The first challenge to facing Kyler Murray is finding someone who can approximate his skill set for the scout team. The Giants, like most other NFL teams, don’t have speedy 5-10 quarterbacks who can run sleight-of-hand read-options and then chuck the ball 50 yards on a sprint. So they’re doing the best they can in practices this week as they get ready to face the Cardinals.
Enter Eli Manning.
“Different skill sets, certainly,” Pat Shurmur said, trying to suppress a smirk.
And yet the 38-year-old (not to mention six-foot-five) backup quarterback was out there on the field, darting as best he can from side to side, and slinging the footballs all over the field to give the Giants’ starting defense, well, something of an idea of what they’ll be up against on Sunday.
“Eli looks great doing the Kyler Murray impression,” safety Antoine Bethea chuckled. “Everybody gave him a hard time, but he’s giving us some good looks back there.”
Added safety Michael Thomas: “Everybody thinks they’re a running quarterback. I did it myself. It’s fun.”
Snickers aside, perhaps there is no greater illustration of the changes at the position in recent years than the image of a two-time Super Bowl MVP and potential Hall of Famer having to mimic a rookie who has two NFL wins.
“For us,” Thomas said of that dynamic and Manning’s willingness to participate in it, “it’s about understanding that there is a different element that we have to account for this week.”
Different for the NFL, anyway. While Murray and his coach, Kliff Kingsbury, are bringing a lot of elements of the college game to the pro level, representing the latest step in an evolution that has been happening for the past few years, for many Giants defenders this game will be more like a return to what they know rather than an adjustment to something foreign.
Because the thing about college offenses is that they face college defenses. And the Giants have a large number of players on their defense who are fresh from that universe.
“It’s embedded in you, you go through college and that’s all you face for four years,” linebacker Oshane Ximines said of facing quarterbacks who, while probably not as good as Murray, were a lot more similar to Murray than, say, last week’s opposing quarterback Tom Brady. “And then you get into the league and they brainwash you and tell you, ‘The quarterback isn’t going to run the ball.’ So I had to train myself to not worry so much about the quarterback running.”
This week, he will.
Murray has run for 238 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries. That’s two more carries than Saquon Barkley has had this season. Granted Barkley has been hurt for the past three-and-a-half games, but still. When Michael Vick set the NFL record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in 2006 (1,039), he did it on 123 carries. Murray is on pace for 104, and in the last two weeks – two victories by the way – he has had 21 total rushes.
That’s a lot for an NFL quarterback but in line with what college quarterbacks do.
“I think you can be more accustomed to it because that’s how college football has transitioned over the last few years,” said rookie defensive back Julian Love, who played at Notre Dame. “It’s kind of instinctual because it is kind of fresh for a lot of guys.”
Shurmur said that nothing makes up for experience when it comes to playing defense, so having veterans on the field will be an important part of what the Giants do on Sunday. But he conceded that for the rookies and second-year players on that unit – the Giants start four of them and get significant contributions from nine of them – there may be a benefit.
“For some of our guys who are young, it will look more familiar to them,” Shurmur said. “Whether that will help us or not, we’ll figure that out.”
Second-year linebacker Lorenzo Carter said he was not looking forward to the task. He thought he was through with read-option responsibilities and the challenges that face players – particularly those on the edge like himself – when facing such a scheme in college at Georgia.
“I prefer facing a pro-style offense with a few less RPOs and reads,” he said. “But it’s nothing new. I played against it in college. We’ll just revert back to those rules.”
Luckily for him, it’s not something he’s forgotten.
“The league is changing, just like the college game changed,” Carter said. “Guys like me and [Ximines], younger guys, definitely have seen it a lot more than the guys who have been in the league going on eight years or whatever.
“Good thing for us we don’t have too many of those.”