Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
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NEXT GEN STATS: Eli Manning struggling mightily, especially downfield
The New York Giants have been widely touted as a dark-horse contender in the NFC due to the presence of a resurgent defense, a dominant playmaker at wide receiver and a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. While I could see the G-Men making another title push behind the defense and Odell Beckham Jr.'s spectacular play, the Giants won't truly make a run at the Lombardi until Eli Manning fixes his game.
I know it's almost blasphemous to throw shade on the two-time Super Bowl MVP, but let's be real -- he hasn't played well this season.
Now, I know the numbers aren't bad, with Manning posting a 63.0 percent completion rate, a 26:16 TD-to-INT ratio and an 86.2 passer rating, but shouldn't we expect more from a veteran franchise quarterback who is routinely called an elite player? We customarily give Manning a hall pass when he underperforms in the regular season. That's the only way to explain why there hasn't been any outrage over Manning's six multi-interception games this season (most in the NFL), which is a part of his legacy as a turnover machine (59 career multi-INT games -- seven more than any other player since Eli entered the league in 2004).
If that's not enough, the Giants' success hinges on Eli's ability to take care of the ball, as evidenced by the team's 6-5 record this season when he has at least one turnover, compared to their 4-0 mark when he doesn't have a giveaway. Considering the impact of turnovers on the outcome of games, particularly in the postseason, Manning's propensity for giving the ball away should be a major concern for Giants fans and coaches.
Speaking of concerns, I'm also worried about Manning's efficiency as a passer from the pocket. His play has fallen off dramatically in December, with a 76.1 passer rating in Weeks 13 through 16, after he posted a 90.1 mark during the first 12 weeks of the season. With the offense's performance closely tied to Manning's play, the Giants haven't reached 20 points in any of their last four games, looking nothing like the high-powered offense many expected prior to the season.
That's why the Giants must fix their veteran quarterback prior to the tournament. Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I was blown away by Manning's inability to connect on layups at short and intermediate distances. He routinely misfired on the team's staple quick-game concepts (slant/flat, go/stick) despite having three dynamic catch-and-run playmakers at his disposal. Sterling Shepard, Victor Cruz and OBJ are exceptional route runners with a variety of slippery releases that make them tough to guard at the line of scrimmage. With each guy capable of winning his one-on-one battles at the line, Manning should be able to catch, rock and fire to open receivers against man or zone coverage.
While Manning's ineffectiveness as a "dink and dunk" passer is troubling, I believe his inability to push the ball down the field is an even bigger issue. Manning ranks last in several downfield passing categories over the past five games. Since Week 12, Manning has completed just 22.2 percent of his passes traveling 15-plus air yards (8 of 36 attempts), with a 0:3 TD-to-INT ratio and a 17.6 passer rating. Compare that to his production from the first 10 games of the season in this area: 37.5 percent completion rate, 7:5 TD-to-INT ratio, 80.3 passer rating. Manning desperately needs to find his groove in Week 17.
I pored over the tape from each of the Giants' regular-season games, trying to find a performance that would reveal some strategies coach Ben McAdoo could lean on to help his veteran quarterback end his slump. And really, I only discovered one efficient performance that fit the bill. Against the Cowboysall the way back in in Week 1, Manning completed 67.9 of his passes and finished with a 3:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 110.3 passer rating in a close win. Studying that game, Manning wasn't at his best, but he did a good job of getting the ball to Cruz and OBJ on rhythm throws. He leaned on his playmakers to deliver splash plays, and they responded in splendid fashion when he connected with them on a variety of slants, hitches, seams and post-corners -- routes that allowed Manning to fire away without hesitation.
At a time when Giants fans are suggesting their team should rest starters to ensure good health in the playoffs, I believe the G-Men must focus their efforts on getting their QB1 on track. If Manning is going to lead Big Blue to the promised land, he needs to start showing his teammates he still has the magic that made him a two-time Super Bowl MVP.