Will Eli Be the Wrench in the Big Blue Machine?

The unsung hero of the New York Giants’ now-legendary 2007 season wasn’t a player but a quarterback coach. Chris Palmer, an 18-year NFL veteran, had a sensational track record: at New England he worked with Drew Bledsoe, who went on to lead the Patriots to the 1997 Super Bowl. The following season, he moved on to Jacksonville, where he coached Mark Brunell, who led all AFC quarterbacks in passer rating that year. By the 2006 season, Palmer was in Dallas, where he took a quarterback named Tony Romo, who hadn’t thrown a ball in a regular season game for 3 ½ years, and turned him into a Pro Bowler. Palmer’s most sensational makeover, though, was with the Giants and Eli Manning.

A Super Bowl ring covers a multitude of sins, and it’s easy to forget now that coming down the stretch last year, many fans were ready to run Eli out of town after a 10-22 loss to the Redskins in Week 15. Simply put, Eli was getting off on the wrong foot. When pressured, Manning had a bad habit of leaning back and throwing off his right foot, the primary reason why many of his downfield passes were losing velocity in mid-flight.

Palmer, probably the game’s premier mechanics guy, put him through a late-season crash course to correct the flaw, drilling Manning into making quicker drops and stepping forward, putting his weight on his left foot and following through on every throw. The new technique greatly increased Eli’s speed and accuracy; in last year’s postseason – well, you know what happened in last year’s postseason, but in case you don’t know one key fact, it’s worth repeating: in four games against Tampa Bay, Dallas, Green Bay, and, finally, New England in the Super Bowl, Eli Manning threw 119 passes with just a single meaningless interception.

Now, nine games into the 2008 season, the Giants no longer need to bask in the afterglow of their championship. That was then, this is now, and New York has the NFC’s best record, 8-1, and a clear path to Tampa Bay on February 1. If bets were placed today, Big Blue would be an odds-on favorite against any AFC team, including the currently unbeaten Tennessee Titans.

There is, however, a cloud on their horizon, and it’s Eli Manning. When the ship is sailing smoothly, no one looks for icebergs, but there’s a big one waiting for the Giants: Eli’s mediocrity. As the Giants prepare for this Sunday’s game with the Baltimore Ravens at the Meadowlands, Manning is ranked 15th by the NFL’s passer rating system (88.8). It’s hard to get more mediocre than that.

Of course, there are those who don’t put all their faith in the NFL’s rating method, probably because they don’t understand it. A simpler and more accurate way of measuring Manning’s effectiveness – or lack of it – is to see where he stands in pro football’s most significant passing statistic, the one that correlates best with winning, yards per attempt – the gross number of yards gained passing divided by the number of throws. After nine games, Eli is Number 20 with a YPA of 6.85.

You can’t write off these numbers as the result of a poor supporting cast. Manning’s pass blockers are among the best in the league and have allowed him to be sacked just 11 times; Jacksonville’s David Garrard, for instance, is ranked 16th in passer rating, right behind Eli, and has been sacked twice as many times.

These are the kind of numbers a team can ignore when you have the best rushing game in the league – which the Giants currently have, leading everyone in both yards per game (168.9) and yards per rush (5.2). But in the modern NFL, you can’t win on rushing, or LaDainian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander, and Barry Sanders would all have fists full of Super Bowl rings. Great running games win when their defenses give them the ball with a lead and in good field position.

So far, make no mistake, the Giants are winning on defense. New York is 6th in the league in points allowed per game at 17.8 and third in total yards allowed, 264.8. It’s worth noting that against the Ravens, Eli Manning will be going up against a better defense than his – Baltimore is 3rd in points allowed at 16.8 and 2nd in yards, 258. The Giants won’t be able to plan on simply steamrolling the Ravens with Brandon Jacobs’ rushes – Baltimore has the lowest yards-per-rush yield, 2.9, in the NFL.

In other words, Eli is going to have to rise above the level of his seasonal play so far if the Giants are going to win, and he’s going to have to do it going into what looks like the toughest stretch of the their schedule. After Baltimore, the Giants play the Arizona Cardinals, currently 6-3, at Phoenix; their quarterback, Kurt Warner, will test the Giant’s defense more severely than any passer so far. After that, it’s three straight weeks of grudge matches with NFC East opponents (Washington, Philadelphia, and Dallas) who will all be looking to pounce on any sign of a Giants weakness. After that, the Giants get the Carolina Panthers, 7-2 as we go to press and probably the best team in the conference after New York.

Eli’s propensity for making big plays has blinded Giants fans to his puzzling lack of consistency. On his sensational 17-yard pass to Kevin Boss against the Eagles last week, a play that turned the game around, Manning was over the line of scrimmage with every body part except two inches of his right heel. He got away with reverting to his old bad habit of throwing off the right foot.

Things look great for the Giants right now, but that can change quickly. And if it does, Eli Manning will once again find himself on the wrong foot with Giants fans. Will Eli Be the Wrench in the Big Blue Machine?