If the New York Giants' hyperactivity in free agency wasn't enough to put you in a frenzy, the incessant draft mockery probably has your head spinning.
Offseason discourse is jumbled with unfamiliar names for the average Giants fan and most of these names never end up stitched to the back of a Big Blue jersey. While newly acquired free agents and upcoming draftees will certainly have an impact on the 2014 season, you won't find either of New York's two most important cogs on the open market or named in any mock drafts.
Art Stapleton of The Record will tell you whose performances are most pivotal to the team's success:
FA moves + draft aside, #NYG 2014 season will hinge on Eli + JPP rediscovering 2011 form. Can they contend if only one does? I say no.— Art Stapleton (@art_stapleton) March 31, 2014
With defensive end Justin Tuck and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks now in Oakland and Indianapolis, respectively, the Giants' core of former Super Bowl champions grows slimmer by the year. As each ringed finger departs, the spotlight on those that remain shines just a bit brighter.
Now singling out quarterback Eli Manning on offense and end Jason Pierre-Paul on defense, that light is blinding.
You could have made a case for Manning as the NFL's regular season Most Valuable Player in 2011. Maybe Manning's 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions didn't quite stack up against the 45 touchdowns and six interceptions thrown by that year's actual league MVP, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It can be argued, however, that no player across the league had a larger impact on his team's success than Manning did on New York's that year.
*4QC=Fourth-quarter comeback; GWD=Game-winning drive.
Manning engineered a game-winning drive in all but one of the Giants' nine victories in 2011, setting an NFL record along the way with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes.
Without Manning at the helm that season, the Giants would never have reached the playoffs, where the quarterback eventually threw nine touchdowns and only one interception in four postseason contests. His performances against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship and New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI were among the gutsiest in franchise history.
As spot on as Manning was that season, he needed a hand when he wasn't on the field. That's where Pierre-Paul came in handy. New York's secret weapon exploded onto the NFL scene as a second-year pro in 2011, taking over entire games single-handedly, when an opponent failed to game plan against him properly. Statistically, JPP was just as impressive as the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the year, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
*One sack was in the end zone for a safety.
**Interception was returned for 24-yard touchdown.
In no single game was this better illustrated than in New York's 37-34 win over the division rival Dallas Cowboys in Week 14 of that season. Pierre-Paul registered eight tackles, two sacks, a safety, a forced fumble and a game-winning kick block that evening.
Wherever Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and his offense turned, it seemed Pierre-Paul was already there, waiting. It was a microcosm of his entire All-Pro, 2011 campaign, which concluded with 16.5 sacks and 93 total tackles—a remarkable figure for a defensive lineman.
But now, two years removed from their Super Bowl glory, Manning and Pierre-Paul are both coming off particularly poor seasons.
In 2013, Manning posted iniquitous interception (27) and sack totals (39), both career highs. The three-time Pro Bowler also recorded his lowest yardage total (3,818) since 2008, worst completion percentage (57.5 percent) since 2007 and lowest touchdown total (18) since his rookie year, way back in 2004.
Most alarming was his lone fourth-quarter/overtime comeback against the Detroit Lions in Week 16, which was more the result of a 38-yard pick-six by safety Will Hill than it was anything to do with Manning's arm.
Pierre-Paul was similarly unproductive in 2013. He managed a measly two sacks and only 27 total tackles, a fraction of his heyday. Game-changing plays—like his 24-yard interception return for a touchdown versus the Green Bay Packers in Week 11—were too few and far between. Instead of his usual role as the most feared player on the field, JPP instead assumed one of a magician, putting on a vanishing act whenever the Giants needed him most.
New York, however, did Manning and Pierre-Paul no favors in 2013.
On offense, Manning was offered no protection, as his line gave way to injuries. Right guard Chris Snee and center David Baas both spent most of the season on injured reserve, leaving the Giants terribly thin between an insecure Will Beatty on the left edge and rookie Justin Pugh on the right.
Manning faced a constant turbulence in the pocket on most of his drop-backs, as the Giants were hopelessly devoid of a viable backup plan to counter the swelling casualties along the O-line.
Manning also had no reliable running back to whom he could hand off the ball, thus relieving none of the pressure on the quarterback. Andre Brown started the season on short-term injured reserve, while David Wilson kicked off 2013 by rekindling an old fumbling problem. After Wilson was lost for the season in Week 5, Manning had to mostly rely on washed up veterans Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis until Brown returned from a twice-broken leg.
Pierre-Paul was also put in a poor position by the team. Although his back injury had been a lingering issue—dating all the way back to Week 12 of the 2012 season—Pierre-Paul waited until June of 2013 to undergo a corrective surgical procedure. At times during training camp, JPP and Giants management sounded far apart when commenting on the D-end's recovery progress.
Ready or not, Pierre-Paul came in cold Week 1 and looked the part. He never claimed to be healthier than 90 percent, admitting that he might not recapture his true self until the 2014 season. Just when he began to show some semblance of the JPP of old, he sustained a shoulder injury that virtually shut down his season with five games left on the slate.
Giants General Manager Jerry Reese has clearly recognized how important the rebounds of both Manning and Pierre-Paul are to the team's success in 2014. Many of the necessary gears have been put in place this offseason, so that, when they begin to turn this summer, Manning and Pierre-Paul have the best shot to return to form and crank out another championship.
Which New York Giant will bounce back in 2014?
Manning's offensive line has added 1,277 pounds of humanity, between guards Geoff Schwartz (340) and John Jerry (335), center J.D. Walton (305) and tackle Charles Brown (297). These massive men will not only protect New York's franchise passer, they will also open up holes for the backfield's new workhorse, 231-pound running back Rashad Jennings. They'll all be playing under the coordination of fresh-faced Ben McAdoo.
Life is not looking bad for Eli—JPP, too.
Pierre-Paul's health should be fully restored by the time training camp rolls around. He will be a year removed from the back surgery, and his season-ending shoulder injury did not require an additional, 2014 offseason procedure. Providing a boost in his return, the Giants have significantly improved their secondary by adding defensive backs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Walter Thurmond and Quintin Demps. Stingier coverage on the back end will only result in more time for Big Blue's best rusher to reach the passer.
New York can reclaim playoff glory but only if Manning and Pierre-Paul can both play like they did in 2011.
The Giants have loaded the bases, will New York's two home run-hitters step up to the plate?