Debating Geno Smith vs. Eli Manning as New York's Best Quarterback

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 7, 2013

Eli Manning and Geno Smith are in separate but parallel spotlights powered by billion-watt bulbs. That's life as a starting NFL quarterback in the city of New York. That, though, is about all they have in common.

Smith, who quarterbacks the Jets, is a 23-year-old rookie with nine career starts on his resume. The 32-year-old Manning, on the other hand, has been there and done that, leading the Giants to two Super Bowls since being drafted 10 years ago.

Which New York-based quarterback would you prefer to have leading your team right now? AFC East lead writer Erik Frenz and NFC East lead writer Brad Gagnon defend their respective divisions' quarterbacks in a debate that may never sleep.

Eli Manning vs. Geno Smith, 2013
Completion %55.758.1
Passer rating68.471.0
Rush yards/game4.819.1
Win-loss record2-65-4
Pro Football Reference

Gagnon: On a broad level, Erik, this debate is all about the unknown space that exists between a player's perceived ceiling and where he is situated at the present moment.

I have no doubt that Mannning's career has probably peaked, but Smith simply hasn't done enough—especially as a mere rookie second-round pick—to justify the rising belief that he'll at some point become a franchise-caliber quarterback who can lead the Jets to Super Bowls.

Manning has struggled the last couple years and will turn 33 at the end of what appears to be a lost season, but look at what his brother is doing at the age of 37. Those dudes share genes. He's older, but he might have a little magic left over the next half-decade, which to me is more valuable than the potential Smith offers.

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 08:  Quarterback Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants reacts in the first quarter against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half on September 8, 2013 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Frenz: This debate essentially asks the question: Would you take a quarterback whose best years may or may not be ahead of him, or a quarterback whose best years are most certainly behind him? 

You bring up a valid point about Peyton Manning working magic at the age of 37, but he's done it by being a cerebral quarterback, despite losing some zip on his passes. Eli's no slouch, but few if any quarterbacks rival Peyton in terms of reading pre-snap coverages, diagnosing the blitz and making the right decisions.

On the flip side, while Geno Smith is still clearly green at this stage in his NFL career, and has enjoyed a wild ride of ups and downs already, he's managed to win games despite the struggles. Through Week 9, he's the only starting quarterback with a winning record with more interceptions than touchdowns. He has led two fourth-quarter comebacks, and four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Can that kind of success be sustained? Probably not, but the flashes from Smith—specifically in big moments—lead me to believe his ceiling is much higher than his current level of play indicates. With more experience—and with a better supporting cast—those flashes will be sustained.

Gagnon: I don't usually give any merit to quarterback win-loss records, but the fact that Smith's been able to orchestrate those comebacks and game-winning drives is definitely a valid reason to think he might have what it takes to become "elite." After all, it was big plays in clutch moments that turned Manning into a star half a dozen years ago.

That said, as you touched on, Smith still has more interceptions than touchdowns. And at an 8-to-13 ratio, it's not even close. Manning's in a similar boat with 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, but we know that's probably an aberration because the Giants have been a train wreck. The offensive line is missing two key starters, the running game has been nonexistent (3.2 yards per carry) and the defense has no teeth.

Manning should eventually come back around, but it's far from a guarantee Smith will ever arrive. Again, "potential" and "upside" are sweet adjectives, but we can't just chalk up his ugly numbers from the first half of the season to rookie life. After all, his passer rating is currently 8.4 points below fellow rookie EJ Manuel's. And here's where he stands compared to last year's rookies at the exact same stage of the season:

Recent rookie quarterbacks through first nine games
Rookie QBYearComp.%YPATDINTRating
Robert Griffin III201265.67.68393.9
Russell Wilson201262.07.013887.2
Andrew Luck201257.57.310979.1
Ryan Tannehill201259.07.15973.2
Geno Smith201358.17.381371.0
Pro Football Reference

Rookie quarterbacks can no longer afford to start slowly without losing traction. There's a decent chance Smith is another Mark Sanchez, whereas we know what Manning is, and he'll likely still be effective for several years to come.

Frenz: It's been said since the 2013 draft season began: The 2012 crop of quarterbacks was a once-in-a-generation deal. The last time any quarterback crop was even close to that group was in 1983, with Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly landing in the Hall of Fame.

Also, while we're talking about Mannings, why not ask Eli's brother Peyton about rookie struggles? He threw 26 touchdowns against 28 interceptions as a rookie, and he's gone on to a pretty good career.

It's also important to point out that Geno is being asked to do more than most rookies in terms of the difficulty of his throws. He's thrown deep on 14.7 percent of his throws, the fifth-highest percentage in the league through Week 9. For reference, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck each went deep on over 16 percent of their throws, but Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill were both kicking right around 10 percent. Smith's accuracy on those throws is better than expected, and better than most of those guys, as well.

Deep passing averages
Rookie QB20+ yard attemptsAttempt %Accuracy %
Robert Griffin III369.250.0
Russell Wilson6416.338.4
Andrew Luck10116.142.6
Ryan Tannehill5110.543.1
Geno Smith4014.747.5
Pro Football Focus

Part of that is to take advantage of the Jets' strength in the passing game, which is its speed at wide receiver, but part of it is also because the Jets don't have a good deal of great route-runners at receiver. When the Jets get a group of receivers that better fit Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast offense, that will take some of the pressure off Geno to be perfect throwing long.

There's an important distinction between Sanchez and Smith: Sanchez had long droughts of abysmal play as a rookie; Smith has been notably up and down, but he hasn't gone more than two weeks of playing like garbage. There are continued signs of hope that Smith will develop into a star.

Gagnon: I agree there are signs of hope he'll turn into a star, but Manning has already established himself as one. Again, this year's been a disaster for all involved with the Giants, but only Eli, Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw have multiple Super Bowl MVP awards. I mentioned that his brother is kicking ass at 37, but it's not as though Peyton is the only quarterback still rolling despite being older than Eli. Brady is 36, Drew Brees is 34 and Tony Romo is 33.

I think we get caught up in thinking too far into the future. If I had the choice between Smith and Manning in the 2014 NFL draft, I'd still go with Manning, simply because I'd be thinking about who has the best chance to lead my team to the Super Bowl in the next couple years. If we're strictly thinking about 2017, Smith is probably the better option because Manning will be close to done, but he's not worth the gamble right now.

NFL's oldest quarterbacks
QuarterbackAge2013 Rating (rank)
Peyton Manning37119.4 (2nd)
Tom Brady3682.7 (20th)
Drew Brees34104.5 (5th)
Carson Palmer3372.4 (30th)
Tony Romo33100.0 (6th)
Michael Vick3386.5 (18th)
Eli Manning3268.4 (32nd)
Matt Schaub3278.8 (26th)
Philip Rivers31106.5 (4th)
Ben Roethlisberger3188.5 (16th)
Pro Football Reference

Frenz: You bring up a valid point. If you need a quarterback who can win you a Super Bowl in the next two to three years, assuming talent at all the other positions, Manning might still be your guy. If you're starting a franchise tomorrow, though, I don't see how you can go with Manning. Peyton may be kicking ass at 37, but Eli is playing like ass at 33. Brady, Brees and Romo are all nice anecdotes of quarterbacks that have played well at an older age, but none of them experienced a season as abysmal as the one Eli is enduring right now.

On the other hand, there are plenty of quarterbacks to get off to less-than-stellar starts to their career who have gone onto great things. Through the first nine games of their respective careers, Dan Fouts, Bob Griese, Jim Plunkett, Matthew Stafford, Peyton Manning, Fran Tarkenton, Drew Bledsoe and one Joe Willie Namath all had a passer rating lower than Geno Smith. Six of those quarterbacks played in at least one Super Bowl.

We also can't forget that Geno has arm talent and leg talent to match. He's not the every-down running threat of RGIII or Colin Kaepernick, but that may almost be better, since he's less vulnerable to big hits in the open field. The important thing is, he knows how and how often to use his legs. It's still catching defenses by surprise (see his 14-yard scramble on 3rd-and-14 vs. the Patriots, or any of his three touchdown runs).

This debate really comes down to the fact that there are no guarantees in football. Just like it's not a sure thing for Smith to develop into the NFL's next great young passer, it's also not a sure thing that Eli Manning will return to form. We know what Manning's ceiling is, but the bell curve appears to be descending rather rapidly from the high-point of his career. With Smith, however, that bell curve may be at its base right now, and should continue to trend upward in the years to come.

Gagnon: And I'll throw in that even Eli Manning was somewhat of a late bloomer, so I'll give you that. I don't love some of those comparisons because it's tough to compare quarterbacks from era to era. I mean, Smith has the fourth-lowest passer rating in the league among qualifying quarterbacks (Manning is one spot below him), but if it were 1970 he'd be ranked ninth in the NFL.

Plus, for every quarterback who struggled as a rookie and became a star there are a dozens who faded into oblivion (see: Ryan Leaf, Joey Harrington, David Carr, Jimmy Clausen, Sanchez, Blaine Gabbert, Josh Freeman, Christian Ponder). Hell, there are even quite a few guys who took the league by storm early before everyone sort of figured them out (see: Jake Plummer, Charlie Batch, Marc Bulger).

There's a reason Smith wasn't a first-round pick, and he's yet to do enough to convince me he should have gone much higher than he did. He's just too much of a gamble.

And yes, Manning might continue to decline, but I'll go with the guy who already possesses the body of work. He sort of reminds me of Brett Favre, who had two terrible seasons as a 31-/32-year-old in 2001 and 2002 but then experienced a rejuvenation in his mid- and late-thirties.

We'll agree to disagree, though, while agreeing that nobody has the answer here. This debate could look silly in a year or two, but it's impossible to know which quarterback will make one of us look bad. Of course, it's also possible both will rise up and become (or re-become) studs, in which case both of us will have some fun things to write about. It's always easier when New York football fans are happy.


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