In slight defense of Eli Manning

New York Giants

Eli Manning has weathered a serious amount of criticism in the Big Apple, but the numbers show things aren’t as dire as they’re made to seem.

To refer to Eli Manning as a lightning rod for criticism is to misunderstand the analogy.

A lightning rod is intended to take the heat, so to speak, in order to protect the building attached. The very purpose of such an instrument is to absorb the harmful energy for the safety of everything else surrounding.

Manning might draw the criticism to himself, but he’s hardly made it safe for those around him. In fact, his presence has made things all the more toxic for the New York Giants.

It’s not easy being a quarterback in the Big Apple, even for two-time Super Bowl MVP. Over the last couple years, Manning has taken bigger hits off the field from NFL pundits and raucous fans than he has on the field behind an offensive front best described as a row of subway turnstiles. As Mark Cannizzaro wrote in the Post in December, “The thought of Eli Manning starting in 2019 is as popular as finding coal in your Christmas stocking.”

Those around Manning are just as maligned. Stand by Manning and you’ll take your hits (e.g. Dave Gettleman). Look or act like Manning and you’ll receive the same (e.g. Daniel Jones). From head coach to general manager to eventual replacement, the electric storm around Manning will take out anyone and everyone around him.

At this point, the crowds are largely right and Manning himself recognized his time has come earlier this offseason. After seasons of speculation, Manning assumed the Giants would grab a quarterback early (which they did with former Duke quarterback Daniel Jones) in this year’s draft. The writing’s been on the wall and everyone knows Manning’s career is in its final stages.

There are very good reasons for criticism of the New York Giants these days and it begins with the overall standings. Seven seasons have passed since the team’s last division title (which was also their last Super Bowl win), and Manning has only one playoff appearance (2016) on his resume since he last hoisted the Lombardi. Even that postseason stint was short-lived after suffering an embarrassing loss to the Green Bay Packers in the wild card round.

From there, Manning’s numbers have also paled in comparison to his contemporaries around the league. In 2013, he had 18 touchdowns against a league-leading 27 interceptions. In 2017, it was 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions for an offense that finished second to last in the league. There have been years when the numbers tell the tale.

Here’s the thing: Manning has also done his job during this time without much fanfare. Manning threw 65 touchdowns against only 28 interceptions combined in 2014-15 yet the Giants averaged six wins during that stretch thanks to consecutive defensive displays that were among the league’s worst (the Giants actually allowed the most yards in the NFL in 2015, Manning’s last Pro Bowl season).

In more recent seasons, the offensive line in front of Manning has been porous (or just downright poor). Ereck Flowers was a first round bust at tackle under former general manager Jerry Reese. John Jerry declined and no substitute rose to the occasion. Bobby Hart should not be starting at tackle for any team.

Gettleman declared the line to be one of his top priorities as the team’s new GM, and he sunk big money into Nate Solder to show he was serious. Unfortunately it’s taken some time for Gettleman to get to where the line stands today. Solder was slow to adapt to a new team with a disastrous first half season and other moves didn’t work out at all.

A great example of the disaster in front of Eli Manning over the last few years is the case of guard Patrick Omameh. Just last March, Omameh signed a three-year deal worth $15 million to take over at right guard for the Giants. He allowed an incredible 20 pressures through the first six weeks of the 2018 season before he injured his knee. The Giants cut him and subsequently claimed Jamon Brown on waivers from the Rams. After being inserted as the new starting right guard, Brown gave up another 19 pressures in the final 8 games.

That sort of disastrous line play will have every quarterback in the league not named Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers throwing it away or taking the easy out every time.

Even with the Giants front line allowing easy access to the quarterback multiple times each game, the Giants offense flew under the radar last year by ranking No. 16 overall. Before you attribute that to Saquon Barkley and the ground game, the Giants passing game was in the top half of the NFL in yards (11th) and yards per attempt (12). They were also sixth in sack yardage allowed.

Manning earned a nice 78.3 grade from Pro Football Focus when he was not under pressure last season for the Giants. When he was under pressure, that rating slipped to 36.1. Every quarterback is going to show similar splits, but it serves as evidence why Gettleman has been so focused on the line first before taking care of any quarterback competition.

Solder is now looking solid protecting the blind side, and Will Hernandez looks like a stud left guard in the making. Kevin Zeitler was imported from Cleveland in the Olivier Vernon deal and should cement the most troubled spot on the line, and John Halapio was an impressive pass blocker last year at center. If Mike Remmers can simply avoid being the weakest link along the line, the Giants are going to employ the most talented front they’ve had in years.

That could mean good things for Eli Manning in what looks like his swan song. Perhaps with a solid line and an impressive array of young skill position players around him (even sans Odell Beckham, Jr.), the future Hall of Famer can put up one more season to allay the criticism and remind everyone that recent failures shouldn’t rest entirely on his shoulders.

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