EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When Eli Manning took the field to a standing ovation on Sunday, there was hope that his return would provide a boost to the Giants' sagging offense.
What did everyone expect?
"We were right there in the mix against a good team," Manning said after the Giants' 30-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys at MetLife Stadium. "We just don't have that firepower to finish these games."
That, right there, is the most honest thing Manning or anyone around the Giants has said all season -- or at least since Sept. 13 when Manning was asked about the Giants' pitiful opener and said, "It can always get worse." Truth is, it doesn't matter whether it's Manning, Geno Smith, Davis Webb or Johnny Unitas at quarterback for the Giants.
Their offensive line is in shambles. Their receiving corps has been decimated. Manning is right: They don't have the "firepower" to win these games.
So go and blame Manning for this miserable season, or pick apart his two fourth-quarter interceptions, or his lack of efficiency in throwing for only 228 yards on 31-of-46 passing. Manning deserves as much blame now as he did for the 2-9 start before his benching.
For those wanting more, where is the "more" coming from? He is already without two of his top receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall -- one of whom might just be the best receiver in the league. His other top receiver, Sterling Shepard, has been hobbled by ankle and hamstring injuries and migraines this season, and caught only two passes Sunday for 16 yards. Manning had to throw 11 times to Roger Lewis (seven catches, 46) who at best is a No. 4 receiver on this team. His other two receivers in this game were Darius Powe and Kalif Raymond, who came into the game with a combined one career catch.
It's no wonder offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan played an ultra-conservative game plan. One look down the field showed absolutely nobody getting open, especially when they ran routes longer than 10 yards. Manning was forced to throw 28 of his 46 passes to running backs or tight ends, including tight end Rhett Ellison (4-20-1), who spent most of this season collecting dust.
All his throws had to be quick because the offensive line has been a mess since the start of the season, and it's a real problem now with center Weston Richburg, tackle/guard Justin Pugh and guard D.J. Fluker all out. Bobby Hart, who washed out earlier in the season, had to start at right tackle. Meanwhile, Jon Halapio and John Greco had to rotate at right guard.
That is not exactly a recipe for success. In fact, it's almost exactly a recipe for failure.
To borrow Manning's famous phrase, it could've been worse. After the game, asked to assess Manning's play, interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo instead praised Sullivan's game plan. He also praised Manning, not for his throws, but for how "he got us into some really good plays" by checking at the line of scrimmage.
Imagine if he hadn't.
That said, don't expect Manning to unload on what's left of the Giants. If he didn't when he was benched a week ago in favor of Smith, he wasn't going to do it now. He knows what he's playing with. His quote about the lack of "firepower" certainly spoke volumes.
But he's going to keep it positive, no matter how many drives are killed by a lack of open receivers, incorrect routes or plain old drops.
"I've got a lot of respect for our receivers," Manning said. "They work hard, they practice hard, they do everything we ask them to do. I understand. Hey, drops are part of the game. They're running the right routes, hitting the right spots. [I] have confidence they'll make the next one and make plays for us and a couple of them made some outstanding plays for us."
But they were few and far between and none when it mattered most.
"It'd be easy to complain and to bark at each other and say it's not fair and that one side's not doing their part, but we haven't fallen into that trap," Manning said. "We have some high character guys on this team that are working hard every week, doing their absolute best to compete, and I appreciate that. I appreciate the effort, work, enthusiasm to go win a football game."
Unfortunately, effort is all that Manning can count on from his teammates. Because the talent and the firepower just aren't there.