Few players have experienced as many crests and troughs over the last decade as Eli Manning, with 2013 serving as an undeniable low point. It won’t be hard to improve off of last year’s numbers, but at his age, how likely is a return to form?
(Image via USA Today)
Let’s cut straight to the chase and avoid any mincing of words — Eli Manning was a really bad quarterback last season.
Finishing below league average across the board in Touchdown Percentage, Interception Percentage, Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Yards per Attempt, Net Yards per Attempt, and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt for the first time since his rookie year, it was hard to find a silver lining for Manning; even his normally stellar sack avoidance took a hit in 2013, posting a career-worst 6.6 sack rate (39 total on 590 dropbacks). It seems reasonable to say that Archie’s youngest did nothing well.
Disasters of this proportion usually happen for a myriad of reasons, though, and many of them here were out of Manning’s control. His Giants ranked 29th in rushing yardage, 30th in rushing efficiency, and the tailback stable was worse than a Dane Cook standup special — Andre Brown led the team with 492 yards. Next up was Madden coverboy Peyton Hillis at 247, then former castoff Brandon Jacobs with 238. First-round pick David Wilson notched more fumbles than touchdowns. Victor Cruz was steady and Rueben Randle showed improvement, but the rest of Manning’s receiving corps hurt more than helped him. Tight ends accounted for just 51 receptions in New York’s offense, and Hakeem Nicks — he of the dominant 2011 postseason — somehow managed to not haul in a touchdown all year while being constantly blamed for quitting on routes. And to complete the triumvirate of suck, Big Blue’s offensive line ranked second-to-last in pass-blocking and bottom-five overall in Pro Football Focus’ end-of-the-season grades.
These conditions would make it exceedingly difficult for any quarterback to thrive under, but make no mistake, Manning was dreadful. Those 27 interceptions he threw were the most since Brett Favre’s 29 in his 2005 clunker, and his 4.55 ANY/A ranked 33rd among 38 qualified passers in 2013, just .05 higher than 36th-place Joe Flacco. But it is also undeniable that Eli was an elite signal-caller just two years ago.
This is sort of why the Jim Plunkett comparison from Manning’s biggest detractors always falls on its face; while Plunkett owns one of the more underrated playoff runs in NFL history, destroying Philadelphia’s top-ranked defense en route to winning Super Bowl MVP, he never came close to compiling a regular season performance that approached Manning’s 2011 campaign. Eli — albeit briefly — has displayed the ability to be the league’s fifth-best quarterback* over a 16-game sample.
But are those days over? Despite his elite play being recent history, Manning looking toast is fresher on the mind. A lot of quarterbacks have had below-average stretches in their tenth year as pros, but how many of those were from Pro Bowl-level players?
According to Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt Plus, a season-adjusted ANY/A figure that makes for cleaner comparisons across eras and where 100 is league average, the answer is quite a few.**
|Quarterback||Year||Prior Pro Bowls||Attempts||TDs||INTs||Yards||ANY/A+|
A lot of replacement-level passers dot this list and stretch the label of “Pro Bowl quarterback” to its absolute limit — Blake, Griese, and Johnson come to mind — but I also spot two Hall-of-Famers and another borderline case in Anderson.
Excluding Eli, Palmer, and Schaub, who are awaiting their shot at redemption, how did the rest of this group fare in their 11th seasons?
|John Elway||1993||Yes, All-Pro||551||25||10||4030||117|
|Ken Anderson||1981||Yes, All-Pro, MVP||479||29||10||3754||136|
Some quick takeaways:
— This 11th year marked the end of the road for three guys on this list (Blake, Griese, and Archie), and several others managed to cling to rosters for a few more seasons while slinking into irrelevancy. Could Vick be next?
— While it didn’t mark a rebound from their 10th-year woes, three of these quarterbacks found a way to rejuvenate themselves even later in their careers, all in different cities. Collins (Tennessee), Cunningham (Minnesota), and Moon (Minnesota) all had quality seasons stored in the tanks.
— To little surprise, Anderson and Elway’s struggles in their early-thirties didn’t prove to be fatal. Anderson rose from the grave to lead the league in ANY/A in ’81 and win MVP, while Elway’s stellar ’93 seasonprecluded one of the NFL’s greatest quarterback renaissances.
So based strictly on our scant, 12-man sample here, is it possible for Eli to rebound from a lull so late in his career? Absolutely! But as always, some qualifiers are required. One is that, quite frankly, Manning (career 101 ANY/A+) is simply not as good as Anderson (113) or Elway (107) were; to imply that improvement is inevitable just because they achieved it would be pretty fallacious. Another point of caution is that while we have precedent for past Pro Bowlers returning to form, none of them had a season quite as putrid as Manning’s. Collins, Moon, and Palmer were still roughly league-average passers in that down season; Eli only definitively outplayed Terrelle Pryor and Geno Smith in 2013.
But while he’s no Anderson or Elway or Moon, Manning clearly sports the fourth-best career on this list, and for that reason alone a rebound of some form should be expected. Eli obviously isn’t one of the five or so worst quarterbacks in the league, and his nightmare-ish season seemed to be a perfect storm of New York’s flaws rather than a tangible mental and mechanical decline like Schaub’s. Schaub appeared broken for good; Manning seemed to have merely hit a speed bump, by my amateur eye. A big speed bump, to be sure, but almost every Giant was dealing with the doldrums. Kevin Gilbride finally wore out his welcome and was replaced by younger blood, giving fans hope that the patented predictability of New York’s offense in the “Killdrive” era will remain rooted in the past.
So while I think a recovery of some sort is likely — it’s hard to post consecutive ~80 ANY/A+ seasons — Giants fans are probably hoping that Manning still has another year or two of 2011-esque excellence. I’m certainly not bullish on predicting that, as Eli hasn’t come to close to duplicating that performance at any point in his career, but only one thing is certain in this difficult field of forecasting — Manning will have to reach that level again if the Giants are to be true contenders in what’s left of the Tom Coughlin years in the Big Apple.
* This title has frequently been bestowed on two of Manning’s 2004 draft classmates over the years — Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger — and now Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson could be knocking on the door. Personally, I think it’s impossible to come to a consensus after the Big Four.
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.