There was a time in his career when Eli Manning was known as something of a risk-taker, trusting his instincts and his right arm and his ability to decipher what the defense was trying to do, confident he could solve what he was seeing by putting the ball into the tightest of spaces.
He made plenty of big plays and threw too many interceptions. The calm, reasoned person away from the field was not a conservative game-manager type quarterback. Eli liked to sling it around now and then.
That version of Eli Manning has been replaced by a more patient and cautious player. His completion percentage has gone up, his interceptions down and his passer rating of 92.4 last season was considerably higher than his career mark of 84.1. One glitch is most disturbing: Eli Manning, through some but not all fault of his own, lost his winning touch.
This brings us to Friday night and Manning’s preseason start against the Bears at MetLife Stadium. The plan is for him to stay on the field longer than the cameo three-play series he lasted last week against the Jets. Coach Pat Shurmur gave Manning one offensive possession, hoping it would last more than an eye-blink, to get his 38-year-old quarterback a nice set of plays to run as he gears up for the games that count. Instead, Shurmur saw almost nothing: A 3-yard completion, a rushing attempt for a 1-yard loss (there was a holding penalty called on left guard Will Hernandez that was declined) and a third-and-8 handoff for 2 yards after Manning opted to eschew a pass and take the “run’’ option after seeing the Jets with two safeties deep, making it more sensible to keep the ball on the ground, even if that meant a 1-2-3 and punt series.
No big deal. Yet when rookie Daniel Jones made his NFL preseason debut and lit it up, connecting on all five of his passes in a quick-strike touchdown drive, the contrast was impossible to ignore. Jones looked down the field. Manning on his very first play saw tight end Rhett Ellison beyond the first-down marker but declined to make that throw. Manning played it safe and hit Scott Simonson, the No. 3 tight end, for a short gain that had no real potential to get any more than the 3 yards it did.
“I saw [Ellison], I just had to make a decision on whether or not to make that throw with a corner running back there,’’ Manning said. “Looking back, it’s kind of one of those maybe you could have thrown it and so you have to make those decisions in football. Sometimes they maybe turn out good or maybe they don’t.’’
Again, none of this means a whole lot, but there is no doubt the fans in attendance for preseason game No. 2 would like to see Manning in his two or three series look as if he is ready to command this offense in his 16th season. Jones, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, is the handpicked replacement and the ability for Manning to delay the inevitable hinges on getting the Giants in the end zone often enough to win games.
In training camp, Manning looks spry. His arm looks fresh and strong. He certainly looks more capable of being an NFL starter than Jones, which is not to suggest Jones has not been impressive this summer.
“Some quarterbacks historically start off slower, so at the end of games, they play better,’’ Shurmur said. “You just have to kind of judge it for what it is.’’
What Manning needs, in order to quell the sentiment that Jones should get the ball right away, is to assert his superior experience and command of an offense that is not likely to feature star running back Saquon Barkley at all in the preseason.
Watching from the sideline, Manning had a great vantage point as the starting offensive group usually assigned to him took the huddle with Jones.
“Daniel came in and had a great drive,’’ Manning said. “He threw the ball accurately, had completions, and had a nice touchdown throw.’’
Jones was a hit, but co-owner John Mara cautioned, “I think people need to temper their enthusiasm a little bit. It’s one preseason game, one series, but so far, so good.’’
And it was only one sluggish series for Manning. No big deal. Shurmur wants to get all four of his quarterbacks in this game. It would be encouraging, for all concerned, if Manning starts things off with a bang.