There were three passes that Eli Manning threw into the ground against the Cowboys last Sunday. Basically spiked the ball. The Giants were trying to run a screen pass but the blocking wasn't there and the back was covered, so rather than try to force the football into a tight space, Manning decided to just end the play.
They were three of the most successful plays the Giants ran in the game, not because of what they accomplished (which was basically nothing) but what they avoided.
"It's a lot better than what happened last year in the screen game down in Dallas," coach Tom Coughlin said with a nod to the two interceptions that resulted from those plays. "It's not being cautious. If it's not there, what are you going to do? Get rid of the ball. I think he had four throwaways [last Sunday] and three drops, and if you take some of that together, I think his numbers go up."
And as we've seen in the last several weeks, the most important number goes down. That would be interceptions.
Manning has thrown five of them through the first seven games. His lowest number through that span came in 2008, when he had only four. He had 15 through seven games last year and finished with 27.
"Interceptions, that's a big stat," quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf said when asked what numbers he looks at when analyzing Manning. "Making sure he is taking care of the ball, making sure he makes decisions with where to go with it."
Manning has been exceedingly cautious. And the interception total has dropped. And that's good.
But is it helping the Giants?
This is a quarterback who used to do anything he could to make a play, including throwing more than a few lefthanded passes.
It's also a quarterback whose two most important throws ever probably were ill-advised: one in which he blindly chucked it down the middle to David Tyree and one in which he threaded it away from coverage for Mario Manningham down the sideline. Both became Super Bowl icons. Should he have spiked those?
Manning long has been the best barometer for Giants success. By forcing him to be more conservative, the Giants are eliminating him from being a deciding factor in games.
The most recent Cowboys game was the 13th time in his career that Manning has thrown three or more touchdown passes without an interception. It was only the second time the Giants lost such a game.
Against the Eagles, he was a nonexistent element.
The interceptions are down, though.
"I don't like throwing it to the other team," Manning said. "I'm trying to protect the football and make good decisions and not force things, not make it harder than it has to be. I'm very conscious of that. Forcing things and trying to make plays, that doesn't always help things out."
It doesn't always lead to disaster, either. There has to be a middle ground.
The Giants, though, are happy with Manning not wandering into that in-between.
"That is a fine line, for sure," Langsdorf said. "I wouldn't accuse him of being too conservative, but we certainly want him taking care of the ball. That's a big part of if you say, 'Oh, he should have thrown it in there in a tight window.' If you are going to be careless with the ball, maybe. I think that taking care of it will override anything that looks too careless. I think that's a big part of his decision-making is knowing whether it is a risky throw or it is a calculated risk. Whether it is something he can make and only give the receiver a chance to catch the ball, as opposed to the possibility of a tipped ball or an interception."
Sometimes the Giants don't even allow Manning to make those decisions. They are committed to balancing their offense between run and pass, even when the running game is a phantom threat, as it has been for the last two games.
"We're not just going to turn the ball over because we refuse to run," Coughlin said after the Cowboys loss. "That's not what we're all about."
Clearly not. The Giants are all about reducing the number of turnovers produced by their most important offensive player, and they are accomplishing that goal. But if doing so makes their most important offensive player less important, then what's the point?
It's as if Manning is being grounded for missing curfew, or in this case throwing 27 interceptions. He broke the trust of the team's decision-makers and has to earn it back.
As the second half of the season begins, the Giants need to allow their quarterback to go win games for them and not just manage them. He can't start playing like a madman, flinging footballs all over the field, but he needs to start opening up and taking some risks to find rewards.
Otherwise, Manning and the rest of the Giants might be sitting home in January, watching the playoffs from the outside for the third straight year and the fifth time in the last six seasons, toasting his new career-low number of interceptions.