Even after all of their dizzying free-agent activity, the New York Giants' hopes for a return to contention in 2014 still rest on a player who has been on their team for the past 10 years.
The Giants have signed 23 free agents since the new league year started March 11, but not a single one of them will have as much to say about the success or failure of next season's team as will quarterback Eli Manning. He remains the one aspect of their roster that they know, from experience, can elevate them from average to championship-caliber. If he recovers from his career-worst season the way he did in 2011, all of Jerry Reese's offseason moves have a chance to look brilliant. But if Manning has another bad year and continues his decline, those moves are going to look useless.
Even the manner in which Reese has gone about this rebuild shows you it all comes down to Manning. Of the 23 free agents the Giants have signed, only nine play offense. They changed offensive coordinators, and Ben McAdoo will bring significant scheme changes with him, but considering how horrible the Giants offense was in 2013, they've so far acquired rather little in the way of help. A new starting left guard, a new running back, maybe a new center but maybe not. There's no tight end. The depth chart at wide receiver is Victor Cruz and an array of question marks. Three of the five projected starting offensive linemen come with red injury flags.
Sure, there's the draft yet to come, and maybe even some more free-agency activity. But as with almost all of their moves so far, any free-agent moves yet to come will be Band-Aids. The Giants know they can never count on immediate help from a draft, and they will work to make judicious choices next month to help their roster as a whole for the long term. If, during that process, they come up with a receiver or a tight end or a lineman who helps make Manning better in 2014, so be it. But that's not the primary goal of any Giants' draft. They draft in order to build and maintain a deep roster.
So Manning has a lot of work to do, and this is why the Giants pay him $20 million or so a year. They count on him to be able to carry them to great things. They know, if they didn't already before last year's crater of an 0-6 start, that they can't just let the whole roster erode around him and expect him to work miracles. But they know that if they do put a representative team around him, he's the kind of quarterback who can win playoff games and Super Bowls with it. That's why his salary is what it is, and that's why the Giants go into 2014 crossing their fingers that 2013 was just a hiccup and not a sign of a player on the way down.
Their hope, as articulated in interviews by head coach Tom Coughlin this offseason, is that the arrival of McAdoo will "energize" Manning, and that he'll enthusiastically embrace an offensive scheme change after 10 years without one. I think there is some merit to this hope -- a chance they'll turn out to be right. The reason for Manning's problems in 2013 was a complete breakdown of his protection, but he himself did little to overcome those issues, the Hakeem Nicks issues and whatever else was going wrong. The player the Giants believe can elevate them above their station failed in that assignment, and he and the whole offense had a wasted season. If the departure of Kevin Gilbride and the arrival of McAdoo and his new system can serve as a wake-up call, it's possible that Manning could look more like his old, problem-solving self again in 2014.
But if he doesn't, the Giants are in for another rough year and -- worse -- a 2015 offseason in which they'll have to totally re-evaluate their quarterback situation for the short term and the long term. It has been a decade since the Giants were worried about quarterback, and they have no desire to face those questions again anytime soon. Their organizational hope is that Manning is fantastic in 2014 and they can look ahead to another half-decade of faith that they're set at the game's most important position.
Manning has played under tremendous pressure throughout his career and generally done very well with it. He's under a great deal of pressure in 2014 to recover from his 27-interception season and put the team's recovery on his shoulders. The Giants can sign as many free agents as they like, and it appears they're trying to do just that. But in the end, as it has for years with the Giants, it still all comes down to Eli Manning.