Last season, just as Giant fans were set to run Eli Manning out of town, something clicked. Seemingly overnight, mistakes were minimized, if not completely eliminated. Three road-playoff wins and a Super Bowl upset later, Eli was king of New York. Forgotten were the previous four years of inconsistent play — touchdown here; devastating interception there — that left Giant fans bewildered and the team in flux. It’s no coincidence that as soon as Eli cleaned up his play, the Giants went from a good team to a great one. The organization spent four long years waiting on Eli Manning, and after watching him win a Super Bowl MVP, they had to assume the corner was finally turned. Wouldn’t you?
However, fast forward seven weeks into the 2008 season and ask yourself the following questions: Has Eli Manning developed into an elite quarterback? Or is he an average quarterback who has become good at limiting his mistakes?
When trying to evaluate Eli Manning’s evolution, the conversation must begin in one place — interceptions. In his first three full seasons, Manning threw 71 touchdown passes to 55 interceptions. That’s 1.14 interceptions per game and only 1.47 touchdowns per game. Last year, his TD to interception ratio was the worst of his young career at 24 touchdowns to 20 picks, despite leading the best Giant team in recent memory. The Giants had built a world-class defense, anchored by a fierce pass rush. They had one of the best offensive lines in football. And they had weapons: Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, Jeremy Shockey, Steve Smith, Sinorice Moss, Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw. These are the type of players any quarterback would dream of being surrounded by. With a defense, a running game, time in the pocket and throwing options, the Giants gave Manning everything he needed to succeed, yet he was as inconsistent as ever. Five times he threw more interceptions than touchdowns and 11 times he failed to throw more than one touchdown pass. Manning remained the only question mark. When he limited his mistakes, the Giants usually won; when he threw picks, they usually lost. The contrast was stark. While his 24:20 regular season ratio barely got the Giants the wild card, his 6:1 playoff ratio led them to a Super Bowl. Prior to the playoffs, Manning’s 2007 season did little to quiet skeptics who thought he was overrated and annoyingly inconsistent. Was Eli Manning ever going to blossom into the star quarterback people expected him to be? The jury was still out.
Winning a Super Bowl in New York goes a long way towards glamorizing the winning quarterback. Just ask Joe Namath, Phil Sims and Jeff Hostetler, who all remain legends within New York’s borders. For Eli Manning it provided overnight validation. Within the Giant organization, it provided a sense of vindication about their decision to trade Philip Rivers and a host of draft picks for Eli during the 2004 draft. Finally, Eli Manning had arrived. Right?
Based on his playoff performance, people felt like he had matured into an elite NFL signal caller. The month-long charge to a world title seemingly eradicated the question marks and inconsistency hovering over him like a rain cloud during his first four seasons. He was ready to light the 2008 NFL season on fire.
So which quarterback are we watching in 2008? The new Eli or the old Eli?
Yes, he has gone four of six games without throwing an interception, and yes, the Giants are 5-1. But what happens when you measure his production against some modest benchmarks that seem to follow every great NFL passer? How many 300-yard games does he have? How many multi-touchdown games has he tossed? Take a closer look and you’ll find the same old Inconsistent Eli Manning that frustrated Giant fans for years. Through six games Eli has yet to throw for 300+ yards and has only eclipsed 2 touchdown passes once, in week two versus the lowly Rams. In fact, in four of the six games Manning has thrown one touchdown pass or less. Last week was considered an aberration when the team flopped on Sunday Night Football, as Eli reverted back to his old ways, tossing 3 interceptions. Yet this week, the Giant passing game was once again non-existent. Why, you ask? Because Manning was once again shaky going 16/31, for 161 yards and one touchdown. His touchdown to interception ratio has improved in 2008, but he still ranks 15th in the league in quarterback rating, 14th in passing yards and 10th in touchdowns.
What about last year’s playoffs when Eli Manning “turned the corner”? Maybe that’s the problem. Did Eli Manning receive too much credit for the Giants playoff run? Was a tough New York media ready to shower Eli with praise once the team took flight? Take another look at Eli’s playoff performances and see for yourself.
Wild Card Game – 20/27, 185 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Divisional Round – 12/18, 163 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Conference Championship Game – 21/40, 251 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
Super Bowl – 19/34, 255 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Those numbers are far from elite. They tell the story of a quarterback who did a nice job managing the game — one who was opportunistic and failed to make his signature mistakes. So I ask you: Did the Giants win because ofManning or in spite of Manning? Was their success predicated on Manning’s right arm or their savage defense? I think even the staunchest Giant fan would agree it was the latter. It was because of Osi Umenyiora, Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck. Eli Manning was essentially along for the ride. In fact, when Manning’s right arm was needed most, in the final drive of the Super Bowl, he threw two awful passes, both of which should have been intercepted. Football is a funny game though, and Brandon Meriweather and Asante Samuel both dropped those balls. New England’s perfect season wasn’t sealed, and the Giants still had life. Manning became remembered for his Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress and not for a championship-ending interception to Meriweather or Samuel. Critics and fans alike finally praised him instead of questioning him. Confidence replaced doubt. The Giants were World Champions. All was forgotten. To the victor go the spoils, right?
Once again, the New York Giants are poised to make a Super Bowl run. Once again, they have the defense; they have the offensive line; they have the running game; and the playmakers are in place. And once again, it appears they have a question mark at quarterback. With four years of the same up-and-down play continuing in 2008, the Giants have learned a few things. They know they are a good team, but they also know that in order to once again be great, Eli Manning must limit his mistakes. Most of the time, they will win in spite of him, not because of him. As their journey continues, keep an eye on that touchdown to interception ratio; it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, but it tells most of it.