EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning has done it before. He has shut out the noise, defied the doubters and accomplished the improbable. He has two blingy rings and a pair of Super Bowl MVP trophies in his closet as proof. The New York Giants quarterback may one day add one of those gold jackets awarded to Hall of Famers to that wardrobe.
Manning and the Giants have been on a wild ride filled with some really high highs and some ugly lows that appears to be nearing its conclusion. Manning is currently stuck in one of those downturns, with this one having stretched over several years. He has eight touchdown passes in 315 pass attempts in eight games this season as the Giants (1-7) are again struggling to score points.
At 37 years old, Manning is running out of time to turn it around. Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers could be make or break, his last chance to make one of those thread-the-needle throws down the sideline (See: Mario Manningham) or miracle heaves (See: David Tyree). If there is one more football miracle left in Manning, the time is now.
The situation: Manning needs to perform well or there is no guarantee there will be another start. This for a man who has started 222 of the team’s past 223 games, with the only break being a coach’s decision in favor of Geno Smith. That was last year when the Manning era appeared as if it were coming to a close.
The Giants are pretty much back in the same spot one year later. Manning is struggling behind a bad offensive line. His immobility and deteriorating skills behind that group form a toxic mix. Manning has been pressured on 30 percent of his dropbacks this year, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He’s been sacked on 9 percent of those plays and averaged 1.03 yards on the 109 dropbacks he was pressured. Manning has the same number of passing touchdowns under pressure as star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr: One.
It's this and more that has the new coach, Pat Shurmur, only guaranteeing that Manning would start this week against San Francisco. Clearly change could be on the horizon.
“I spoke to Eli a couple times this weekend, and I explained to Eli that he’s going to start Monday,” Shurmur answered last week when asked if Manning would definitely be the starter the remainder of the season. “I also explained to Eli that everybody needs to play better, and as we go through this, it’s important that we’re not ‘almost’ in these games; we do what we have to do to get it over the top and win football games. We’ll just take it from there. But I spoke to the team about that, and then I also spoke to Eli about that specifically.”
The options: The Giants want to get a look at fourth-round pick Kyle Lauletta and maybe even the mysterious veteran Alex Tanney this year. Their actions -- trading two defensive starters in exchange for draft capital -- indicate they’re in rebuild mode. They would benefit from having game tape on their other quarterbacks going into a crucial offseason that will include seriously addressing the position.
Tanney appears to be the in-game option. He’s served as the backup for every game this season with Lauletta inactive. That’s not likely to change on Monday night. Manning worked with the first-team offense at practice throughout this week. Tanney was next in line while Lauletta’s primary responsibility was the scout team.
If the Giants' offense looks incompetent in the first half against the 49ers or the score is lopsided either way late in the contest, don’t be surprised to see Tanney. Or if Manning gets injured. Tanney is on the roster for these reasons.
“He’s a fast thinker, he’s got a great demeanor,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said of his backup quarterback. “He hasn’t done it like some of the other guys have done around here, but he seems like a guy that can go in and play without a lot of reps and be on point. He’s shown that in practice, and he’s got some experience.”
Well, Tanney’s one game of experience is at least more than Lauletta, a rookie out of Richmond who played in the Football Subdivision last year. Lauletta was arrested last week for various motor vehicle and related disorderly person offenses. He was late to work and admittedly showed a lack of judgment. He was remorseful for his actions, but the Giants weren’t happy with the incident, especially his decision-making -- which is a crucial skill for a quarterback. If they were going to contemplate making Lauletta the starter during the bye week -- Shurmur had left the possibility open several days earlier -- that was squashed by the incident.
It still shouldn’t affect Lauletta much moving forward. If the Giants were to bench Manning and had a full week to prepare, Lauletta would likely get the start. The Giants are high on the rookie because of his instincts and the belief that he has that “it” factor. If he does enter the lineup, it would be with an eye on the future and providing him game experience and the opportunity to learn.
The expectations on Lauletta, however, should be realistic. He would be a fourth-round rookie playing behind a shaky offensive line. That rarely equals instant success.
The future: Manning has one year remaining on his contract. Barring a stunning second-half resurgence that would need to include a strong effort against the 49ers, he’s unlikely to be on the team next year. Being released or retiring seem to be the most likely options right now. Manning is set to cost $23.2 million against the salary cap, a number that his play hasn’t come close to justifying. The Giants would get a cap saving of $17 million if he were released this offseason.
How long Manning remains the starter this season will be determined by how he plays in the immediate future. If he puts together a strong game Monday night, he should retain his job for at least a few weeks until the Giants find the right spot to get Lauletta playing time.
It’s possible Manning and the Giants could go on a mini-run. They play a bad Bucs defense next week, followed by an Eagles team that he’s had success against even during this current downturn.
“I told you, [Manning] is starting Monday,” Shurmur said. “You roll with it how you want, with the idea that he’s going to get us on a run here and there will be no decisions to be made.”
Lauletta would have to wait. It would at least allow the rookie to sneak in a few more first-team reps during practice before making his NFL debut, which would make sense if it came before the final week of the season.
The Giants’ Week 17 matchup at MetLife Stadium against the Dallas Cowboys would be an ideal spot for Manning’s sendoff. In the meantime, on Monday night, he has what could be his last stand in San Francisco.