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Eli Manning has always been one of the NFL’s stranger saviours, and one of the league’s least graspable religions.
The best quarterbacks inspire comfort in their own fans and fear in the opposition’s. Eli Manning has only ever inspired fear in both.
Giants fans wait for the hammer to drop, and the inevitable Keystone Cops interception that Manning has coming. Opposition fans wait for the other hammer to drop, when the two-time Super Bowl MVP channels Joe Montana and marches down the field in the fourth quarter, an expressionless face, typically a marker of meme-instigating befuddlement, now signalling the ice water in Manning’s championship veins.
To doubt Eli or to believe in him is futile. There is nothing to hold onto, not when a player regularly oscillates between looking like basement Brock Osweiler and peak Tom Brady, not just from season to season, game to game, but drive to drive and play to play.
That’s why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Giants fans, and really, the wider football world, keep waiting for the switch to flick again with Manning. Eli has been consistently dreadful this year, but because his entire career has been defined by almost farcical bouts of inconsistency, you have to trust that life will take its course, and bring Manning back to life.
Manning, though, has been dead on arrival for most of the 2016 season. After two quietly very solid seasons, coinciding with the arrival of Odell Beckham Jr, Manning has fallen off a cliff this year. He has six multiple interception games, and the Giants, despite having perhaps the most explosive playmaker in all of football, haven’t reached 30 points all season.
Over the past nine weeks, Eli’s only ‘good’ games have come against the disastrous defences of Cleveland and Detroit, and even then, he only threw for 194 and 201 yards in those match-ups.
With Manning’s limitations and a non-existent running game, the Giants’ offence, which was supposed to be the team’s strength, has devolved into hoping Beckham can take a slant 70 yards. Beckham happens to be good enough that such a gameplan has taken them to 10-5, but in the playoffs, against the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott, New York will have to diversify to keep up on the scoreboard.
Whether Manning can help them do that looks increasingly doubtful. Entering Week 16, the Giants had the 22nd ranked passing offence by DVOA. Perhaps even more concerning is that the Giants have been third lowest in terms of statistical variability from week to week in offensive output. They’re not just mediocre, they’re consistently mediocre, and there’s been no evidence that they can reach a higher ceiling.
The blame falls on the once-franchise quarterback. While the 25th ranked rushing offence isn’t doing him any favours, Manning has Beckham and a pair of capable secondary options in sparkling rookie Sterling Shephard and renaissance man Victor Cruz. The offensive line has been surprisingly excellent too, giving up the fourth fewest sacks in the league.
Damningly, of the eight best teams at protecting the quarterback, seven rank in the top ten in offensive DVOA. And then there’s the Giants, gasping for air at 21st.
The absence of Shane Vereen has sapped the passing game of its second most dynamic weapon, but Manning has enough tools to thrive regardless. He’s not, and that failure is a product of him before his environment.
Even at his best, Eli was the master of the incomprehensible pick, throws so comically ill-conceived they made you wonder exactly what he saw, and whether it was of this world. Those throws, though, used to be rarer, an unwanted pickle in an otherwise tasty burger. Now, the pickles are everywhere.
The worst of Eli was playing full blast in Philadelphia last week, with a pair of dreadful, telegraphed, game-shaping picks into double coverage, and countless other poor passes that eluded the opponent, but his teammates too, most notably missing Beckham in the end zone to win the game.
Manning can still make the throws that made him famous, with beautiful, deep sideline-timing routes to Beckham and Cruz against the Eagles echoing that pass to Mario Manningham. Those passes were inch-perfect, but the third time he tried it against Philly he woefully came up metres short, an early Christmas present for Malcolm Jenkins.
In 2007, the Giants just needed Manning to be competent to win the Super Bowl, and he was. In 2011, they needed him to be a superstar, and he was. This iteration of the Giants is good enough to win with just 2007 Eli.
The defence is all-world, with Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul a fearsome pass rushing duo on the outside, and Damon Harrison eating up would-be rushers on the interior. Improbably, Janoris Jenkins and Landon Collins have emerged as bona fide stars, and with Eli Apple and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie accompanying them, New York has a loaded secondary to complement the powerful defensive line.
Add in Beckham and the steady offensive line, and the Giants have the pieces to make a third run to the Big Dance this decade. Without Manning though, the pieces won’t have enough cohesion.
Manning will forever be linked to Ben Roethlisberger and Phil Rivers because of their shared draft class, but Manning’s two real contemporaries are Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler – a pair of mercurial, seriously talented and seriously flawed gunslingers who can never be counted on or out.
Like those two, Manning has the ability to get hot for a month and trick people into believing. For the Giants to make noise in January, and maybe even February, Manning will have to channel his hot stretches that lit up the winters of 2008 and 2012, and echo Flacco’s own 2013 masterpiece.
It could happen – it would be the most Eli thing ever if it did – but at this point, expectations of a Manning turnaround skew even more towards blind hope than usual.