Just over a month ago, it seemed like a foregone conclusion: With the Giants at 1-7 and Eli Manning playing some of the worst football of his career, the time looked right to move on from the team’s all-time winningest quarterback and author of two improbable Super Bowl championship runs.
Suddenly, and just as improbably, Manning may be playing his way into the 2019 season.
The Giants have finally found the winning touch, with four victories in their last five games, and coach Pat Shurmur has finally found the formula to score points and give Manning his best chance to succeed.
The way the Giants have been playing over the second half of the season is the way that was envisioned coming into the year, when Manning had the unqualified support of the organization and talk of his potential demise was considered premature. They've run the football brilliantly with rookie sensation Saquon Barkley showing the promise expected of him, they’re protecting Manning much better now than before — especially since the acquisition of right guard Jamon Brown off waivers — and Manning himself is now benefiting from the improved play around him.
Had it been like this from the start, there would have been little to no speculation that Manning was in danger of losing his job to either journeyman backup Alex Tanney or fourth-round rookie Kyle Lauletta. But the early struggles led to the kind of uncertainty Manning faced toward the end of last season, when Ben McAdoo’s plan to look at backup Geno Smith led to the first benching of Manning’s career.
Shurmur’s own unwillingness last month to announce Manning would be his starter for the rest of the season suggested that even he and general manager Dave Gettleman, who upon being hired suggested there were years left of good football for the quarterback, might consider getting a look at Tanney or Lauletta.
But the Giants returned from the bye and put together a modest two-game winning streak over NFC also-rans San Francisco and Tampa, and they’ve now won four of their last five after back-to-back wins over the Bears and Redskins.
The record has improved to 5-8, giving the Giants at least a remote — if not mathematically improbable — path to a playoff berth. And Manning’s numbers have improved dramatically as well.
Consider: Over the first eight games, Manning had just eight touchdown passes, six interceptions and a 90.9 rating. He was sacked a whopping 31 times, putting him on pace for the most sacks over a season in his entire career. Over the last five games, Manning has 10 touchdown passes, just two interceptions and a 106.5 rating. He has been sacked 12 times, a dramatic improvement over the first half and a testament to Brown’s presence addressing once intractable problems up front.
Manning suggested after another strong showing in the Giants’ 40-16 drubbing over an admittedly injury-ravaged Redskins team that the increased reliance on Barkley has provided a boost at all levels. The running game has forced opposing defenses to commit more resources to defending Barkley, which in turn has prompted teams to use less double coverage in the secondary and thus open up the play-action passing game.
With remaining games against the Titans, Colts and Cowboys — all of whom are in the playoff mix and will thus provide worthy challenges — Manning has three more opportunities to prove his recent numbers are no fluke or simply the result of facing inferior competition.
Barkley now gives him the same kind of security blanket once enjoyed by another aging Super Bowl quarterback near the end of his career. Terrell Davis became the central figure in the Broncos offense just before Elway was ready to bid the NFL farewell, and the future Hall of Fame running back allowed Elway to extend his run and win two Super Bowl championships before leaving after the 1998 season.
It’s entirely too early to suggest Manning might enjoy a similar scenario, but compared with the way things were just a few weeks ago, the mere hint that he may be pulling off yet another of his famous comebacks — just when you think he is out of them — is a telling thought.
At the very least, Manning is stating his case that the final chapter of his career isn’t quite ready to be written.