Before I launch into the first of what will be a weekly pathology report on the play of Eli Manning, let me be clear about my loyalties.
I love Eli Manning — at least to the extent that I'm a lifelong Giants fan and any quarterback who wins a Super Bowl deserves the undying gratitude of his team's fans.
However, I also hate Eli Manning. Or maybe that's too strong a word. Manning has too sweet a disposition to be hateable. But he is a deeply frustrating player to root for. In the heat of battle, his goofy, wide-eyed demeanor seems unconscionable. He panics at the merest whiff of a blitz, somehow puts a slightly different wobble on every pass, and is prone to making the same mistakes over and over again, like floating one over the middle into coverage. Watching him makes you feel less like a fan than a parent — "No, Eli, no, no. No! Please, no! Watch it. Ooh!"
Oh damn, another boo-boo.
Yesterday against the Skins, Manning was in prime form. He completed 20 of 29 passes for 256 yards, with a touchdown and one interception, which are obviously good numbers, and the Giants won the game 23–17, the only stat that matters. But Manning gave Giants fans plenty to be nervous about.
The Skins, you see, are a hopeless team, and yet despite the ease with which he moved the team downfield, Manning only engineered a single offensive touchdown. Going into the game, the big concern was whether the youthful and inexperienced receiving corps could hold up its end. You will recall that the stud pass-catcher from last year, Plaxico Burress, is on his way to prison, while the other starting wideout, thirteen-year vet Amani Toomer, was kicked to the curb in that brutal, unfeeling NFL way. But the really good news from yesterday is that their replacements exceeded all expectations — especially Steve Smith, who made a huge third-down catch on a crappy ball from Manning.
The not-so-good news is that a game that should have been a total wipeout wasn't decided until Washington's onside kick failed with a minute and a half to go. Manning could not deliver the knockout blow. The Giants' first two drives stalled inside the Skins' ten-yard line. They kicked a field goal the first time, but on the second, they went for it on for on fourth down and Brandon Jacobs was stopped cold. It seems clear that offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride does not trust Manning's decision-making close to the goal line, because as soon as they get in the red zone, the play-calling gets painfully risk-averse. They don't have a receiver who can run the fade route like Burress did, but lumberjack tight end Kevin Boss sure looks like he could create some space for himself in a crowded end zone. For now, though, Gilbride would rather put the pigskin in the hands of Jacobs, even with eleven Redskins stacked up on the line waiting for him.
Manning can't be fully blamed for that, but he had other blunders, including a costly fumble on a play when he was barely hit (even if he hadn't fumbled, the sack would've taken them out of field-goal range) and an interception deep in his own territory (leading to a Washington touchdown that gave them momentum going into halftime). After the break, the Giants' defense stuffed the Redskins on their first possession, only to watch as Manning went three and out. At that point, the game became a grind. Given the Skins' massive talent deficiencies, especially at quarterback, the Giants never really seemed in danger of losing. But Manning's sloppy leadership (yes, he got another delay-of-game penalty, and burned a couple of timeouts on top of that) gave Washington many more chances than they deserved. A better team, which is to say every other one in the league except Detroit, will take advantage of them.
The Giants have ample talent. Despite a couple of lapses, their defense smothered the Skins, and if their receivers continue to produce, the only thing that could hold them back is Eli.
Hugo Lindgren, editorial director for the magazine, will be writing a weekly assessment of Eli Manning's performance for The Sports Section.