Even the most loyal Eli Manning fans acknowledge it’s a foregone conclusion that Daniel Jones will be taking the reins very soon, probably as soon as this season, whether they like it or not. Manning didn’t look good most of last year, and it’s become evident his arm strength is shot. He’s on his way out the door.
It’s a matter of when, not if, Jones takes the starting role for good. Most expect the end of the Manning era to come in quick and ugly fashion; the final days of an athlete’s career rarely come on their own terms, and are never easy to watch. But let us pretend, just for a second, that we don’t expect Manning to crash and burn as spectacularly as a Fast and the Furious race scene. What’s his best-case scenario going into the year?
At NFL on CBS Media Day, Boomer Esiason offered one comparison that Giants fans will be fond of, but question how realistic it is. When asked about Jones and Manning, Esiason compared the situation to a similar one in Kansas City only two years ago.
“What I see, best-case scenario for Eli, is what happened a couple years ago with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes,” he said. “Alex Smith was up to the challenge, he had his best year ever as a pro, and he held off Patrick Mahomes until the last game of the year when the playoff berth was secured and everything. Then, the next year, everyone knew Patrick was going to be great, now let’s trade Alex and get something for him. That’s the best-case scenario for the Giants: have Eli have his best year ever, make it to the playoffs, and hand the ball to Daniel Jones next year. But, the Giants aren’t the Kansas City Chiefs of two years ago. They’re not that good.”
Before you scoff, Esiason did point out the biggest flaw in his theory– the Giants are just not a good team, while the 2017 Chiefs were coming off two straight playoff appearances. But let’s break down how likely it is that Manning, perhaps inspired by the first dose of real competition behind in quite some time, has a career year by comparing him to Smith when he had his resurgence.
To start, what would such a year from Manning look like? As he nears his 40s, he’s not going to post big numbers in the yardage or touchdown department anymore. He would need to be efficient and complete more than the 66 percent of his passes he completed last year. He can’t stretch the field vertically, so Pat Shurmur would have to put an emphasis on stretching the defense horizontally and prevent Manning from throwing balls more than six or seven yards in the air per attempt. Manning put up decent stats last season, but failed the eye test spectacularly. To hold off Jones, Manning would probably have to throw for between 3,500-4,000 yards with at least 20 touchdowns and keep his interception count in single digits– something he only accomplished his rookie year playing in six games.
How likely is Manning to make that leap like Smith? Manning is 38 years-old heading into the season, while Smith was 33. The five-year age gap will be tough for Manning to make up; while Smith’s arm was never particularly strong, Manning’s arm strength has deteriorated below that point. Noted offensive schemer and savant Andy Reid was on the headset in KC, while Shurmur, a smart guy but certainly no Reid, will be calling the shots for Eli. In terms of supporting cast, it’s not really close; the Giants have the superior running back, and that’s where it ends. Advantage, Smith, on all accounts.
Of course, we aren’t analyzing the most realistic scenario, but rather the best possible outcome. And I would say it is possible, if improbable, that Manning holds off Jones and looks like mid-2010s Eli, rather than whatever we saw last year. Saquon Barkley should open up the passing game because he’s so good and the only threat on the offense. The offensive line will be better with Kevin Zeitler at guard, and the defense isn’t good enough that every game will be a low-scoring slugfest that would give Barkley good numbers but not Manning.
Will it happen? In all likelihood, no. But dare to dream, Giants fans.