Early this offseason, the near future of the quarterback position in East Rutherford, New Jersey was being etched in stone.
The new general manager and head coach kowtowed to Eli Manning and never truly became enamored with the Big Five quarterbacks who would end up being selected in the first round of the 2018 draft. In speaking to those around the periphery throughout the process, it was almost always pass rusher or offensive weapon—supplements for an aging quarterback, not replacements.
The selection of Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, a player viewed as the best of both Adrian Peterson and Christian McCaffrey, almost certainly means another two years of Manning.
So, what about him makes the Giants think there is still something there? The answer is threefold—part sentimental, part anecdotal and part statistical.
The sentimental aspect? The groundswell of outrage stemming from his benching by former head coach Ben McAdoo in December was a signal from the fan base that Manning was still on a pedestal.
From an anecdotal perspective, those close to Manning downplayed the cracks in his foundation, both physically and emotionally. David Cutcliffe, the current Duke University head coach who led Eli’s Ole Miss teams in college and was Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Tennessee, had dinner with Eli the week he was benched for Geno Smith. It struck him how typically unperturbed Manning was about the whole thing, and how he didn’t fester.
“[Manning] said ‘Coach, this is something that felt like it was best for the Giants, it doesn’t matter whether I think it’s the best thing or not,’” Cutcliffe said. “It was refreshing in an era where people always point fingers somewhere else. You can’t outsource adversity … He’s the epitome of accepting it on his own shoulders.”
According to Cutcliffe, Manning showed up on Duke University’s campus for his voluntary passing workouts in early April in good shape. His former coach noted that the velocity on Manning’s passes was still maintaining, and his body torque and hip strength were good. And Manning was energized at the idea of altering the rhythm of his drop back in order to help him get passes out faster. They watched Pat Shurmur’s offenses in Minnesota, and tried to find a way to get Manning’s altered drop to work within the confines of a new playbook.
All of this reflects the actions of a quarterback trying to attack his late thirties and not simply wither.
“I think Eli is working on something that is going to define him a little better. Quicker drops,” he said. “Even in the gun you have to have a rhythmic drop, you need something that occurs that can trigger everything in your body. So if you can take that right foot and get it on the ground to start the motion of a drop sooner, that’s just what I believe in. I always have.”
Then, there were the numbers. Manning’s season in box score terms was below average, with noticeable dips in yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt, yards per completion, passer rating and total QBR. His approximate value, as calculated by Pro Football Reference, tied the lowest mark of his career (2013).
A deeper look, though, complicates the idea that Manning is declining. Pro Football Focus noted that he was still an elite passer when it comes to tight-window passes, putting him fourth in the league, comfortably alongside Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Carson Wentz and Drew Brees.
He remains an average quarterback against pressure and had one of the best red-zone seasons of his career in 2017. Nearly 70% of the time, his passes are out in under 2.5 seconds which, according to PFF, is a good 10% better than the rest of the NFL.
Then, there was this: Manning had 43 dropped passes on catchable balls last year. For perspective, Ben Roethlisberger had 28, Drew Brees had 20 and Carson Wentz had 21.
The Giants, despite being 22nd in average rushing yards per attempt, ran five percent more play action passes than they did a year before to a disastrous result.
Despite the clamoring for a safe stashed quarterback at No. 2, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Dave Gettleman and Shurmur coming to the following conclusion: A more original play-calling script and increased presence in the backfield would put the team—at least offensively—on the same boat as other upper-tier franchises with a legitimate chance of reaching the playoffs.
This is a gamble that’s not for everyone, but that’s why the Giants hired someone who wouldn’t be afraid to press the accelerator if the team decided not to tear the roster down.