4,933. That, is how many yards Eli Manning threw for during the 2011 campaign. It’s an impressive total that was thanks in no small part to a three-headed monster at the receiver position.
Manning’s passing numbers are quite impressive, despite the fact that three other QBs found a way to throw for north of 5,000 yards during the same season. But would the Giants prefer Manning’s numbers rise, or the overall performance of the offense increase?
I can assure you that Lombardi Trophy aside, Wellington Mara gave the slightest turn in his grave after New York finished last in regular-season rushing yardage. Since 1925, the Giants had remained (stubbornly) a run-first team.
The transition to a pass-first offense is certainly welcome (the results speak for themselves), and I am not calling for a change to that philosophy, regardless of Manningham’s presence. However, it would shock me if Manning’s single season yardage numbers climbed in 2012.
I fully expect the Giants to be dedicated to improving the rushing attack this offseason. Tom Coughlin has already suggested that fans keep their eyes on Da’Rel Scott, and I have a feeling there are plans for him to become an integral part of the offense.
An offensive strategy that includes a higher production from the running game might decrease passing stats, but it would stand to increase the offense’s overall effectiveness.
But running game aside, there will obviously need to be a new third receiver in town. During several games this season, the WR corps did play a man down and two of the three stars were able to carry the load.
So in a way, the three-pronged attack not only forced defenses to leave a prime target in poor coverage, but it also served as an injury safety net.
The formula clearly works, so the Giants will look to replicate it. There have been rumblings of Steve Smith’s return. While Jerry Reese admits that he was unaware that a star of Victor Cruz’s caliber was in his back pocket, he was wise to let a still-hobbled receiver walk out the door last year.
After breaking through in 2009 with 107 receptions for 1,220 yards, Smith has played in only nine games during each of the past two seasons (one with New York, one with Philadelphia). In 2011, he recorded only 11 receptions for 124 yards and one TD.
Smith signed a one-year deal with the Eagles, simply because they were willing to throw his name onto their free-agency stockpile as a bargain-bin bonus.
Only months removed from being a star on their fiercest rival’s roster, Smith was a cheap treasure that had missed out on a blockbuster deal thanks to a devastating knee injury.
Buried on the depth chart, Smith barely saw any action even when “healthy.” Though he was able to suit up, Smith only succeeded in proving that Reese had been correct about the receiver’s knee needing more time to fully heal.
Would the Giants take back an ex-girlfriend and extend an invitation to Smith to replace Manningham? Each day, there seems to be more fans that think so.
Smith’s best season still falls short of Cruz’s best by 336 yards despite the fact that Cruz brought in 25 catches less than the 107 mark Smith hit. Why? Because with Smith gone, the Giants didn’t lose a deep threat; they lost a possession receiver.
Yes, occasionally Smith would haul in a long bomb, but that wasn’t his specialty. He blended well with the agility and speed of Manningham and Hakeem Nicks. Cruz found a way to play the roll of deep threat (see: Week 3, 2011) and possession receiver (see: NFC Championship game, 2012).
If Smith were to return, he would likely benefit the Giants and allow Cruz and Nicks to be the big hitters while he stayed open underneath. With regards to the safety net I mentioned earlier, Cruz became the true workhorse when two other healthy deep threats could run deeper routes.
I’d expect to see a drop off in his stat totals (but not effectiveness) should a key possession receiver be added to the roster. That person would likely get many of the more pedestrian throws that went Cruz’s way (some of which he turned into huge gains with YAC).
But will the nasty exit hurt the chances of that happening? He not only left for a division rival, but he broke a promise to the Giants front office and did not allow them the opportunity to counter the Eagles' offer.
Though Reese is earning a reputation of using logic rather than emotion or immediate gratification, this could be his hardest test yet.