Manning is probably on a Hall of Fame track. That's what happens when you make two of the most epic completions in NFL history and earn two Super Bowl MVP awards. But his legacy still has to be set, and this will be an extremely important year in that regard.
He'll turn 33 just after the 2013 regular season ends. He isn't running out of time, per se. His big brother, Peyton, is still going strong at the age of 37. But Eli is on the back end of his career now, and his individual legacy will be cemented in the near future.
Manning was supposed to keep building momentum after that surprise 2011 Super Bowl run. I figured he'd have a career year at the age of 31. Instead, he doubled down on being classically inconsistent, lost his fourth-quarter magic and saw his broad numbers drop off across the board. He was less accurate than usual, and it just felt as though his right arm was low on battery power.
Has he recharged this offseason? That's the big question. Another comme ci, comme ca season will make it easier for critics to conclude that No. 10 is overrated. It'll make it easier for them to say that lightning struck twice—once in January and February of 2008 and again in January and February of 2012.
Outside of that, they'll say Manning had a pretty ordinary career. I'd have to agree with them.
This is a team sport, and Manning is a two-time Super Bowl champion, so he and his teammates and Giants fans worldwide won't care. However, for those of us trying to dig a little deeper to classify, rank and evaluate individual football players now and in the future, his play outside of those lightning strikes is also very important.
What concerns me most about Manning is his lack of consistency. He's had his share of superhero moments, but he simply becomes ordinary (or less than ordinary) too often. It's more often than most of his top-tier quarterback peers.
Looking strictly at passer rating, the league average is usually between 80 and 85, so a "bad game" for a good quarterback is really anything under 70.
Since 2005, Manning has won 17 games despite posting a sub-70 passer rating. In the same span, no other quarterback has won more than 10 under the same circumstances. The winning percentage of all NFL quarterbacks in sub-70 passer rating games is .248. Manning's winning percentage in such games is .459.
Put simply, Manning has gotten away with errors more often than his peers. He also leads the league in three-interception games dating back to '05, but he has a .307 winning percentage on those 13 occasions, while the league average for three-pick quarterbacks is .117.
Some of that is on him. Manning has put together 23 fourth-quarter comebacks (including the playoffs) since 2005, his first year as New York's full-time starter. That's more than any other quarterback in football, including Peyton Manning (20), Drew Brees (17) and Tom Brady (16).
While he might save himself once in a while, the numbers still reveal that he's more prone to poor outings than the rest of the league's "elite" quarterbacks:
Manning was no longer a stud in the fourth quarter last season. His rating in that quarter was a so-so 90.2, and his fourth-quarter touchdown total dropped from 18 in 2011 to eight in 2012. He was no longer bailing himself out, and he probably shouldn't expect his teammates to save the day too often in 2013.
Center David Baas and top receiver Victor Cruz might not be fully healthy Week 1. The same is true for fullback Henry Hynoski, who was the team's third-best pass-blocker last season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Ranked second and fourth on that list were starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw and starting tight end Martellus Bennett, both of whom are now gone. A rookie (Justin Pugh) will be forced to start from the get-go at right tackle, ready or not, and versatile veteran offensive lineman David Diehl will also be unavailable at the start of the year.
Manning has managed to stay healthy and relatively clean in the pocket for nine years now, mainly because he—like brother Peyton—has a borderline-uncanny ability to maneuver in the pocket and escape pressure, despite what I'll call legs of molasses.
I don't anticipate that skill disappearing at any point, but his supporting cast continues to be decimated in a variety of ways, and Peyton can vouch that it only takes one hit to change everything.
That's why this season is so important. It's Year 10 for Manning, and the post-Super Bowl pressure is gone, but the actual, non-proverbial pressure is likely to increase.
It's hard to rise up and take a step forward when you're merely trying to survive. This season can't be about treading water for Manning and the Giants, despite the fact that wound up paying off in '07 and '11. Scenarios have changed, and lightning never strikes three times, right?
Manning can't rely too heavily on a depleted roster, and he can't keep hoping that he'll make up for his mistakes in the final moments. That didn't work last season, so he'll have to become more consistent right across the board in 2013.
If that doesn't happen, his numbers will probably keep dropping, and his legacy will continue to be questioned.