The ball isn’t Brandon Marshall's friend right now. It’s as if there is a flaming pile of trash coming in Marshall's direction when New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning targets his newest receiver so far this season.
It’s a quarter of the way into the campaign, and Marshall doesn’t look anywhere near the Pro Bowl receiver the Giants were expecting when they signed him to a two-year deal in the offseason. He had a pair of drops in Sunday’s 25-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and caught another ball with his legs after a bobble.
It has been that kind of struggle for Marshall.
“Just not playing well right now,” he said after finishing with six catches on 10 targets for 46 yards in the Giants’ fourth straight loss. “I haven’t played a solid game since I’ve been here.”
Marshall’s next touchdown will be his first this year. His next drop will be (at least) his fourth, depending who is counting.
Although Marshall has never exactly been known for having the surest of hands -- his 55 drops since the start of 2010 blow away the competition by 14 or more -- the start of this season has been especially trying. The problem might be in his head.
“I think catching is confidence. Confidence is catching,” coach Ben McAdoo said. “... We just need to get through a clean game with him. He’s been catching it well in practice. We need to carry it over to game day. And that’s a part of the game for receivers.”
The Giants are hoping it happens soon. Their season is already slipping away, and Marshall was supposed to be the ideal complement to star Odell Beckham Jr. on the outside. But the marriage the Giants were hoping would put their offense over the top has done little to inspire confidence. Marshall has looked like a bigger, taller version of Victor Cruz. It has been a mismatched union since Week 1.
Maybe it’s the shoulder Marshall dinged in the preseason. Maybe it’s the new offense or that the best years are behind the 33-year-old receiver. The early returns after a promising training camp are that Marshall hasn’t looked like the physical receiver who has scored the most red zone touchdowns since 2012.
Marshall, who has two red zone targets this season, isn’t making excuses. He knows his play has been subpar. He has 16 catches for 139 yards in four games.
McAdoo seems to have a theory.
“Well, I think it’s a new offense. He’s doing a lot of learning," McAdoo said. "He’s still doing a lot of learning. Playing with a different quarterback. He hasn’t caught the ball cleanly in games.”
It might be wishful thinking. This wasn’t a problem for Marshall in the past. He had productive first seasons with the Dolphins, Bears and Jets. He’s on pace for 64 catches, 556 yards and no touchdowns in his first season with the Giants.
“Just have to get better,” Marshall said. “Have to find ways to get better.”
Marshall doesn’t appear to be playing with the physicality that made him such a force in the past. He didn’t force a missed tackle on any of his six receptions Sunday, even though most were against cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who was giving up 7 inches and about 30 pounds. There appeared to be sloppy routes, a lack of physicality and a constant battle with the football.
The rare positive was that Marshall used his size on one key catch late in the third quarter on a third down. It was almost like a basketball post-up, but even that wasn’t a clean grab.
It has been rare that Marshall has used his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame as an asset this season. He has 44 yards after the catch on 16 receptions for an average of 2.75 yards after catch this season.
It has been that kind of start to Marshall's Giants career, which as of right now is best remembered for a costly drop deep down the right sideline that could’ve changed the game against the Detroit Lions. Instead, it ended it. Two plays later, Detroit returned a punt for a touchdown, and the contest was out of reach.
“It’s not good,” he said. “I’ve got to put a complete game together. All I can do is find a way to get better.”
Marshall has 12 weeks for redemption. He doesn't have nearly that much time to get it right with the Giants still winless and in desperate need of a bigger contribution. They're tied for 30th in the NFL, averaging 15.0 points per game.
Marshall and the football need to quickly make amends. That fight needs to end now. The Giants need more from their top offseason acquisition.