By Ernie Palladino
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It seems like a hundred years ago now, but there was a time when the media debated vocabulary regarding Eli Manning.
They couldn’t quite figure out whether to attach the superlative “elite” to his name. The quarterback, as was his way, always demurred when the subject was brought up. But deep down, he must have felt some level of pride that he even landed on the cusp of comparisons to Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and brother Peyton.
Not a lot of quarterbacks ever carry that tag.
Manning no longer has to contemplate such things now. That debate no longer rages. Thanks to the Giants’ overall performance the last three years, the media rightfully has relegated “elite” to the back of the notebook. And there it will stay quietly buried until he and head coach Ben McAdoo figure it out once again.
The way the offense has gone lately, though, when or even if that will happen is anybody’s guess.
Right now, Manning’s major asset lies in a durability that makes him a sure thing every gameday. So far, he has racked up 199 of those in a row, including the postseason, placing him third on the all-time list behind Brett Favre and Peyton. But as nice as it is knowing he’ll be there every game, that only accounts for part of Manning’s profile.
It’s the other pieces that have people wondering if the two-time Super Bowl MVP has begun to lose it. Forget about elite. He’s not even good right now.
With just five touchdown passes against four interceptions in the 2-3 start, Manning sits far behind last year’s production. Back then, with a significantly weaker receiving corps than he has now, Manning threw for 35 touchdowns, second highest next to Brady‘s 36, thanks in large part to then-offensive coordinator McAdoo’s liberal play calling.
Manning looked deep often, and not just to Odell Beckham Jr. And Beckham, Rueben Randle, Dwayne Harris, Will Tye and others caught enough of them to make the offense one of the most potent in the league.
Things have changed since McAdoo took over the head coach’s office, however. Manning is missing big passes — his overthrow to a wide-open Tye cost him a sure touchdown Sunday night in the loss to the Packers — and McAdoo’s overall game plans appear more conservative.
That’s not a good thing, especially when the offensive line springs leaks across the board and the running game barely exists.
While McAdoo bears a good share of the responsibility for Manning’s regression, the quarterback himself is also at fault.
In Minnesota, he had such little faith in his pass protection that he threw several balls into the dirt before a Viking laid a hand on him.
Against a hurting secondary in Green Bay, he went 18-of-35 for 199 yards on a night when his only touchdown pass came with 2:24 remaining in the game. And that was only because Beckham, with whom Manning failed to connect on seven of 12 targets, got his left toe down a half a hair’s breadth from the backline. If he hadn’t, the loss at Lambeau Field, a place where Manning has had legendary playoff success, would have marked his third game without a touchdown pass.
He lost a fumble in Green Bay. Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes’ interception off a deep overthrow of Beckham left many wondering what quarterback and wide receiver were thinking.
The offense has scored fewer than 20 points three times.
Little about Manning this year will re-ignite the debate over vocabulary. Whether McAdoo’s suddenly conservative game plans have undermined his downfield aggressiveness, or the line’s inability to protect have turned the 13-year veteran skittish, or age has begun its corrosive process, there is nothing elite about Manning anymore.
That word must remain in the back of the book for now.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino