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Giants' improved running game has made life easier for Eli Manning

Saquon Barkley is the difference in playcalling for Manning, whose career with Giants may be extended with offense flourishing.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning hands the ball off

Giants quarterback Eli Manning hands the ball off to running back Saquon Barkley during the first quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Eli Manning looks like the weight of the world has come off his shoulders in recent weeks. Or maybe just the weight of the offense.

It’s not just the winning that has allowed the Giants’ quarterback to relax a bit and enjoy football again, certainly more than he was enjoying it in the first two months of the season. It’s the way the Giants are winning that has changed his disposition.

They’re running the ball more, passing it less. For some quarterbacks that might be a blow to their ego. For Manning, at this point in his career, it’s a blessing.

“I think that works,” Manning said. “If that’s going to help us, hey, it’s all about scoring points and getting touchdowns and moving the ball.”

It’s all about Saquon Barkley, really. In the last few weeks, the Giants offense has shifted from one that relies on the quarterback to make the big plays to one that asks the running back — in this case, the rookie running back — to do it. Manning is no longer being asked to carry the responsibility for making the offense click.

After all these years of trying to create plays — and in most of the recent years, not being able to — now the most important thing Manning does in game is turning around and handing off the football. It’s practically semi-retirement.

It must be a relief, even if Manning doesn’t see it quite that way.

“You don’t think in those terms,” he said. “You just want to go out there and do your job. We’ve got to throw the ball, we’ve got to throw it well. We’ve got to run the ball. When you can do both, depending on what the defense is doing, we can just adjust a little bit easier.”

Manning isn’t a non-factor. He did throw three touchdown passes Sunday in a 40-16 victory over the Redskins in three quarters of work. And since the bye week — that line of demarcation in the 2018 season — he’s thrown 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. But he hasn’t thrown for 300 yards or more in any of the past five games, four of them victories. After averaging 39.4 pass attempts per game in the first eight games of the season, he’s averaged 28.6 in the past five.

“We’re still throwing the ball and taking our shots,” Manning said. “You can kind of use play actions, a chance to be aggressive and get the ball down the field… You’ve still got to do your job, and convert on third downs, and get completions, and set everything up.”

Manning is doing that well. If it wasn't such a quarterback slur, one might say he is managing the Giants rather than leading them on the field. And he's doing so to the point that his once imminent departure from the Giants is no longer so certain.

If the last few weeks are an indication of how the Giants want their offense to look going forward, then Manning has a much better chance to stick around in it… even though he’s less significant to it.

“You just can’t put Joe Schmo in at quarterback and think you’re going to win games,” Pat Shurmur said. “You’ve got to have a guy that can play the position. But the best friend of a quarterback is really the running back, because he can take some pressure off of him.”

That’s exactly what Barkley has done. He’s changed everything. Maybe even Manning's duration with the team.

“Just our identity and being able to run the ball, I think that’s been the biggest difference since the bye,” Manning said. “Just an emphasis on running the ball, the play action. A lot more under center. Not as much shotgun. Not as much seven-step drop. Just having everything build off the run game.”

As opposed to having everything on his own back, trying to schlepp the Giants to victory like a football sherpa.

If the Giants had made that adjustment and were still losing, it might be tougher for the 37-year-old quarterback to swallow. But they’re winning. So Manning’s new role fits him well.

A few weeks ago, a microphone on the sideline picked up an in-game conversation between Shurmur and Manning while they faced the Bucs. At one point Shurmur explained to Manning why he was calling so many run plays. The quarterback shrugged.

“Stay with it,” Manning said. “Don’t make it harder than it has to be.”

If anything, the Giants have made it easier for Manning.

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