Is Eli Manning in Decline?

The big question surrounding the Giants this offseason is whether or not Eli Manning is in decline. This is mainly due to his terrible 2013 season. Our question is why did last year surprise anyone?

This isn’t a knock on Eli necessarily. It’s more of reflection of his career. He’s always been a streaky quarterback. In fact, it’s his consistently inconsistent play that keeps him from truly being an elite quarterback – whatever that term means. So is he really in decline? Or was 2013 just part of an overall pattern of his play?

From 2004-10, Eli Manning was a complementary quarterback. He needed the pieces around him to work in order to be successful. He wasn’t the type of quarterback that elevated the play of his team. Rarely ever did he carry the Giants. When the running game was working, he was a much better quarterback. When the defense was playing well, his weaknesses weren’t brought to the forefront. But when those pieces weren’t firing on all cylinders, his deficiencies became that much more noticeable.

This changed in 2011. The primary reason was his footwork. The significant improvement allowed him to get through his progressions more calmly from the pocket. He could find receivers late and downfield on a regular basis. In general, the longer defensive backs have to cover, the greater likelihood there is that a receiver will break open. This is one of the main reasons Eli had his best season in 2011. For the first time in his career, he carried the Giants through certain stretches before lifting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of that season.

But you don’t win the Super Bowl without your defense playing great down the stretch. This is what happened with the Giants in 2011. Key players missed several games or underperformed for most of the season because they were playing through injuries, resulting in a 9-7 record. The Giants finally got healthy at the end of the year as they snuck into the playoffs, and the rest is history.

That great defense was not the same in 2012 though. In 2013, it wasn’t anything resembling the 2011 unit. Eli’s weaknesses became magnified as a result. Yet the bigger reasons for Manning’s struggles were the pieces around him on offense; namely the offensive line.

In 2013, the Giants O-line couldn’t do anything in the running game. They were weak at the point of attack and were consistently overpowered. This not only lead to the lack of an effective rushing attack, but also, it resulted in an abundance of negative plays that thwarted drives and put the Giants in 2nd and 3rd and long situations. This put all the pressure on the passing game. Unfortunately, the Giants’ O-line was as inept in pass protection as they were at run blocking. The pocket collapsed consistently around Eli, leaving him with much less time than in years past to work through his progressions.

Manning began anticipating pressure. This, folks, is what pass-rush pressure does. It wears down quarterbacks. They start expecting it if it shows up regularly. The proof is in the film footage. Eli did not look comfortable at all hanging in the pocket last year. On those occasions where he did have time, he either fled the pocket or rushed throws as if the pressure existed. His footwork broke down at times, decreasing his accuracy. His decision-making was also affected.

No, the offensive line was not the only reason for the Giants’ offensive woes. Eli made some terrible decisions and awful throws, finishing with a league-high 27 interceptions. But we always seem to forget that this is, to a lesser degree, the quarterback Eli Manning has always been. He’s never been a highly efficient, infallible passer. He’s always been a daring, downfield quarterback. And even at his best, he’s always made at least a few questionable decisions and throws per game. What last year showed was that when things don’t work well around him, those few questionable decision and throws per game become quite a few; maybe even double a few. This means more incompletions and more interceptions.

We’re not medical professionals here. We can’t speak about the significance of Eli’s ankle surgery. We won’t speculate on it either. What we can say is that at age 33, there are always concerns about how much longer a player will be around. But is Eli really on the decline? Let’s see…He still has one of the stronger arms in the league. He still reads the field better than most quarterbacks. He’s still willing to pull the trigger and can make tough downfield throws that lots of NFL quarterbacks can’t make or won’t attempt. None of this would seem to indicate his imminent decline.

The biggest issue is that Eli Manning needs help. Yes, GM Jerry Reese did add another weapon through the Draft in wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. However, the offensive line was the most glaring need of the offseason, and you’d be hard pressed to say the Giants adequately addressed it. The Giants need to be able to run the ball. They need to regain physicality in the trenches. They need to protect Eli. If they can do these things, by the end of 2014, there won’t be as many questions about Manning’s future in New York.

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