Eli Manning led the NFL in interceptions in 2013 for the third time in nine full seasons as the New York Giants' starting quarterback. Just days after his Giants finished a late-season rally, clawing up to a respectable 7-9, Manning turned 33 years old.
In the minds of many football fans, Manning is still his big brother's little brother, a fresh-faced kid with a lot of growing up to do. But with a decade in the NFL and two Super Bowl rings to his credit, he's a full-grown man. In fact, he's in the homestretch of his career; most chapters of his NFL story have been written.
Depending on how the final few chapters go, Manning could be remembered as one of the best quarterbacks of his generation—or as a serviceable starter who got lucky a couple of times.
I think even Eli Manning could admit that his career would look very differently if two Super Bowl passes had been incomplete.— Bryn Swartz (@eaglescentral) June 26, 2014
His poor performance in 2013 might have accelerated offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride's retirement. The Giants plucked Aaron Rodgers' quarterbacks coach, Ben McAdoo, out of Green Bay to take over the offense. They allowed talented receiver Hakeem Nicks, a 2009 first-round pick, to seek his free-agent fortune elsewhere. The Giants turned around and spent their 2014 first-rounder on receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
The Giants have invested a lot in Manning over the years. Now they've invested even more in helping him get back to the difference-making player he was from 2007 to 2012, when he won two Super Bowls, made three Pro Bowls and, per Pro Football Reference, averaged an NFL passer efficiency rating of 86.5.
The pen is in his throwing hand. Can he write his career's fairytale ending?
Leopards and Spots
Quarterbacks do sometimes have a late-career renaissance; journeymen Rich Gannon and Josh McCown both put it together for the first time at age 34. Still, the odds are against a former No. 1 overall pick with 151 career starts suddenly "hitting upside" he's never shown.
Manning's biggest problem has been consistent ball placement, especially on timing and crossing routes. He throws high over the middle and behind on slants, leading to a lot of tipped and deflected passes. According to Elias Sports Bureau, via New York Post Giants writer Paul Schwartz, 41 of Manning's 164 career picks have come off deflections, more than any other quarterback in that period.
In the first game of the 2013 season, Manning threw three picks, putting a winnable road division game out of reach. Here's one of them, a misfire on a curl route that pitted slot receiver Jerrel Jernigan against a linebacker, Bruce Carter. Manning sails it high, wobbly and off-target:
This is not something that can be fixed in one offseason—or, likely, ever. Every quarterback has limitations, and McAdoo will have to work around this one.
Manning's at his best when throwing intermediate and deep passes to the outside or sideline, like go, out and comeback routes. When Manning is challenging defenses like this, he can be reasonably efficient and very effective.
No offense can be successful when its quarterback is throwing picks on 4.9 percent of his throws, as Manning was in 2013. Deflections or no, Manning will have to take better care of the football.
"Watching the film from last year, it's no secret they didn't protect the ball as well as they would have liked to," McAdoo told Steve Serby of the New York Post. "And we've made strides already, I believe, this offseason in doing that. The fundamentals are a big part of it, decision-making is a big part of it... and yes, it can be fixed and, yes, it will be fixed."
It had better be. Here's a howler from Week 6, Manning's second interception on just his sixth throw of the night. He stares down receiver Rueben Randle and throws it right to cornerback Tim Jennings:
The error stunned the Giants sideline—and the broadcast booth—into silence.
"I have never seen anything like this in my life," NFL Network color commentator Mike Mayock eventually moaned. He went on to cite a "disconnect" between Manning and his receivers on four of the 12 interceptions Manning had thrown coming into the game, and Mayock called that "number five."
"Disconnect" is putting it mildly. Here's Randle calling for the ball as he breaks past Jennings, thinking he's about to take this go route to the house—only to see the ball on its way to a comeback route Randle isn't running.
We don't know for sure if the error was Randle's or Manning's. But these breakdowns happened way too often in 2013 for Manning to be blameless. Worse, the disconnect undermined Manning's confidence in his arm and his trust in his receivers.
Trust and Confidence
This is a huge part of a quarterback's game. He's got to have the confidence to throw it downfield and trust his receivers can make plays.
Here's an example from Week 14 against the San Diego Chargers:
The Giants are in shotgun with three receivers, a tight end and a single tailback. The Chargers are in 2-4-5 nickel. Tight end Brandon Myers will release up the seam, attacking first the linebacker and then the strong safety behind him.
The strong safety comes up, presumably to take on the slot receiver, and then sits down when the slot receiver curls, passing him off to the linebacker. That left the safety flat-footed as Myers flew by, opening up a huge window in which Manning could drop the ball for a big gain.
Let's see this from Manning's perspective:
Manning saw Myers come free, but either he doubted his ability to drop it in that window (which is as big as windows get in the NFL), or he did not trust Myers to make a wide-open catch. Instead, Manning pumped, turned and fired to his well-covered checkdown. This interception was overturned on review, but these are the kinds of plays Manning can only avoid if he believes he can safely throw downfield.
Scheme and Fit
McAdoo has a tall task ahead of him, but it's a doable one. Manning has had single-season interception rates as low as 2.1 percent in his career; he can cut down on the picks without losing aggressiveness. The key might be rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Veteran Victor Cruz, on whom Manning relies, works best as a slot receiver working inside to outside. Randle has the tools of a playmaker, but he and Manning haven't quite clicked yet.
Beckham should quickly grow into the "X" receiver role for the Giants and be deployed much the same way the Packers use spark plug Randall Cobb. Beckham's slightly bigger than Cobb and even more explosive. He may not be as physical, but Beckham can work the sideline just the way Eli likes.
With Cruz and Randle in route packages, or the three of them in bunches and trips, McAdoo should be able to get receivers Manning can rely on open quickly—without resorting to the kinds of short timing routes Manning doesn't throw well.
All Up to Him
In the end, Manning is still in full control of his legacy.
Besides adding McAdoo and Beckham, the Giants signed running back Rashad Jennings, added two interior offensive linemen and re-stocked all three levels of the defense. If Manning comes through, the Giants should challenge the Philadelphia Eagles for NFC East supremacy—and he'll have the chance to prove his ability to turn up in the playoffs is intact.
If he falters, it will likely spell the end of his time in New York as the unquestioned starter. It might even mean the end of head coach Tom Coughlin's long, successful tenure. Either ending would cast bright light—or dark shadows—over the previous decade of his career.
In 2014, Manning has a chance most football players never get: to decide how history remembers him.