In football, the offense has a gigantic advantage — it decides what to do, and the defense has to react. Except that isn’t the way it worked in the Giants game yesterday. The Cardinals defenders were playing inside Eli Manning’s brain. They knew what he was going to do before he did. They baffled him with blitzes, jumped receivers’ routes, and by the third quarter they had solved his signal-calling and were charging at him before the ball was hiked. And rather than adapt to what was happening, Eli and the Giants pretty much laid down and died.
Kevin Gildbride, the Giants’ offensive coordinator, didn’t dazzle with his play-calling yesterday — the Cardinals took huge risks all day on defense and the Giants rarely countered with screens or draws or misdirection. And the young receivers, who exceeded all expectations in the first few games, have started to show their inexperience. NBC commentator Cris Collingsworth did an excellent job of showing how Mario Manningham ran one particular route too close to the sideline, leaving his quarterback nowhere to throw the ball. Manningham also, of course, dropped a probable TD pass.
Kevin Boss and Steve Smith did make spectacular grabs, holding on to the ball despite taking punishing hits. But the play that went into the books (and onto Manning’s stat line) as a 62-yard touchdown to Hakeem Nicks was a ridiculous fluke, an uncatchable ball by Manning into tight coverage that got batted up into the air. It could have just as easily gone the other way. The Cardinals also dropped at least one other easy interception.
Manning may not have world-class pass-catchers at his disposal, but he’s playing down to their level. Somehow, the Giants still get delay-of-game penalties. And he’s getting picked off trying to force the ball deep; the Giants’ final offensive play was Manning’s lowest moment of the day — he made no apparent effort to read the coverage either at the line of scrimmage or as the play developed, and ended up trying to force the ball into an impossible place. With that many defenders in the area, one imagines there had to be soft spots somewhere else, but Manning was stuck in autopilot.
The Gods of Schedule-Making did the Giants a major solid this season — they granted them an extended preseason. Four out of their first five games were against total lightweights. But the Giants didn’t use the opportunity to address their weaknesses and bolster their strengths — experimenting with play calls that could get the ball to their backs and tight ends might have been a good idea — and in two short weeks they’ve gone from looking like a Super Bowl contender to a team that’s spiraling into mediocrity. If there’s any real chance that Terrell Owens will be dealt by the Bills, the Giants ought to make an offer. They need to make a dramatic move to take the pressure off Manning. The bright side, if there is one, is that Eli always seems to save his best for when expectations are lowest, and right now, they’ve sunk pretty low.