From the 2007 magical playoff run all the way through the 2009 season, it seemed as if the New York Giants had found a truly elite quarterback.
Though many of you will scoff at that notion, there is no denying that Eli Manning had found his way and was dominating through the air. Even with a change in the offense from the 2008 to 2009 season, he still managed to show improvement.
Through most of the 2007 playoff run and 2008 season, Manning was given the luxury of a dominant running game which translated into the play-action passing game being a terrific weapon.
He wasn't asked to do too much, and in return he protected the ball, and the Giants played extremely well, knocking off the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and starting the 2008 season 11-1, primed to repeat as champs.
During that stretch—from the first playoff game in 2007 to Week 13 in the 2008 season—Manning was 302/490 for 62.3 percent, threw 25 touchdowns to just eight interceptions and only lost four fumbles; that equates to a 93.2 QB rating and a 2.08 touchdown-to-turnover ratio.
For those counting, that stretch is 16 games long, the equivalent of an NFL season. It appeared during that time that Manning had finally taken the necessary steps to becoming an elite quarterback after three years of only showing flashes of brilliance.
However, the loss of Plaxico Burress at the end of the 2008 season really hurt the Giants offense. The running game sputtered, Eli Manning had four very average to bad games, culminating in a no-touchdown, two-interception performance against the Eagles in the playoffs.
His QB rating for the season dropped two full points during the final four games of the regular season.
So entering the 2009 season without Plaxico Burress, the Giants knew they had their work cut out for them. In an effort to replace him, Jerry Reese drafted Hakeem Nicks in the first round, and Ramses Barden and Travis Beckum in the third round.
Nicks would be the only one who regularly saw the field, and he definitely did not have the same impact on defenses that Burress did. Not only was Burress one of the best wide receivers in the league, but he forced defenses to account for him which opened up the running game.
His absence showed in that respect, as the Giants running game was the worst it had been in a long time. The Giants didn't field a 1000-yard rusher for the first time in six seasons under Coughlin.
What does this all mean? Manning was given the reigns to the offense and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride put the ball in his hands more than he had in the past.
Although his attempts have been greater in prior seasons, it was still clear that Manning had more control over the offense in how he read defenses, changed plays at the line of scrimmage and got the ball down field more.
Manning responded with his best year ever. He notched his first 4000-yard season to go along with a career high in touchdowns, completion percentage, yards per attempt, 20 and 40-yard completions and the aforementioned career-high 93.1 QB rating.
The reason for looking back these three years is to dilute the notion that Manning has taken a step backwards in 2010. It would seem so if you just went to his stats and saw the 25 interceptions and five lost fumbles, but he also made improvements in other areas.
He once again threw for 4000 yards and had a career-high 31 touchdown passes. He also had his best season in terms of completion percentage with 62.9.
So why the increase in turnovers? It is a culmination of several factors.
First of all, the dropped passes by the wide receivers. The Giants had a severe case of "butterfinger" receivers this past season, and it led to 10 balls being tipped directly off their hands, and into the hands of defenders.
So what, you might say, that happens to every QB. True, but not to that effect. Even cutting that number in half gives Eli a boost in QB rating from 85.2 to 89.1. In a perfect world, with no drops turning into interceptions, Manning would have had a rating of 93.0.
It's not realistic to think that way, but it gives you an idea of what he was dealing with.
It also had a lot to do with Manning trying to do too much with receivers he wasn't familiar with, especially late in the year when both Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith missed some games. Most of the interceptions early on were not his fault, but those costly ones late in the year—like in the first Eagles game—were definitely his fault from trying to do too much.
We also saw a dramatic decrease in the number of sacks to a career-low 16. Just from 2009 that number decreased by 14 sacks and is the only time in his career as a full-time starter that number has been less than 25.
Tom Coughlin and Jerry Reese both agreed in statements during this off season that the number of interceptions may have dramatically increased due to Manning not taking a sack when it would have benefited the team more than forcing the issue.
It is obvious to me and to anyone who takes the time to watch Manning, that his 2010 season was an exception and not the rule. Prior to this year he had played pretty well for 36 games, so it's not out on a limb that I predict him to get back to that form.
His return to top-notch status hinges on the health of his wide receivers and his decision making. Missing Steve Smith was a huge problem for Manning last year, and it showed late in the year when he couldn't trust the wide receivers they were signing off the streets.
Assuming Smith makes it back, it would be a huge boost for the Giants offense. If he doesn't, the Giants feel they drafted a solid replacement for Smith in Jerrel Jernigan.
During the lockout Manning and some of his receivers have been holding their own workouts to get better and improve their chemistry; that alone shows me that Manning has the work ethic and dedication to improve on his 2010 season.
I can say with a lot of confidence that Manning will have a much better year in 2011.