When the Giants drafted Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick last April, they made it clear that Eli Manning wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder at a blue-chip quarterback waiting to play.
As it turns out, though, there is another young quarterback looming in the background for Manning, even if he isn’t on the Giants’ roster.
The decision to draft Barkley paved the way for the Jets to take USC quarterback Sam Darnold with the third overall pick. And with Darnold quickly adjusting to the NFL by winning the starting job and playing well in the Jets’ stunning 48-17 Monday night win over the Lions, it is safe to say that Manning-Darnold comparisons won’t go away anytime soon.
Manning himself would never let on that Darnold’s presence bothers him. After all, we’re talking about one of the most unflappable athletes we’ve ever seen in this market, and Manning’s legendary composure is part and parcel of what has made him a likely Hall of Famer.
But if Darnold continues to show that he is ready to become the Jets’ franchise quarterback, the comparisons to Manning unquestionably will be a topic of conversation in the days, months and years ahead. It will be especially nettlesome for the Giants, particularly if Manning’s performance doesn’t live up to the expectations the Giants have placed on him — expectations that were a major factor in their decision to go with Barkley, and not Darnold, in the draft.
I would argue that there is as much pressure on Manning in 2018 as there has been in almost any other season in his career. Not only does he need to operate the offense at a high level to get the most out of an elite set of skill- position players, but he must do so while Darnold grows into what could be the answer the Jets have been searching for all these years.
Manning had a less-than-convincing 2018 debut in last week’s 20-15 loss to the Jaguars, who do have one of the NFL’s best defenses. But Manning did miss a handful of key throws he should have made — including what would have been a critical touchdown pass to an open Odell Beckham Jr. in the third quarter. Manning also had a third-quarter interception that was returned for a touchdown, although the ball deflected off a Jaguars defender with Manning under a heavy rush.
There were enough flashes for Manning and his coaches to believe that continued work will produce more positive results as he gets better acclimated to Pat Shurmur’s system. Shurmur wants to press the attack with long throws, something Manning wasn’t used to, especially in the previous two years under Ben McAdoo, whose unwillingness to challenge teams deep was a big part of his undoing.
Shurmur’s system is reminiscent of the Kevin Gilbride offense, which pushed the envelope by employing longer routes. Manning won two Super Bowls with Gilbride as his offensive coordinator, and he did it by making some of his most iconic throws, especially in pressure situations.
He will be counted on now to make similar throws, and there is little margin for error. If last week’s debut showed anything, it pointed out Manning’s need to be sharper, especially on the passes that come in critical situations.
He’ll need to be better in what has turned into a critical Week 2 matchup on Sunday night in Dallas against the Cowboys, who also are looking for their first win of the season.
“I think the mindset is keep working, keep grinding,” Manning said. “We just got to play better ball. We got to make some plays here and there, clean some things up, get on the same page with how we’re doing things. There’s enough good things to build off and know we can go out there and play better football.”
If he does clean things up, there is reasonable hope that Manning can continue as the Giants’ answer at quarterback. Part of the team’s draft-day calculations included the belief that Manning has good years left. That and the fact that general manager Dave Gettleman didn’t have the kind of conviction about any of this year’s quarterbacks that would have prompted him to take one at No. 2 overall.
Gettleman’s plan was a godsend for Jets GM Mike Maccagnan, who had long believed that Darnold was the best quarterback prospect and had traded up from No. 6 to No. 3 to get in position to draft a passer. That it turned out to be Darnold was as ideal a situation as Maccagnan could have imagined.
Nothing about Darnold’s nascent career has swayed the Jets from their conviction about him. He convinced his coaches in training camp that he was ready for a starting — and starring — role. And after throwing a pick-6 on his first offensive snap, he settled down and helped the Jets to a dominating win.
That puts even more pressure on the 37-year-old Manning to elevate his game on a team built with a win-now mindset. With Darnold showing a national television audience that he is ready for prime time, it’s now on Manning to do the same in the Sunday night spotlight in Dallas.
HAVING A CATCH
Odell Beckham Jr. became Eli Manning’s most prolific receiver in terms of receptions last week, and if he is able to bring in 58 or more receiving yards from Manning on Sunday night he’ll have the most in that category too. Here is a look at Manning’s three top receivers in his career:
Player // Rec. // Yards
Odell Beckham Jr. // 324 // 4,535
Hakeem Nicks // 313 // 4,592
Victor Cruz // 303 // 4,549
- TOM ROCK