Giants face short-, long-term dilemma as Manning continues to struggle
Posted: Monday December 13, 2004 7:27PM; Updated: Monday December 13, 2004 10:26PM
Eli Manning's passing yardage has fallen in each of his four starts (from 162 to 148 to 113 to 27), and he has guided the Giants into the end zone just once in 44 possessions.
As a rookie, John Elway was so discombobulated that he once lined up behind guard instead of center. Troy Aikman and Vinny Testaverde didn't win a single game as a starter in their first seasons, and Michael Vick won just once. Shoot, even Peyton Manning had 11 interceptions and just three touchdown passes after his four initial NFL starts -- all losses.
All were No. 1 overall draft picks. So let's not overreact to Eli Manning's early struggles. What takes place in these formative stages doesn't always portend gloom and doom for the rest of a career.
Then again, can you play worse than the first pick of the 2004 NFL Draft did Sunday in Baltimore? Finishing 4-of-18 passing, with two interceptions, for 27 yards? A passer rating of zero? Of New York's 196 total yards against the Ravens, only 58 of them came in the opening 53-minutes plus, when Manning was in the game. At times in Baltimore, it seemed like even the wind was against Manning -- in all four quarters.
More sobering for New York, losers of six in a row after its 5-2 start, is that Manning is getting worse. Manning's passing yardage has fallen in each of his four starts (from 162 to 148 to 113 to 27), and he has guided the Giants into the end zone just once in 44 possessions.
Manning led New York to 10 points in his debut against Atlanta, and a pair of field goals in a loss to Philadelphia. But the Giants' offense has been shut out under Manning the past two weeks at Washington and Baltimore.
And now comes the sticky little wicket presenting itself this week, when 12-1 Pittsburgh and rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger visit Giants Stadium on Saturday for a nationally televised contest. Just what the G-Men needed, right? A chance for the unbeaten Roethlisberger (the 11th overall pick is 11-0 as a starter) to give Giants fans a vivid picture of everything the more celebrated Manning hasn't been.
I'm going to take a wild guess and say New York will elect to introduce its defense in the pregame this week. Call it a hunch.
Benched in favor of Kurt Warner for the final 6:07 of the Baltimore game, Manning will remain the starter this week against the Steelers, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin quickly announced after the loss. But should Manning be back out there? Is it advisable, given his sagging confidence and lack of production in the pocket?
The question surrounding Manning's immediate future made for interesting debate around the league Monday. We put the issue to three longtime NFL club officials -- two in coaching, one in personnel. All requested anonymity in exchange for speaking frankly about what they have seen in Manning, and how they would deal with the Giants' quarterback situation for this week's game against Pittsburgh.
"I think [Coughlin] put himself into a very difficult position, because now it's an absolutely no-win situation,'' said one coach. "In my estimation, he did it, he made Eli the starter, too early to begin with. The Giants were 5-4, but in the NFC this year, they weren't out of it. Now it all falls on Eli's shoulders. You can forgive the first couple losses. But now there's a really big downside to be weighed. You could really kill the kid's confidence for a while if he goes out and looks really bad again against Pittsburgh.
"I'm one who normally says you play the kid, because there's nothing to be learned standing on the sideline, but I don't know about this one. ... I don't think the kid is getting anything out of playing as badly as he did [against Baltimore].''
Coughlin said Sunday his prized rookie is going to have to "fight his way through'' his struggles, but it was somewhat of a mixed message, given that he benched Manning late in the game. Manning's flagging confidence -- and any potential long-term damage to that part of his game -- is the Giants' primary concern.
"He's a bright kid, and he's done OK knowing where he's vulnerable out there,'' said the coach. "He hasn't been clueless. He hasn't panicked or choked. But he's clearly not ready for everything that's coming at him.
"Either way, Tom risks being wrong. If you pull him, the question is where does it go from here? What's to come next year? Are you already conceding you made a mistake in trading up to take him? But if you don't pull him this week, you could kill him. Another bad game could really hurt his confidence and give him a huge hole to dig out of. It's a true no-win situation.''
If Manning were to sit the final three weeks, not only would he lose three games off his development time, he'd be ending his season on a miserable note. The Giants would prefer to not let the New York-area media start that drumbeat and keep it going for the next seven months or so.
Don Banks will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
But what if Manning hasn't hit bottom? The thought that sends chills through the Giants organization -- and if it doesn't, it should -- is the possibility that Manning's nadir would come Saturday in his showdown with the ridiculously charmed Roethlisberger.
"Manning's big thing right now is confidence,'' said another coach. "It's kind of like he's caught on the Autobahn and things are moving too fast for him. He's not really making poor decisions. A few young decisions have probably been wrong. He's off-rhythm in his throwing. But that's youth and being able to slow it down in your mind so that you can keep up.
"Me personally, I think you protect the kid this week, and protect the team, and go with Kurt. The potential downside is too great. [The Steelers] could crush the kid. And he's a tough kid. Roethlisberger isn't playing all that great right now, but they're winning, so consequently his psyche and his confidence is that I managed the game and we won. Eli is losing that. It's all going on his shoulders, and nothing is working. So there really is some downside to throwing him back out there. It's very risky.''
Coaches across the league will tell you the decision on when to play a young, highly drafted quarterback -- and when not to -- is the toughest call to make. One personnel official we talked to believes that while the Giants started the season showing great patience in going with Warner, it was Roethlisberger's other-worldly success that influenced New York to insert its rookie into the lineup in Week 11.
"The biggest misconception in the league this year is that Roethlisberger is carrying the Steelers to all these wins,'' the club official said. "That put a lot of pressure on New York to play its guy. There's two ways to look at Manning playing against the Steelers: You play him and he'll learn and it'll speed up his development, or things will get even worse for a time.
"But it will help him. I don't think he's going to die on you. It won't be where he can't handle it any more. He'll see an eight-man front and the Steelers will force him to throw the ball to beat them, or he'll get blitzed like crazy. But every week is a learning experience. Even the Baltimore game. So he's got to go play it. He's gotta go back out there.''
Around the league
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The 1970 Cincinnati Bengals started the season with a win, then lost six in a row. They rebounded and finished the year with seven consecutive victories, winning the AFC Central title at 8-6 in just their third year of existence. More recently, the 2001 Washington Redskins lost their first five games under head coach Marty Schottenheimer, then won five in a row to get to .500. The Redskins finished 8-8.
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