropping twenty spots in points and seventeen in yards. The Giants were only eighth in passing attempts, 17th in yards, 13th in touchdowns, 22nd in interceptions and 19th in adjusted yards per attempt.
There are good and bad things about both Eli’s best and worst performances in 2016. Let’s take a look at some of the things Eli did well and what he didn’t do well at in 2016, and then why 2017 will help decide what kind of legacy Eli will have. Will he be known as the Captain Clutch that led the Giants to two rings? Or will his legacy fade as he edges closer to retirement?
The Good Times: What Eli Did Well in 2016
Eli Manning had some up and down performances in 2016, and one of his better performances was in 2016’s Week 9, where he threw four touchdowns on just 257 yards passing while taking just one sack.
Eli’s first touchdown came on a play action slant play to one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers, Odell Beckham, Jr.. Eli hits Beckham five yards into the route and after Odell breaks a Rodney McCleod tackle, he’s off to the races. This is a play that almost perfectly exemplifies Eli in my mind: it’s a good throw that is on target that allows his receiver to make a play in the open field. That said, this is a relatively easy throw that even the worst quarterbacks in the NFL should be capable of making, especially with a defense playing that far off his receiver, and Beckham does a lot of the work in getting into the end zone. Manning and Beckham also benefitted from a poor defensive play call for the situation and even worse pursuit angles and tackling from the Eagles secondary.
Manning’s second touchdown of the day was caught by someone named Roger Lewis. This was a throw that is much more difficult than the slant route above, though the result was obviously the same. Lewis runs a double-move deep post and benefits from the two Eagles secondary players both tripping over each other and not knowing their coverage assignment. A tough throw, one that not many quarterbacks would make considering that when Eli released the ball, Lewis was still well-covered by cornerback Leodis McKelvin and safety help in the way of Jaylen Watkins was rotating over.
Two of Manning’s better throws on the season came on the next touchdown drive for the Giants. The first was a long completion to Victor Cruz on a sweet double move. With McKelvin providing about as tight of coverage as can be expected by a corner working on a wide receiver who put a double move on them, Manning floats the ball up and over and right into Cruz’s breadbasket, making him the only person involved in the play with a shot to make the catch. This is not a throw many quarterbacks can easily make, but Manning does it quite well here.
After a defensive pass interference call and a one-yard rush by Rashad Jennings, Manning once again looked for his best receiver in the end zone. He throws a jump ball to Beckham, who swipes aside McKelvin’s attempt to press him at the line and snags the ball right over McKelvin’s helmet. No chance for the defender here, and a well-timed throw by Manning and a talented catch by Beckham. That quelled a 10-0 scoring run by the Eagles and gave the Giants the final score before halftime as the defenses began to lock down each other’s offenses.
Manning’s final touchdown came as a recognition of yet another blown coverage by the horrendous Eagles secondary. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins committed a holding penalty on slot wide receiver Sterling Shepard (though it easily could have been the other way around with how physical Shepard was) as Shepard was attempting to fight through Jenkins’ coverage. He recovered his footing and then caught the final touchdown of the day for Eli. This throw featured some good-to-great vision by Manning to realize that Shepard was going to keep his feet even after the penalty and that help was not coming over the top to take Shepard after he had gotten past Jenkins.
This was a fairly good week for Manning; the negatives from this week were a 61% completion rate (not something to scoff at, but could have been better), two interceptions, both of which could have cost the Giants a win if the Eagles had managed to put together a drive on offense in response, and being just 4/13 on third downs. Now let’s take a look at a week in 2016 that wasn’t so kind to Eli.
The Bad Times: Where Eli Struggled
Eli Manning has thrown 215 interceptions in his career in 201 career games, which works out to about one per game. One team in particular has always been a thorn in Eli’s side, and 2016 once again proved how dominant they have been in recent years against the younger Manning brother. I’m talking, of course, about the Minnesota Vikings. Tough season they may have had, but their first five games were some seriously dominant games to watch, and their defense had a lot to do with that. Eli faced off against Minnesota in Week 4 and, well, it didn’t end well for Manning.
Manning was 25/45 (55.5 percent) for 261 yards (5.8 yards per attempt) and an interception. Interceptions have been a killer for Manning against Minnesota, as his 15 career interceptions against Minnesota are his highest for any non-divisional opponent.
His lone interception in this year’s game was one of those throws that makes people scratch their heads when they talk about Manning. While they were only down 14-3 at the time of the interception, Manning’s performance made the lead seem a lot bigger than that. Manning attempts a deep shot to Beckham and either Beckham completely paused in his route or Manning put about ten yards of extra air under the ball. Either way, the ball ended up in cornerback Xavier Rhodes’ hands and was a nice runback.
You might be thinking that 261 yards isn’t that bad a game, and sometimes you’d be right. Unfortunately, this is one of those games where numbers are not what they appear to be, and that 261 yards Eli threw for was greatly inflated by plays made almost entirely by his wide receivers. A full 25 percent of Eli’s yardage (67 yards) came on a screen pass to Paul Perkins that caught Minnesota off guard and showcased some of the tackling issues that Minnesota would be dealing with later on in the season.
The Giants were 2/12 (16.7 percent) on third down and only Perkins with his 67-yard screen pass-and-run managed to catch more than 50 yards in the game for the Giants. This game was a feature of Eli Manning against what was then one of the top secondaries in the NFL, and he mustered only ten points.
Week 3 against the division rival Redskins was no picnic for Eli either. He threw two interceptions and fumbled twice more, recovering both in a game the Giants lost by two points.
Eli flirted with danger all game long. The throw to the left was a dangerous throw into double coverage. Eli was trying to hit Odell Beckham for a touchdown while he was being bracketed tightly by corner Josh Norman and safety David Bruton. Norman undercut the throw and nearly picked him off, which would have halted a drive that eventually ended in a touchdown for the Giants. He continued taking risks throughout the game, nearly getting picked in the third quarter by Bruton on a back-shoulder fade into the end zone to running back Bobby Rainey.
It was a throw that was made out of panic, as Manning had rushers approaching him on both sides of the pocket, and while there wasn’t a particularly high likelihood of Bruton being able to adjust and make an interception, the chance was still there. The throw was made even worse because Manning threw it off his back foot, meaning he wouldn’t have nearly as much touch as he would have in a normal attempt like the play to the left.
Manning’s risky passes finally bit him late in the fourth quarter. He was driving down towards the end zone when he tried to hit tight end Will Tye with a go-ahead touchdown pass. Unfortunately, because Tye was in a handfighting duel with backup cornerback Quinton Dunbar, Eli put the ball too much into the center of the field, and it was picked off by Dunbar on a spectacular one-handed catch.
His second interception, which was the game-sealing play for the Redskins, came on what should have been an easy dump-off over the middle to running back Shane Vereen. Manning…shuffled up into the pocket, which led to what appeared to be a somewhat off-balanced throw since he was not fully set, and linebacker Su’a Cravens took advantage of Manning’s flawed mechanics. The first interception came on a one-handed catch, and the second came on a diving catch by Cravens. If Manning does there what nearly every veteran quarterback is capable of and leads his receiver just a little farther, Vereen would have been off to the races. Instead, Manning’s poor pass ended the game.
These are just two games from the 2016 season, but Manning has had scores of such games throughout his career, and to be honest, they’re one of the biggest reasons the younger Manning isn’t considered anywhere near as good as his older brother despite having the same number of Super Bowl rings. So that leads us to 2017, a year of reckoning for Manning.
2017: Manning’s Last Hurrah?
Most quarterbacks are full of bravado and are confident that they can play until their bodies wither away and die (which, in Tom Brady’s case, might actually be true). Unfortunately for the Giants, they are basically stuck with Manning through the 2018 season, so whatever I say here will likely not mean a whole lot in the long run. Teams are nothing if not financially sound (usually) and they are loathe to take a $12.4M cap hit, no matter how bad a player might have played the year before.
Manning has such a cap hit in the 2018 season, which likely means that the Giants will be tied to him until the 2019 offseason. But, let’s say that the Giants could be willing to pay that money off to send Manning to the junk heap. What would it take for that to happen?
Well, Manning would likely have to have another poor season as he did last year. Eli Manning was one of seven starting quarterbacks to have more than half of their yardage come from yards after the catch, or YAC. This means that Manning was one of the more reliant quarterbacks on his wide receivers doing plenty of work on their own to raise his yardage totals. This is fairly typical of the West Coast offense that Giants head coach Ben McAdoo runs, and it does a lot with trusting wide receivers.
This means that a healthy and talented YAC corps is necessary for the Giants, and their talent level at wide receiver has been somewhat lacking in recent years. Despite Odell Beckham’s presence, it can be hard to overcome having a running back being third in receiving yards as recently as 2015. The Giants have therefore worked a little harder to surround Manning with talent over the last two years, and this year it appears as though his receiving corps will feature Beckham, Brandon Marshall (a free agent pickup from the Jets) and Sterling Shepard, a talented sophomore receiver.
There is still a chance that the Giants add another receiver in the draft, because while having three wide receivers as good as Marshall, Beckham and Shepard are, depth can be a factor in making deep runs into the playoffs, and the wide receiver depth for the Giants goes from those three studs to Roger Lewis and Dwayne Harris— not exactly the kind of players that inspire confidence.
Manning’s receivers are talented, there’s no doubt about that. His offensive line is okay too, as Manning took just 21 sacks last year, which is the fourth-lowest total of his career. While he only took 21 sacks last year, Manning will be in his age-36 season in 2017, and will be turning 37 in early January. There’s a certain number of hits a quarterback can sustain as he ages, and that number falls every year. The Giants will likely be focusing on offensive line in the draft, so that will help.
In the end, though, it all comes down to Manning. He’s going to be 37 years old right when the regular season wraps up, and most quarterbacks are really starting to feel their age at that point. Manning has never had the highs of his older brother, but he has had seasons that were rather on par with Peyton’s worst seasons. The Giants should have a reasonably talented offense in 2017, providing they can keep everyone healthy and Manning upright. If they can find a functional running game, so much the better, as a little more of the load would be taken off Manning’s shoulders. The Giants don’t yet have a plan of succession for when Manning retires, and relying on Geno Smith to lead an offense into a post-Manning future would not go well.
But Manning has shown the ability to be absolutely brutal in the past. Just four seasons ago Manning nearly threw 30 interceptions in one of his and New York’s worst seasons together. If Manning’s play devolves into something resembling his play in 2013, the Giants would be wise to move on. But even if he doesn’t decline, that time is coming soon, and New York has to be ready to replace him when the time comes.
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- Peyton, 5012
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