Turn on an Eli Manning game circa 2007, and you’ll see the longtime Giants quarterback directing traffic at the line of scrimmage. You'll see him notice the tiniest detail in the opposing defense, check out of an originally called play and call something to exploit that defensive playcall. You’ll see him using his brain just as much as his arm.
Turn on an Eli Manning game circa 2018, and you won’t see much of any of that.
That, Trent Dilfer says, is partly why Manning and the Giants’ offense have struggled this season.
“I’ve said this about Eli, and I’ve said it for 10 years now, so this is not a new comment: Eli is best when he has total autonomy, control, whatever word you want to use, at the line of scrimmage,” Dilfer said Monday morning during a phone call to promote Panini America’s Panini Super Bowl Kid Reporter sweepstakes, for which he has been a coach since 2014.
Of course, it’s not the only issue that has plagued an offense averaging 19.5 points per game this season. The offensive line has allowed 20 sacks, ninth-most in the league, and hasn’t opened up many holes for a run game averaging 87.5 yards per game.
But Manning has been the subject of fan criticism the past few weeks, with co-owner John Mara acknowledging that the 37-year-old has been the “punching bag” for a 1-5 team on which “everybody needs to play better.”
Dilfer said Manning, unlike his contemporaries, doesn’t have the physical talents – be it pure athleticism or power – to turn a bad play into a good one, noting that his “greatest asset is his brain.”
“He needs to be able to have his brain turned on all the time to get him into the best play,” said Dilfer, a Super Bowl champion quarterback and former ESPN analyst. “And I’m not seeing a ton of that going on. It’s happening, and I’m sure the Giants would say, ‘Oh, no no no, Eli has the ability to audible and this and that,’ and that’s probably true. But that’s different than total command. Total command is, ‘OK, go ahead and call a play, coach, but when I get to the line of scrimmage, I’ve got 55 different plays I can get us to based on what they’re doing.’ And that’s where Eli’s always been his best.
“When they were going on their Super Bowl runs, that’s where Eli was his best. When he’s throwing in big games and has those big, memorable games, a lot of that is him getting them to a play that he feels gives him an advantage. I don’t see a ton of that going on.”
Dilfer also acknowledged that the game today tends to favor more athletic quarterbacks who have some movement.
“I always say the more you can create some time and space with your legs, the better opportunity you’re going to have as an offense to be consistent,” Dilfer said. “Because there’s going to be a handful – and I don’t want to use an arbitrary percentage – but there’s going to be a handful of signature plays in a game where a quarterback that has some movement ability is going to have a distinct advantage over a guy that doesn’t."
And then there’s the cap. Manning counts for $22.2 million against the Giants’ salary cap this season and $23.2 million next year, according to spotrac.com. Tying up that money into Manning prevents the Giants from, say, finding another two offensive linemen, or building up the team in other ways.
Dilfer says that’s the “biggest conversation around the Giants right now.”
“Even if Eli plays great the rest of the year, it’s better to go get a young guy and have a cheap guy, unless your old guy who’s making a lot of money is dominating,” Dilfer said. “I think there’s never been more pressure on a veteran quarterback to play consistently well, because his salary cap number is eating up such a huge part of the cap. And it’s just logical to say, ‘Well, if my guy is just playing blah, I can go get a young, cheap guy to play blah and then spread that other $20 million out to other good players.
“To me, that’s one the biggest conversations right now in professional football is, ‘If we’re paying our starting quarterback, let’s call it top-10 money, why? He better be earning it every week, because if he’s not we’re killing our franchise.”