It’s way too soon to jump to any conclusions about whether Eli Manning can build on the good things he did in the Monday night win over the 49ers and suddenly transform the Giants’ offense into a consistently good unit capable of scoring close to 30 points a game.
In fact, it’s quite possible that Manning will revert into the tentative, mistake-prone quarterback he’d become through much of the team’s 1-7 first half of the season.
But what happens if things really did start to click for Manning’s offense in the 27-23 win over the 49ers, in which he orchestrated the winning drive in the fourth quarter for the 36th time in his career? What if Manning plays like the quarterback that general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur envisioned when they suggested before the season that Manning had good years – that’s years, with an “s” – left in him?
The Giants won’t have to answer that question until they see definitive evidence that Manning can play up to the level he showed against the two-win 49ers, an admittedly weak team with problems of its own. But glimmers of the old Eli surfaced as Manning went 19-for-31 for 188 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
He benefited from improved protection from an offensive line that added former Rams guard Jamon Brown, as Manning was sacked only once after being taken down a whopping 31 times in the previous eight games. And he made several money throws, including the game-winning touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard and two scoring strikes to Odell Beckham Jr.
But there also were moments when Manning looked as if he was near the end of his mostly splendid 15-year career. He didn’t see that Beckham was uncovered in the slot on third-and-goal from the 49ers’ 3 in the second quarter. Manning instead handed off to Saquon Barkley, who gained a yard before the Giants settled for a field goal. Manning badly underthrew Beckham on a “go” route that would have gone for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Manning isn’t ready to think about next year or even next week. He lives in the here-and-now, and the only thing that matters is facing the Bucs on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. But with his future clearly hanging in the balance, he now has the chance to prove that he still can play at a high enough level to remain an NFL starter. He also could provide definitive evidence suggesting that his days as the Giants’ starter are coming to an end.
If Manning’s play continues to improve and he takes advantage of better blocking that helps him as an immobile pocket passer, it will be a potentially tricky process for the Giants to navigate. He is under contract for the 2019 season, so they theoretically can hold on to him for one more year. And while there may be the temptation to simply move on to the next quarterback – whoever that might be – Manning could serve as a caretaker for the offense if the Giants use what could be a high draft pick next year.
That might have been the scenario had Gettleman drafted one of the top quarterbacks available last April, but he wasn’t sold on any of them to the point of taking one over Barkley, the former Penn State star. Gettleman clearly went best available player with Barkley, and while that might turn out to be the smart move over time, it still leaves the Giants with a major problem at the team’s most important position.
If Manning proves that he indeed has a firmer grasp of Shurmur’s system and builds on last week’s game, it stands to reason that the Giants will win at least a few more games – if not run the table, as Beckham believes they can. But if they continue to win, they’ll earn a lower draft choice and potentially be out of the running for the most coveted quarterback of all, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, assuming he enters next year’s draft.
The pickings will be slim after Herbert, and the Giants then might have to consider acquiring a veteran quarterback along the lines of Teddy Bridgewater, Nick Foles or perhaps Derek Carr, who could be the odd man out if the Raiders end up in position to take the No. 1 overall pick.
The feeling here is that the Giants are ready to move on from Manning, given that he almost certainly doesn’t have a lot of time left. In fact, it’s conceivable that they already would have put rookie Kyle Lauletta in the lineup had he not been arrested on multiple motor vehicle violations during the team’s bye week.
And while it’s premature to surmise that Manning is capable of stringing several good games together, it’s worth remembering a conversation with NFL Network and Fox analyst Brian Baldinger, who said last month that Manning “looks old out there. His reactions look old. He’s never been a guy that can just put the ball in the [right] spot consistently. He’s had stretches of that, but he looks old.”
Manning had the benefit of a bye week leading up to the 49ers game, but the Giants finish out the season with seven games in seven weekends, so there’s no more time off.
It appears there’s no in-between: Manning continues to play well, forces the Giants to re-think their options next year and prompts him to play in 2019, even if it’s not with them. Or he makes the decision easy by showing his age and leading the Giants to move on.