When Eli Manning walked off the field the first time he faced the Ravens, there were serious questions about whether he would ever be a legitimate NFL quarterback. He completed only 4 of 18 passes for 27 yards with two interceptions in his fourth career start and was completely outsmarted, overmatched and, at times, openly mocked on the field by the Baltimore defenders.
On Sunday, he once again will face the Ravens. It will be his 200th start, including postseason. He’s won two Super Bowl MVPs, been to four Pro Bowls and become the undisputed face of the Giants franchise. And yet it seems some of those same questions that surfaced after Dec. 12, 2004, are hovering in the air as we approach this game on Oct. 16, 2016.
Is he good enough? Will he ever get any better? Is this the quarterback the Giants are stuck with? Manning chuckled at the parallel. The more things change . . .
“When the offense is not playing up to the standard, you have to look at the quarterback,” Manning said Tuesday, two days after his second straight subpar prime-time performance, a 23-16 loss to the Packers. “That’s the way it goes. I understand that. I understand I have to play at a higher level.”
Until he does, he and the offense will be seen as the underachieving group that they have been through five games. They wanted to average 28 points but have yet to score that many in any single game. Ben McAdoo said last week they were due for a breakout, and it certainly didn’t happen in Green Bay. The season is almost a third over, and the fan base is drumming its fingers waiting for the preseason promises to come to bear.
“I don’t think it’s taking long,” Manning said. “We just hit a little bump.”
So the focus shifts to a quarterback, as it does during most bumpy times, who looked as uncomfortable and threw with as little precision Sunday as he has in several years.
Is he healthy? “I feel good physically,” he said. “I feel great.”
Is his age, 35, starting to be a factor? “No, I don’t think so.”
Then why has the offense — and by offense, to be clear, we are talking about Manning and his three main receivers — yet to reach its potential?
“I feel like everybody wants it to just be perfect right off the bat,” said rookie receiver Sterling Shepard, one of the quartet that the offense is shaped around. “It’s still early in the season, so we have plenty of time. This offense is going to pick everything up. I have no doubt in my mind that it’s going to be what everybody thought it would be.”
Meanwhile, the games pass by, the record drops below .500, and the team suddenly is facing a crucial test.
“There has to be a sense of urgency,” Manning said. “You just have to understand that we need to get back on track and we need to get a win and play at a high level.”
The Giants will say it’s a team problem, not a quarterback problem. All 11 players need to lift them out of this malaise that has dragged on through the first five weeks. The blockers need to block better, the runners need to run better, the receivers need to receive better.
But it all comes down to the quarterback quarterbacking better. It always does, both inside and outside the locker room.
“He’s a big part of it,” Shepard said of Manning’s role in fixing the sputtering offense. “We look to him.”
For leadership. For tenor during good times and bad. But above all else, for performance.
“It’s about making the plays I have to make, getting the guys around you to raise their level, it all has to be a team effort to get it done,” Manning said. “I just have to make the throws.”
Manning knows that’s the answer. He should. He’s been answering the question for 13 seasons.