With his team out of playoff contention and two regular-season games remaining, this would seem the perfect opportunity for Giants coach Pat Shurmur to get a look at some of his younger players to evaluate their prospects moving forward. None more so than fourth-round rookie quarterback Kyle Lauletta against the Colts in Sunday’s penultimate game, right?
That’s not the way Shurmur sees it. He’s more invested in trying to do everything possible to beat the Colts and not treat this as a glorified exhibition game. That’s why there was no hesitation on Shurmur’s part to announce early in the week that Eli Manning will start at quarterback.
These last two games against the Colts and Cowboys might turn out to be an evaluation at quarterback anyway: an evaluation of Manning.
Sure, Shurmur offered an endorsement of Manning heading into next season, telling reporters on Wednesday that he wants the soon-to-be 38-year-old quarterback to return in 2019. But Shurmur made no definitive commitments, and there is every reason to believe Manning’s overall body of work this season will be the subject of intense scrutiny as the coach and general manager Dave Gettleman chart a course for the future.
It was around this time last year that Manning put in one of his best efforts in a loss to the Eagles at MetLife Stadium, a performance that convinced Gettleman he had good years left. Gettleman suggested that performance against the Eagles was no “mirage,” underscoring his conviction.
But a perfect storm of adversity struck the Giants early this season and Manning faced some of his most formidable challenges. A rebuilt offensive line that needed half a season’s worth of adjustment to become functional, shoddy pass protection that put Manning under siege and some legitimately questionable play from the quarterback himself created doubts about whether he was as viable as Gettleman had suggested.
Then came a week’s worth of introspection during the bye, and Shurmur’s subsequent commitment to a game plan that revolved around rookie running back Saquon Barkley helped bring out the best in Manning. In winning four of his next five starts, he threw 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, and the Giants briefly flirted with playoff contention.
Then came last week’s loss at home to the Titans, who were intent on stopping Barkley and forcing Manning to beat them. In poor weather conditions that made Manning’s challenge even more difficult, he couldn’t put a single point on the board in a dispiriting 17-0 loss.
And here we are: With two games left, there still is no conclusive answer about Manning, and more uncertainty about what lies ahead.
A sizable contingent of Giants fans — many of whom haven’t been shy about directly expressing their feelings through email — remain convinced that there still is good football left for Manning. That may be the final conclusion reached by Shurmur and Gettleman once they fully dissect the season. But to not consider the possibility that the Giants need to review alternatives moving forward is a disservice to the organization and to Manning himself.
Manning, a two-time Super Bowl MVP who I believe has produced Hall of Fame-worthy credentials, has been a godsend to this organization in his 15-year career. His stats are among the most prolific in NFL history, and there should be a place reserved for him in Canton.
But there have been too many instances this season to ignore the possibility that he is a descending player. His decision-making sometimes has been slow and his choice of throws occasionally has been ill-advised. Never mobile, he has been particularly vulnerable against teams with elite pass rushers. And despite his much-improved performance when the running game is on, he often can’t carry the team when Barkley is limited.
After the Giants analyze his performance and consider potential alternatives, Manning could return as the starter in 2019. But to expect a vastly improved offense next year — even with the offensive line gaining experience from playing together — might be asking too much.
Manning could end up being their best option, even if the Giants take a quarterback in a 2019 draft that doesn’t seem to have as many promising ones as 2018, when they went for the best-available-player route with Barkley. But there could be some intriguing passers available on the market or through trades.
With the Eagles firmly committed to Carson Wentz as their long-term starter, Nick Foles is worth considering. Shurmur developed a close relationship with Teddy Bridgewater, now the Saints’ backup, when the two were in Minnesota. Derek Carr has received hearty praise from Jon Gruden in Oakland, but after Gruden shed prominent veterans Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, who knows what to believe? Former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco will be moved now that rookie Lamar Jackson has supplanted him in Baltimore.
Is Manning the preferred quarterback to all of the above? Too soon to know, even if Shurmur had kind things to say about him in advance of the Colts game. But with Manning returning to the place where he last won a Super Bowl, he clearly is not the same quarterback who pulled off another miracle comeback against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium.
There will be no playoff run for the Giants, but it is an important game nonetheless. It will offer further clues about whether Shurmur simply has been paying lip service to Manning or whether he is truly committed to him in 2019 and beyond.