Eli Manning is now 33 years old, coming off the worst year of his career—and, in fact, one of the worst seasons ever recorded by a quarterback his age—and is tasked with learning a brand-new offense, all while trying to recover promptly from the worst injury and most intense surgical procedure of his career. His supporting cast is still shaky and his $20.4 million salary-cap hit is the highest among NFL quarterbacks, according to Spotrac.
Need we explain further why this is the most important season of Manning's 11-year career?
Manning has to know that this season will make or break the rest of his tenure with the New York Giants. Fans not in denial must see it. The organization certainly does. Otherwise, they probably would have given Manning the long-term contract extension that everyone expected him to get at the end of the 2013 campaign.
There are those who wonder whether Manning is a player in decline at age 33. This is a question that has not gone unasked within the ranks of the Giants' front office. It is part of the reason the Giants decided not to try this offseason to extend Manning's contract, which runs through 2015, even though doing so would have offered them significant salary cap relief. They would like to see him pull out of his downward trend before they commit to his late 30s. Their hope is that he has a big year and that extending him next offseason makes sense.
If Michael Vick starts with the New York Jets, Manning will enter 2014 as the league's seventh-oldest starting quarterback. When you're at that stage of your career, you're going to face year-to-year pressure unless your name is Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees.
|Quarterback||Age||Rating since 2012||Comp.% since 2012|
Pro Football Reference
As you can see, Manning is more appropriately categorized with Carson Palmer, Vick and Tony Romo, all of whom are also arguably entering make-or-break campaigns.
Hell, we wrote last summer that the 2013 season was pivotal for Manning, so after posting a league- and career-high 27 interceptions and recording the league's third-lowest passer rating among qualifying quarterbacks, it's safe to conclude that this one will be even more crucial.
Manning is supposed to be in his prime, but he's been one of the lowest-rated, most mistake-prone quarterbacks in the league for two years running.
Qualifiers had at least 500 pass attempts (Pro Football Reference)
Manning also led the league with 25 picks in 2010, making him the only quarterback this century to throw that many interceptions on more than one occasion. And his passer rating since that year ranks 16th among 28 quarterbacks with at least 1,000 attempts. He's been mediocre at best, which is why it should surprise nobody that the Giants have missed the playoffs four of the last five years.
Manning's cap hit for 2015 is $19.8 million, which is basically as punishing as his 2014 number. Another year like 2013 and the Giants would be insane to keep him on the roster for that kind of cash, while an extension would be out of the question.
But frankly, if we're trying to handicap his odds of experiencing a bounce-back season at the age of 33, the numbers, tape and historical comparisons are stacked against Manning.
A study we conducted in the fall found that it's been nearly impossible for quarterbacks to dig themselves out of holes as deep as Manning's. After leading the league in picks beyond the age of 30, quarterbacks have typically disappeared in short time. Same deal for those who finished in the bottom 10 in passer rating while completing fewer than 60 percent of their passes.
|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)
For some perspective, in 2013, Manning became the first 30-something-year-old quarterback in modern NFL history to complete fewer than 60 percent of his passes, throw 25 interceptions and post a passer rating ranking in the bottom three in the league.
We've seen guys like Philip Rivers recover from ruts recently, but this is an astonishingly low valley.
Not everybody thinks we should doubt Manning. His former offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, calls the notion that Manning is declining "ludicrous." That appears to spit in the face of logic, but regardless, the divergence of opinions regarding No. 10 only exacerbates the pressure he'll face to revive his career in 2014.
He's reached a clear fork in the road, and there's a lot to overcome.
New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo brings a new offense to town—one which is expected to incorporate West Coast principles. There will be a learning curve, which is never ideal when we're talking about a 10-year veteran who has experienced very little change thus far in his career.
Now, that offense could be beneficial for Manning. Fewer deep, old-school, timing-based concepts and more quick decisions. McAdoo's approach is arguably more quarterback-friendly, which could mean Manning will cut down on his mistakes.
But he's also going to be a bit behind after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle last week. For the first time since he came into the league, Manning is going to miss multiple offseason activities while recovering from said surgery. Word from the team, per ESPN.com, is that he'll be running in six weeks, but the offseason training program kicks off next week and the G-Men are on the field for organized team activities at the end of May.
It's not surprising Manning finally suffered a legitimate injury because he was under more duress into 2013 than ever before. The Giants offensive line was AWOL much of the year, which is why Manning was sacked a career-high 39 times. Bad pass protection combined with a lack of support from the running game and his receivers did Manning in.
But will he be much better off in 2014? The offensive line looks to be stronger with Geoff Schwartz, John Jerry and J.D. Walton signing on as free agents, and Justin Pugh should be even better in Year 2. And the addition of veteran back Rashad Jennings should help the running game.
But who's the starting tight end? With Brandon Myers gone after one disappointing season, nobody knows. Same deal with the No. 3 wide receiver spot, now that Rueben Randle has been promoted to replace the departed Hakeem Nicks.
The point is that Manning's going to have his work cut out for him in every respect, and history isn't on his side. The odds of him bouncing back aren't good, which is probably why the Giants have tried to insulate themselves with 2013 fourth-round pick Ryan Nassib and recent free-agent recruit Josh Freeman.
Those guys will provide insurance for one year, but if Manning can't defy the odds and regain some glory in 2014, the G-Men will probably have to get serious about transitioning to the next man in line, whoever that may be.
The good news is that Manning has made a habit of defying odds, which is the only reason you'd be crazy to bet against him making it rather than breaking it come fall.