With a new offense for the first time in a decade and a rebuilt offensive line, is Eli Manning ready to take Big Blue back to the playoffs?
I’m in East Rutherford, N.J., the year-round home of the Giants, at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center. It’s in the mid-80s this afternoon, Cincinnati-humid, and the Giants have an afternoon practice under partly cloudy skies. The practice was scheduled to begin at 1:20 p.m., but, as you may know, this franchise operates on Coughlin time. The first play in a pre-practice walkthrough was snapped at 12:50.
One vivid memory from watching practice
Short passes. The greatest pass of Eli Manning’s life—high school, college, pro—was the bomb down the left sideline to Mario Manningham that led to the winning touchdown in their Super Bowl upset of New England three years ago. That pass travelled 46 yards in the air, and was good for a 38-yard gain. Watching the Giants practice this afternoon, I doubt Manning will throw five balls farther than 46 yards in the air this entire year. New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s offense is predicated on lots of short and intermediate throws and no mistakes. So all afternoon Manning dinked and dunked his way down the field and, from what I saw, did not throw an interception. That’s good, isn’t it?
How this team can go 12–4
McAdoo brings an efficient short-passing scheme from Green Bay, and he not only has to fix Eli Manning (league-high 27 interceptions last year) but do surgery on the running game. It’s always easy when a team starts 0–6 and is out of the pennant race by Columbus Day to say the quarterback stinks and it’s his fault. But let’s put some blame on the run game too (4.6 yards per carry in 2012, 3.5 yards per rush in ’13), and the awful offensive line. Manning told me that he expects his throws to be significantly shorter, on average, with the ball getting in the hands of playmakers Victor Cruz and Odell Beckham Jr. So I assume his interception numbers will be cut significantly. If they are, and if a totally rebuilt offensive line can be the physical presence that it wasn't last year, then the running game will contribute to wins, not losses. Tom Coughlin told McAdoo when he took the job that he wanted a powerful, dominant running game. When the Giants have had that, they’ve played football in January. On defense, Jason Pierre-Paul must return to 2011 (16.5 sacks) form for this to be a playoff team.
How this team can go 4–12
Not likely, because of the way Coughlin drives this team. But if Manning struggles conquering the new West Coast offense, if the running game is as injured and ineffective as it was last year, and if Pierre-Paul suffers through his third consecutive injured season, this team easily could be fourth-best in the NFC East. The Giants must overcome having a neophyte offensive line, too, and if they don’t Manning will be running for his life again. Right tackle Justin Pugh, who has been here for 15 months and is the second-longest tenured lineman with the Giants, told me today that he looks around the offensive line meeting room and can’t believe all the guys who are gone. “It’s shocking, but I guess that’s the NFL,” Pugh said. The other way the Giants will fail is if Will Beatty and Pugh are not the stalwarts they were drafted to be.
Now, from fantasyland …
1. Although general manager Jerry Reese is still bullish on tight end Adrien Robinson, this position has been a wasteland for the Giants. I don’t have a lot of faith that the 280-pound Robinson will stay healthy and finally be productive. So I wouldn’t be drafting a Giants tight end, even though Eli Manning desperately needs one.
2. David Wilson is an alluring running back. But I sense that, from the practice I saw and the people I spoke with, he’s probably going to be 10- or 12-touch back, and Rashad Jennings will be the primary mail-carrier here. You’d be smart to draft Jennings. Giants starting running backs who don't fumble always have the potential to run it 300 times in a season.
3. I would love to be bullish on Eli Manning. I spoke with him here, and he’s a very happy man about this new offense. But taking him as your starter is a leap of faith; the Giants are still going to run a lot, and Manning will be playing in a new scheme for the first time in 11 seasons. Draft in the middle rounds at your own risk.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR||Rueben Randle||LDE||Mathias Kiwanuka|
|LT||Will Beatty||DT||Johnathan Hankins|
|LG||Geoff Schwartz||DT||Cullen Jenkins|
|C||J.D. Walton/Weston Richburg||RDE||Jason Pierre-Paul|
|RG||Weston Richburg/Brandon Mosley||OLB||Spencer Paysinger/Devon Kennard|
|RT||Justin Pugh||MLB||Jon Beason|
|TE||Adrien Robinson||OLB||Jameel McClain/Jacquian Williams|
|WR||Victor Cruz||CB||Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie|
|3rd WR||Odell Beckham Jr.||CB||Prince Amukamara|
|QB||Eli Manning||SS||Antrel Rolle|
|RB||Rashad Jennings/David Wilson||FS||Quintin Demps/Stevie Brown|
|FB||Henry Hynoski/John Conner||3rd CB||Walter Thurmond|
|K||Josh Brown||P||Steve Weatherford|
On the offensive front, Richburg is likely to start at center or right guard. Expect that to be right guard if Walton, who couldn't stay healthy his last two years in Denver, makes it through training camp in one piece… Jennings will get the bulk of the carries. But Coughlin has traditionally liked to use a battering ram in the fourth quarter. That will be either Peyton Hillis or impressive rookie Andre Williams from Boston College … Robert Ayers is going to get some pass-rush snaps, but it’s unknown where the former Bronco will rush from yet … Your guess is as good as mine at linebacker. The only certainty is that Beason, when healthy, will play in the middle. Everything else is open season.
Best new player in camp
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, cornerback. I remember standing with John Elway at Broncos practice a few years ago in camp, and he said Rodgers-Cromartie was his favorite cornerback in football. In a division with gunslingers in Philadelphia, Washington and Dallas, this free agent signing by Reese could be a make-or-break pickup. Rodgers-Cromartie makes the secondary more professional and more foreboding.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Ben McAdoo is going to fix Eli Manning, and Manning will be a top-12 quarterback by Thanksgiving.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
I’m mystified. The Giants have so many questions that simply can’t be answered on July 23. The offensive line is a huge question. Beatty, at left tackle, isn’t the physical mauler that a Giants left tackle usually is. I don’t know if he’s good enough. I don’t know if the line is good enough. I feel pretty sure they’re not going to make as many mistakes as they made last year on offense, and they’ll be significantly more explosive with Beckham playing 25 snaps a game and new return man Trindon Holliday making the Giants far more exciting than they were a year ago. But when your offense is new for the first time in a decade and there are so many unknowns all over the offensive map, it’s impossible to feel good about any prediction. But this one thing will stick with me when I think back on my day with the Giants: Tom Coughlin was really in a good mood during my 15 minutes with him. I don’t think Coughlin’s in a good mood if he feels like there’s a black cloud over East Rutherford.