GREEN BAY, Wis.
It is still too soon to make any definitive conclusions about whether Eli Manning is in decline, but the fact that the question is even remotely relevant is a testament to how disconcerting the 35-year-old quarterback’s level of play has been through the Giants’ three-game losing streak.
In Sunday night’s 23-16 loss to the Packers, there were more hurried and inaccurate throws, more skittishness in the pocket, more plays that made you wonder if this is simply the culmination of a variety of issues beyond his control, or if we are seeing a 13-year quarterback showing at least the initial signs of a descending player.
Coach Ben McAdoo, whose work with Manning the previous two seasons as the offensive coordinator helped the quarterback achieve two of his best statistical seasons, believes there is nothing seriously wrong with him. When I asked if there is any concern about Manning’s overall level of play, McAdoo said, “No.”
When he was asked later in his news conference if he still thinks Manning is capable of carrying the Giants, as he did so often in previous years, he replied, “Yes.”
But Manning wasn’t completely immune from his coach’s criticism. “We didn’t complete enough footballs,” he said. “We need to complete the ball more.”
Manning himself seemed frustrated afterward, but he attributed the problems more to what the Packers were doing well on defense than his own issues.
“They had a good game plan, and they did a good job trying to take away our receivers,” said Manning, who was 18-for-35 for 199 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He also lost a second-quarter fumble and was sacked three times.
“They did a good job disguising some things,’’ he said. “They got decent pressure bringing four guys and were playing some coverages where it took a little time for some things to develop.”
It should be noted, however, that Manning was unable to solve a Packers defense that was without injured starting cornerbacks Sam Shields and Damarious Randall. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers responded by going to a more conservative cover-2 defense in which two safeties offer help on either side of the field. But Manning and McAdoo, the Giants’ play-caller, couldn’t do enough to attack the zone coverages.
“They take away your outside guys a lot,” Manning said. “It takes time [for the patterns] to develop. You have to hold the ball a little bit to get down the field. We had a few things to beat it, hit some plays, but it’s just tough to play that game. We just didn’t make enough plays.”
Manning’s offense has produced eight touchdowns in five games, a number that is unacceptable, given the lofty expectations of an offense that McAdoo had suggested was ready for a breakout game against his former team. Instead, it was more of the same in a losing streak that has wiped out a 2-0 start.
The Giants have a home game next week against Baltimore and will face the Rams in London before their bye week. But if they don’t improve their level of play quickly, their entire season might be imperiled.
And the questions will continue about whether Manning is up to the challenge of playing at a championship level.
The people around him do not believe he has slipped or is in the process of doing so.
“I don’t have any concern,” wide receiver Victor Cruz said. “He’s a guy that understands his body and understands what we have to do to win. We need him to play at his best each and every week, and if he can’t do that, I think he’ll say something or he’ll know. He knows his own body. I don’t see any discrepancies or anything in a negative way at all.’’
Could the problem be something other than physical? Do not discount the subtle hints — even from Manning — that McAdoo’s strategy might be to blame for some of the struggles.
Manning said he believes the Giants still have “a good offense, [but] we have to understand how teams are going to start playing us and we have to be ready for that and try to get them out of it.” Hint: You get them out of it by changing up your play calls.
Odell Beckham Jr., who scored his first touchdown of the season, called the Giants’ offense “one-dimensional.”
Whatever the case may be, Manning is not playing the kind of football we’re used to seeing from him. Whether or not it signals the beginning of the end remains to be seen. But the fact that we’re even having this discussion should be enough cause for concern.