It almost seems comical to think that prior to the 2011 season there was a debate as to whether or not Eli Manning was an elite quarterback. After another Super Bowl championship and a tremendous start to 2012 season, little doubt remains that Eli is one of the best there is. Despite the rash of injuries that have effected the New York Giants receiving corps this year, Manning has found a way to lead the league in passing yards through the first 7 weeks of the 2012 season by throwing to whoever is healthy on a given week. After struggling over the years to play consistently, Manning has yet to have a bad game in 2012- making the Giants look extremely dangerous for opponents. With Manning playing well, the running game clicking, and the defensive front continuing to pressure opposing quarterbacks, the Giants look like a Super Bowl-caliber team.
When truly analyzing Manning’s play, the change in his production truly dates back to the beginning of the 2011 season. Prior to 2011, Manning seemed to try to force a lot more throws to veteran receivers like Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey to keep them happy. By not going through his progressions and finding the open receiver, Manning’s ill-advised throws often landed in the hands of an opposing defender- as recently as 2010, Eli Manning led the league with 25 interceptions. Beginning in 2011, that mentality changed. The Giants roster had turned over and gone were the coddled veterans, replaced by young and talented guys like Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. Manning began looking for the open receiver rather than forcing throws and for the first time in his career he is on pace to target 7 different receivers more than 30 times in 2012. Additionally, since he simply throwing to the guy who is open, Manning has seen his interception rate (the percentage of his throws that resulted in interceptions) dropped from 4.6 in 2010 to 2.6 over his past 23 regular season games.
How is the change in Eli’s game effecting his teammates production on the field? Let’s look at some key things.
Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz
I talked at length about how Eli is simply looking for the open receiver and delivering the ball to that guy. Cruz and Nicks are simply the best guys on the roster, and among the best in football, at getting open. When both guys are healthy, Manning tends to target them about the same number of times per game (in 2011, Nicks was targeted 133 times and Cruz was targeted 131). The numbers are skewed this season due to Nicks’ injury trouble (Cruz is on pace to receive a whopping 185 targets) but when both are healthy there are more than enough balls that each can post great numbers on a weekly basis. Other receivers will have good weeks- like Ramses Barden and Domenik Hixon- but Nicks and Cruz will consistently produce due to their ability to beat defenders and find openings in the defense.
New York Giants Running Backs
With Manning playing so effectively, the Giants do not need to rely on their running game nearly as much as they used to. In 2010, the Giants running backs averaged nearly 30 carries per game in an offense. Since 2010, the Giants have reduced the number of touches for running backs to about 24 per contest. With less touches comes less opportunity for backs to post stats. Ahmad Bradshaw has done a good job thus far in making the most of the times he finds the ball in his hands posting 600 total yards through 7 games (although it is worth noting that his numbers are somewhat skewed by a 34 touch, 229 total yard performance in Week 5 against an overmatched Cleveland Browns team), but his fellow backfield mates are not producing though due to their collective lack of action. As long as the passing game remains dynamic, Giant running backs will struggle to be consistent performers making it difficult to gauge how to use them on your fantasy roster.
What we are seeing in Eli Manning is a quarterback playing to the peak of his ability. He has come close to mastering the mental side of the game while still possessing elite physical skills. As a football fan, I am excited to see how high Eli can climb among the pantheon of great quarterbacks, as he continues to play consistently and effectively for the New York Giants.