The Giants' entire offseason plan was built around the premise that Eli Manning had "years" left as a productive, and maybe even an elite, starting quarterback. That's why the Giants went into win-now mode, believing they had the quarterback to lead them on a championship run in the next two years.
Two games later, it sure looks like their plan was flawed -- that they were much farther away from contention than they ever imagined.
But Manning doesn't deserve the blame for that.
Manning, at 37, may not be the Super Bowl-capable quarterback he was in his prime. Then again, for all anyone knows, maybe he could be. But the truth is we won't know because of the swirling disaster that has surrounded him for the last few years. Yes, they are tired, old themes, but they also happen to be true. His receivers tend to be unreliable. His running game is non-existent. And he's getting battered behind a horrible offensive line.
Given all that, how is a quarterback -- any quarterback -- supposed to operate? And isn't it a small miracle that Manning managed to complete 33 of his 44 passes for 279 yards without throwing an interception in that ugly 20-13 loss in Dallas on Sunday night? He was sacked six times in that game, hit several more times, and was constantly under pressure.
Did he check down too quickly at times? Yes. Did he rush some throws he didn't need to rush, and miss open receivers because he was going too quickly through his progressions? Sure. Did he look "skittish," to borrow a famous Jerry Reese word? Absolutely.
But who can blame him? If he assumed a pass rush was coming, 95 percent of the time he would've been right. If he assumed he had to quickly move through his reads because he figured his pocket would've collapsed around him … well, more often than not, it does. It would help if his receivers would get open faster for him. It would help if the Giants could generate a rushing attack so he could throw off the pass rush with the play-action game.
It would help if Manning would get a little help.
To put it another way: A quarterback is not a magician. A quarterback can't magically make things happen alone. Years ago, back in 2013, Manning tried and he ended up forcing so many passes into coverage or throwing up desperation heaves that he threw 27 interceptions and nudged his offensive coordinator into retirement.
Nowadays he has a different strategy. It used to be: Throw it to Odell Beckham Jr. and see what happens. More often than not, something good happened. But now that Beckham is often double- and triple-covered, it's morphed into this: Dump it to Saquon Barkley and see what he's able to do.
That's not an offensive strategy. That's not a blueprint for success. That's a prayer, or a desperate cry for help.
Why is Manning at fault for that? Maybe the Giants would be better off with a mobile quarterback, one who could create plays on the run. That makes sense considering how terrible this offensive line has been. But Manning isn't suddenly going to get more mobile at age 37, so the Giants decided to play to their strengths, rather than compensate for their weakness. Instead of replacing the quarterback, they decided to rebuild the offensive line instead.
Except that didn't work -- at least it hasn't yet. And now they're without center Jon Halapio for the season. So now they're stuck with a pocket quarterback trying to operate with no pocket, running an offense that would rely on play-action passes if they had a running game to set that up, and needing time for receivers to get open down field -- time the quarterback never seems to have.
How is Manning to blame for all that?
Could he do more? Sure. If the Giants wanted to take that risk. He could stop rushing his throws and assume he has time for a play to develop, and take the avalanche of sacks and hits that will come with it. He could surrender and just force some throws to receivers who maybe aren't as open as they should be -- the resulting interception parade be damned.
For now, though, Manning is in an impossible spot and the optics aren't great for the franchise icon. The Giants spent $62 million on a new left tackle, rebuilt four-fifths of their offensive line, got Beckham back healthy and added Barkley to a group of weapons that included Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram too. It sure looks like the Giants gave Manning everything he could possibly need to succeed.
The problem is it didn't work. And it's too easy and lazy to just say that the only constant to years of failure is Manning so it must be his fault.
That's not the only constant. The constant is the failure of his flawed supporting cast. He deserves some blame, to be sure. But what quarterback is going to succeed behind the line he's had the last few seasons? And as great as Beckham is, he's not getting consistently open right now. And as great as everyone is assuming Barkley will be, he has one incredible, 68-yard touchdown run, and besides that he has 28 carries for 66 yards.
So go ahead and blame Manning. Dream of a quarterback that could do it better.
But until the surrounding cast improves, until this mess is cleaned up, there's only so much a quarterback -- any quarterback -- could do.