We can debate all day about Eli Manning's Hall of Fame credentials, the value of his Super Bowl rings and MVPs and his wide-ranging legacy in general, but nobody is going to dispute the notion that 2013 has been the most trying season of Manning's 10-year NFL career.
This season is lost, both for Manning and the team. Good things could happen between now and Dec. 29, but nothing is likely to change the fact that some New York Giants fans are wondering if/when they'll get their reliable, clutch franchise signal-caller back.
Five days after this dismal season comes to a merciful end, Manning will turn 33. He's officially on the tail end of a career that has contained an unprecedented number of peaks and valleys. Can he peak again? Or is Peyton's little brother destined to fade from the realm of so-called "elite" quarterbacks in the years to come?
Let's break it down to forecast Manning's future.
What the stats say
Since the start of 2010, Manning has thrown 81 interceptions. No other NFL quarterback has thrown 70 in that span. In fact, Tom Brady has thrown the same number of picks since the start of the 2005 season. He'll inevitably lead the NFL in interceptions for the third time in his 10-year career, and, with just two picks in his final two games, he'll set a new career high in that area.
But it's not just about picks. This year, Manning is the NFL's third-lowest-rated qualifying passer, ahead of only Terrelle Pryor and Geno Smith. He's completed just 58.6 percent of his passes, which is his lowest rate since before he really started to enter his prime in 2008.
It tends to boil down to that pick total, which can't be tolerated.
After throwing 25 picks in 2010, Manning stated, per Tom Rock of Newsday, that he was "not a 25-interception quarterback."
Fool us once...
After reaching the 25 mark again with five picks Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, he's the only active quarterback with three 20-interception seasons and two 25-pick campaigns.
A study by the New York Daily News found that eight of Manning's 25 picks this year have come on desperate plays (i.e. Hail Mary-type passes) or as a result of unlucky bounces, but that would still put him at 17. Only he and Geno Smith have more than 17 picks this year, and let's keep in mind that every other quarterback has also thrown at least an interception or two that wasn't his fault.
Even setting aside 2010—because that was four years ago and he was pretty damn good in 2011—it should be made clear that this isn't merely a "down year" for Manning. His completion percentage was also below 60 last year and his yards-per-attempt total—which is a grossly underrated stat—dropped all the way from 8.4 to 7.4 (it has since decreased further to 7.0).
Stretching back to the start of 2012, here's where Eli ranks among quarterbacks with at least 500 pass attempts:
Among 29 qualifying passers with at least 500 pass attempts (Pro Football Reference)
Yes, Manning followed up his last 25-pick season with a Super Bowl campaign in 2011. But don't expect lightning to strike twice.
What the tape says
What, specifically, has gone wrong for Manning? Where to begin?
For starters, he obviously hasn't been accurate enough. He's just missing throws, as evidenced here in the opener against the Dallas Cowboys:
No, his offense hasn't made it easy on him (more on that in a moment), but even so, Manning has screwed up too many easy throws. This isn't supposed to be a difficult underneath completion to Nicks.
In addition to that, Manning just doesn't seem to be putting the same zip on passes that he used to. I don't know why that's been the case, but he isn't leading receivers with impact. He's thrown too many lame ducks, like this one against the Oakland Raiders, which turned into a pick-six:
"I don’t feel any differently on my throws," Manning said after Week 15, according to Gary Myers of the New York Daily News, "so I don’t think that’s a reason for some of the interceptions."
But that's also what Manning said a year ago when critics were wondering if he had a "tired arm."
"I feel like I’m making the throws," he said last November, per Jenny Vrentas of the Newark Star-Ledger, "and I don’t feel like it’s tired."
That was probably overplayed in the media, and our analysis confirmed what we suspected—that Manning's accuracy was a bigger problem than his arm strength. That remains the case.
On top of all that, though, he has not been making good decisions. I don't know if any quarterback in the world has the necessary "zip" to make superhero throws into windows like these...
Manning's offensive line ranks 31st in the league in terms of pass-blocking efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Left tackle Will Beatty has struggled in the first year of his new contract, right tackle Justin Pugh has experienced growing pains, and the interior of the line has been crushed by injuries to veterans Chris Snee and David Baas.
I can't count how many times Manning has been limited in terms of his ability to step into throws, as you can see here on an incomplete pass against the San Diego Chargers.
Again, that's not totally his fault, but that also isn't necessarily something that can simply be reversed next year. Damage may have been done the last two seasons.
If the offensive line is bolstered, his pass protection is improved and the Giants establish some stability in the running game, it should immediately help Manning.
Let's also add that a coordinator change and a revamped offensive approach might be beneficial as well, because it does often feel as though Manning is simply being asked to do too much within Kevin Gilbride's offense. Too many five- and seven-step drops without safety valves. Not enough of the easy stuff, which is especially necessary when a quarterback is trying to get out of a rut.
It's actually amazing how often Manning has been forced to deal with situations like these the last 15 months. Three, maybe even four seconds after the snap and nobody is close to open. There are no checkdowns available, either.
I mean, how often do you see the guy throw a damn screen pass? Newark Star-Ledger columnist Dave D'Alessandro might have been onto something earlier this week when he suggested that Manning is the worst-coached quarterback in the NFL.
"In a sport that reinvents itself every four years," wrote D'Alessandro, "the Giants are stuck in a time warp, and nothing is likely to change until the coaches change."
So, if, based on the eyeball test, it's not all on No. 10, is it curable?
What history says
I guess the question we're asking here is this: Has anyone ever been able to successfully bounce back from such a slump? In world history, yes. In football history and at the quarterback position? No, not really. But mainly because it's pretty much unprecedented for a player of Manning's caliber.
Precedent analysis: Quarterbacks after leading the league with 20-plus interceptions beyond the age of 30
This rules out outlier rookie seasons like the one Peyton Manning had when he tossed 28 picks in 1998. Let's only look at veterans and their ability to get back on track after poor showings in the interception department.
|Picks||Age||What happened next?|
|Brett Favre, 2008||22||39||One bad final season in Minnesota.|
|Brett Favre, 2005||29||36||MVP runner-up in 2007.|
|Vinny Testaverde, 2000||25||37||Slight improvement in 2001, then faded.|
|Bobby Hebert, 1996||25||36||Retired.|
|Dave Krieg, 1995||21||37||Slight improvement in 2006, then faded.|
|Warren Moon, 1991||21||35||Made five more Pro Bowls.|
|Tommy Kramer, 1985||26||30||Made the Pro Bowl in 1986.|
|Lynn Dickey, 1983||29||34||Faded and retired in two years.|
|Brian Sipe, 1981||25||32||31 picks in next 21 games before retiring.|
|Fran Tarkenton, 1978||32||38||Retired.|
|Joe Namath, 1975||28||32||12 more starts before retirement.|
|Norm Snead, 1973||22||34||15 more starts before retirement.|
Pro Football Reference (last 40 years)
Manning himself came close to being our best precedent when he led the NFL with 25 picks in 2010. He obviously followed that difficult season up with a Super Bowl run in 2011, but he was only 29 years old during that 2010 campaign and was supposed to be just at the cusp of his prime.
As you can see, the standard for quarterbacks producing after leading the league in picks at 30 years of age or older isn't strong. Sure, lots of the quarterbacks above were a lot older than Manning, but that's almost more concerning. Manning is the first quarterback in 27 years to throw 25 or more picks between the ages of 30 and 33.
The best comparisons we can make are Sipe, Namath and Jim Kelly, who didn't make the list above because he threw 19 interceptions in 1992 (but still led the league).
All three of those quarterbacks led the league in picks at 32. Sipe, like Manning, also did so a couple years earlier. None of them ever recaptured the glory he had once experienced (to varying degrees), but it's not as though Kelly became a slouch.
Hell, he was still a Pro Bowler in '92, and he led the Buffalo Bills back to the Super Bowl in '93. Kelly always seemed to throw somewhere in the range of 17-20 interceptions, so that wasn't really an off year. There's a large difference between throwing 19 picks 20 years ago and throwing 25-plus picks twice in a four-year span in this era.
In other words, the lack of comparable precedents doesn't bode too well for Manning.
Precedent analysis: Quarterbacks after finishing in the bottom 10 in passer rating, below 60 percent completions and 20-plus picks, beyond the age of 30
Same rule, more metrics. This ensures that the interception totals aren't just a fluke.
|Year||Age||What happened next?|
|Rex Grossman||2011||31||Hasn't thrown a pass since.|
|Vinny Testaverde||2004||41||Final full season.|
|Kerry Collins||2004||32||One more year before booted out of OAK.|
|Vinny Testaverde||2000||37||One more full season with Jets.|
|Dave Krieg||1995||37||One more mediocre season as starter.|
|Dave Krieg||1990||32||Bounced around NFL for half a decade.|
|Tommy Kramer||1985||30||Made the Pro Bowl in '86, faded by '87.|
|Richard Todd||1983||30||Out of the league after '84 season.|
|Joe Ferguson||1983||33||One more year as a starter.|
|Brian Sipe||1981||31||31 picks in next 21 games before retiring.|
|Jim Hart||1980||36||Final season as a starter.|
|Jim Hart||1979||35||See above.|
|Ken Stabler||1978||33||5 seasons as starter in OAK, HOU, NO.|
|Craig Morton||1976||33||So-so five-year run in Denver.|
|Joe Namath||1975||32||12 more starts before retirement.|
|John Hadl||1975||35||6 more starts before retirement.|
|Norm Snead||1973||34||15 more starts before retirement.|
Pro Football Reference (last 30 years)
Manning meets all of this criteria quite easily. He's well ahead of that 20-interception qualification with 25 and is the league's third-lowest-rated passer. Had we restricted the comparison to those numbers, he'd stand alone. In other words, no player over the age of 30 in modern NFL history has ever completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes, thrown 25 interceptions and posted a passer rating ranking in the bottom three in the league.
Manning is two weeks away from being the first.
But even after we push the interception allowance to 20 and allow all quarterbacks ranking in the bottom 10 (among qualifiers) in the rating category, there aren't a lot of positive precedents for Manning supporters to point to.
Sipe and Namath both come up again, but the most interesting addition is Ken Stabler, who made four Pro Bowls, won a Super Bowl and was named to the 1970s All-Decade Team. The guy could play, and he had a season that was almost Eli-bad in 1978.
Stabler was a year older than Manning, and he threw a career-high 30 interceptions that season. Amazingly, in a very different era, his passer rating (63.3) was still better than nine other qualifying quarterbacks, and his completion percentage (58.4) actually ranked fifth in the NFL.
Stabler circa '78 was still better than Manning circa 2013, at least in comparison to his peers, but 30 picks is still ridiculous. He's one of only 10 quarterbacks in NFL history to reach that mark.
As we noted, he continued to start for five more years in three different cities, faring OK. He never got back to a Pro Bowl and tossed 28 more picks in 1980, but he's one of only a few quarterbacks listed above whose career didn't go to hell soon after such a garbage season.
All in all, history is not on Manning's side, but none of those guys had multiple Super Bowl MVP trophies. His season has been historically bad for a veteran with his resume, but even a minor bounce-back season for him—or some late success like Moon or Kramer had—could result in him regaining his groove.
What my gut says
I didn't eat breakfast so maybe I'm off on this, but I still believe Manning can save the back end of his career. Things can't get a lot worse, and the Giants have invested too deeply in him to not hang on regardless of what happens in 2014. So, eventually, they should be able to re-find some of what was lost.
With Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and maybe even Hakeem Nicks on board and with money to spend in free agency, he might stand a chance—even if the numbers, tape and historical comparisons are stacked against him.
"It's probably going to come in small gains,'' Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said this week when asked if Eli would ever become elite again, per Tom Rock of Newsday, "but I believe it will come.''
That's such a Coughlin thing to say, and it's what the Giants brass is expected to both say and believe. But the reality is that, even with increased support, Manning has major improvements to make. And quarterbacks—aside from those like Rich Gannon, Warren Moon and Jeff Garcia, who didn't start their respective careers until much later—don't typically make major strides at or beyond the age of 33.
The excuses only take you so far. Ten quarterbacks who have played significantly in 2013 have been pressured more often than Manning this year, including shoo-in Pro Bowler Russell Wilson, according to Pro Football Focus. And even after PFF removes drops, throwaways, spikes, batted passes and plays in which he was hit as he threw, Manning is still the league's third-least accurate qualifying quarterback.
Regardless of what you or I believe about his level of competence and his future, Manning isn't going anywhere. He is slated to count over $20 million against the salary cap in 2014, which means it's almost a lock—and there's somewhat of a consensus on this, according to Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News—that the soon-to-be-33-year-old signs a long-term extension with the G-Men this offseason.
That'll increase the pressure with the odds still stacked up against him, which is usually when Manning is most dangerous.