By Sean McAlevey
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN WHERE THE MONSTARS STOLE PATRICK EWING’S TALENT, NEW YORK, EARTH — As the 0-6 New York Giants, a mere year-and-a-half removed from their 2012 Super Bowl win, continue their bizarre descent into the rabbit hole of a winless season, the talking heads of the sports world have begun to do what they do best: make ridiculous, inflammatory suggestions.
The hot topic has been two-time Super Bowl champ Eli Manning and whether or not he should be dumped at the end of the season to make room for college phenom Teddy Bridgewater. The junior Louisville quarterback is, along with South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, considered a potential first-overall pick in next year’s draft. And with the G-Men looking like legitimate contenders for the top pick, there’s been rampant speculation about whom they might select should they ultimately suck their way to the dubious honor.
Clearly the Giants need a fix; no one doubts that. With the league’s worst defense in terms of points allowed per game (34.8), a nonexistent running game, and a coach whose bread is slowly but surely going extinct, Big Blue is in desperate need of some positives, somewhere along the board. Quarterback, however, is not one of their positions of need.
It’s true that Manning has been playing absurdly poor football to start the season. Fifteen interceptions through six games – which projects to 40 at season’s end – has him knocking on the door of George Blanda’s single-season record of 42. Which is absolutely off the wall considering that it was only February of last year when he led the Giants to a Super Bowl win. But that, of course, is the point: Manning has been so uncharacteristically bad that he’ll inevitably regress back to a more reasonable playing level in the future.
We all know Manning is at his core a quality quarterback. If two Super Bowls wins aren’t enough of a testament to his talent, leadership, and composure, Manning has for his career averaged over 22 TDs and 3,300 yards passing per season to boot. In eight full seasons as a full-time starter (not including his rookie year, when he started only seven games), Manning has never had a losing season. Even when the Giants fail to make the playoffs, he has them in the postseason conversation. That’s why this year is the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. But let’s nonetheless entertain the Bridgewater-for-Manning suggestion.
For the sake of a direct comparison, let’s look at college stats. Bridgewater has put up utterly pristine passing stats in his three years at Louisville. Since permanently taking the reins of the offense in the fourth game of his freshman season, he’s thrown for a total of 59 touchdowns against 22 interceptions and compiled a 157.4 passer rating as a Cardinal. And through six games this year, he has a remarkable 191.8 passer rating against only two interceptions.
Manning, on the other hand, had praiseworthy stats in his four years at Mississippi – 81 TDs, 35 INTs, 137.7 passer rating – but nothing as impressive as Bridgewater’s, unless you account for one overlooked factor: the difference in strength of schedule. Manning played in the Southeastern Conference which was, and still is, the clear-cut toughest conference in the country. (It’s not an accident that the national champion has come out of the SEC for the last seven straight years.) To provide historical perspective, SEC West rival Louisiana State was a* national champion in 2003, Manning’s senior season at Ole Miss.
*Although LSU was the 2003 BCS title game winner, USC finished the season ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll. Many consider the two co-champions, while some maintain that LSU is the sole official champion.
The Big East, the conference in which Bridgewater played his freshman and sophomore seasons, and the newly created American Athletic Conference, in which he currently plays, have a laughably inferior level of competition compared to the SEC. Bridgewater has no doubt reaped the rewards of playing in two conferences brimming with hapless opponents. Adjusting for level of competition, then, one could reasonably conclude that Bridgewater had a very similar collegiate career to Manning.
(Here’s where everyone who disagrees points to Bridgewater’s Sugar Bowl performance against Florida last season, when he led the Cardinals to a 33-23 upset win over the Gators. Considering the dominance of the Gator defense, no one doubts his 266-yard performance was impressive. But was it just a lucky game? Could he consistently repeat that performance? I’d like to think so, but we’ll never know because his schedule is filled with a bunch of cupcakes.)
If they performed similarly in college, we can safely assume that the level Manning’s at now is Bridgewater’s ceiling. But just like any quarterback prospect, his floor ranges from David Carr to Joey Harrington. There’s just as good a chance that he’s Ryan Leaf as there is that he’s Manning. And even in the best case scenario, Bridgewater is a few years away from producing any sort of Manning-esque numbers. If the best you can do is merely replace the skill set of your current quarterback, why get rid of him in the first place?
Of course, the age difference plays a role. Bridgewater, still unable to legally drink a beer at age 20, has a world of potential in front of him, while Manning, 32, is by conventional wisdom on the downswing of his prime. But is 32 really that old? In today’s NFL, where 34-year-old Drew Brees, 36-year-old Tom Brady, and 37-year-old Peyton Manning are the talk of the league, 32 seems young. Manning has five years before he’s as old as his brother Peyton, and if this season has taught us anything, it’s that Peyton’s age is his best asset. Unless Bridgewater-for-Manning proponents think the Giants are so dysfunctional that they won’t be able to field a decent team in the next half-decade, they’re off their rockers to begin the hunt for Manning’s replacement now.
In fact, despite his abhorrent interception numbers, Manning’s actually playing respectable football so far this year. He’s averaging 7.5 yards per pass attempt, which is 0.4 yards greater than his career average of 7.1 – a significant difference for all those not familiar with that statistic – and has the offense humming along at .309 first downs per play – 16th-best in the league. Meanwhile he’s facing relentless pocket pressure, having been forced to take a sack on a career-high 6.5% of passing plays this year. (To put that in perspective, last year’s rate was 3.4%, meaning he’s taking nearly twice as many sacks this year as he did last.)
As a result of the ineffectiveness of the Giants’ runners and offensive line, opposing defenses are entirely abandoning their run-defense schemes and using their front seven to bring creative pass pressure on every play. Opposing safeties don’t even have to pretend to care about the threat of a run, allowing them to roam disadvantageously deep in the secondary. On the other side of the ball, the Giants have major holes, especially in their secondary. And if I had Peter King sitting here next to me, he could probably rattle off a dozen other issues. But since I don’t, I leave it at that.
What the Giants are experiencing is something unique to the NFL. They had all of the above issues when they made their Super Bowl run in 2012. But for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, the NFL is structured to create parity, leading to unpredictable outcomes that at times can’t be explained by anything other than an appeal to luck and randomness. We have trouble ascribing outcomes to luck, but it’s inarguable that there’s an intrinsic level of uncertainty in the NFL.
Just as shitty teams can play unpredictably great football, great teams can play incomprehensibly shitty football. It’s exactly what’s happening to the Giants this year. That Super Bowl team from 2012? The core of it is still donning Giant blue: Manning, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Jacobs, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Corey Webster, Antrel Rolle – the gang’s all there. Perhaps the biggest change was an overhaul of the linebacking unit, otherwise the current Giants have the same same air-it-out offense and ferocious pass rush that were staples of that 2012 team.
The most reasonable explanation for this seemingly perplexing situation is the following: the 9-7 Giants that won the Super Bowl in 2012 were somewhat lucky, while the 0-6 Giants of present have been somewhat unlucky. Manning isn’t the cause of the mess they’re in. He’s the overworked janitor doing his best to keep up with unrelenting waves of urinal deuces plaguing the local high school’s bathrooms; just because there’s a fudge monkey staring right back at you every time you take a leak doesn’t mean the janitor’s the one pinching ’em off, m’kay. I like to think that metaphor really brings home the point for the 15-to-28 male demographic.
Not only is Bridgewater for Manning not a solution to the Giants’ woes; it would actually create more problems than it solves. And even if Bridgewater has the potential to become a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback – which is, needless to say, highly doubtful – it would be wise for Giants management to head the oft-ignored truism:
A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.