With his team out of playoff contention for the final two regular-season games, this would seem the perfect opportunity for Giants coach Pat Shurmur to get a look at some of his younger players to evaluate their prospects moving forward. None more so than fourth-round rookie quarterback Kyle Lauletta against the Colts in Sunday’s penultimate game, right?
That’s not the way he sees it. Shurmur is more invested in trying to do everything possible to beat the Colts and not treat this as a glorified exhibition game. That’s why there was no hesitation on Shurmur’s part to announce early in the week that Eli Manning would get the start.
Interestingly enough, these last two games against the Colts and Cowboys might turn out to be an evaluation at quarterback anyway.
An evaluation of Manning.
Sure, the coach offered an endorsement of Manning heading into next season, telling reporters on Wednesday he wanted the soon-to-be 38-year-old quarterback to return in 2019. But Shurmur made no definitive commitments and there is every reason to believe Manning’s overall body of work this season will be the subject of intense scrutiny as the coach and general manager Dave Gettleman chart a course for the future.
It was around this time last year that Manning put in one of his best efforts in a loss to the Eagles at MetLife Stadium, a performance that convinced Gettleman there were good years left for his quarterback. Gettleman suggested that performance against the Eagles was no “mirage,” underscoring his conviction.
But a perfect storm of adversity struck the Giants early this season and Manning faced some of his most formidable challenges. A rebuilt offensive line that took half a season’s worth of adjustment, shoddy pass protection that put Manning under siege, and some legitimately questionable play from the quarterback himself created doubts about whether he was as viable as Gettleman had suggested.
Then came a week’s worth of introspection during the bye, and Shurmur’s commitment to a game plan that revolved around rookie running back Saquon Barkley helped bring out the best in Manning. In winning four of his next five starts, Manning had 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions, and the Giants briefly flirted with playoff contention. But then came last week’s shutout loss at home to the Titans, who were intent on stopping Barkley and forcing Manning to beat them. In poor weather conditions that made Manning’s challenge even more difficult, he couldn’t put a single point on the board in a dispiriting 17-0 loss.
And here we are: With two games left, there still is no conclusive answer about Manning, and more uncertainty for what lies ahead.
A sizable contingent of Giants’ fans — many of whom haven’t been shy about directly expressing their feelings over email — remain convinced that there still is good football left for the quarterback. That may be the final conclusion reached by Shurmur and Gettleman once they fully dissect the season. But to not consider the possibility that the Giants need to review alternatives moving forward is a disservice to the organization. And to Manning himself.
Manning has been a godsend to this organization for the better part of his 15-year career, a two-time Super Bowl MVP who I believe has produced Hall of Fame-worthy credentials. His stats are among the most prolific in NFL history, and there should be a place reserved for him in Canton.
But there have been too many instances this season to ignore the possibility he is a descending player. His decision-making has sometimes been slow, and his choice of throws ill-advised. Never a mobile quarterback to begin with, he has been particularly vulnerable against teams with elite pass rushers. And despite his much-improved performance when the running game is on, he often can’t overcome circumstances when Barkley is limited. Last week’s loss was the ultimate example.
Manning might return as the starter in 2019 after the Giants analyze his performance and consider potential alternatives. But to expect a vastly improved offense next year — even with the benefit of more experience from the offensive line playing together — might be asking too much.
Manning could end up being their best option, even if the Giants take a quarterback in a 2019 draft that doesn’t seem to have as many promising ones as 2018, when they went for the best available player route with Barkley. But there could be some intriguing passers available on the open market or through trades.
With the Eagles firmly committed to Carson Wentz as their long-term starter, Nick Foles is worth considering. Shurmur developed a close relationship with Teddy Bridgewater, now the Saints’ backup, when the two were in Minnesota. Derek Carr has received hearty praise from Jon Gruden in Oakland, but after Gruden shed the team of prominent veterans like Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, who knows what to believe? And former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco will be moved now that rookie Lamar Jackson has supplanted him in Baltimore.
Is Manning the preferred quarterback to all of the above? Too soon to know, even if Shurmur had kind things to say about him in advance of the Colts game. But with Manning returning to the place where he last won a Super Bowl, he is clearly not the same quarterback who pulled off another miracle comeback against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium.
There will be no playoff run for the Giants this time, but it is an important game nonetheless. It will offer further clues about whether Shurmur simply was paying lip service to Manning this week, or whether he is truly committed to him in 2019 and beyond.