The Season of Eli Manning Starts on Sunday

Big contract, big expectations on Eli's shoulders

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    For a guy with a Super Bowl ring and the highest annual average salary of any player in the league, it's amazing how much Eli Manning flies under the radar. He's faded into the background of the Giants, even though the team doesn't have many big personalities, and has basically been ignored while every question about the passing game revolves around the wide receiving corps.

    Why that's happened is a bit of a mystery. The way of the NFL isn't that wide receivers make the quarterback, it's the other way around yet somehow the group of unknown receivers assembled by G.M. Jerry Reese have been set up as fall guys if the offense struggles this season. That's not going to happen, though, because the results of this season, good or bad, will fall on Manning.

    If the Giants improve on 2008, Manning will be certified as a leader and a winner and a great quarterback. It won't matter if his statistics are as middling as they've been in the past, because quarterbacks ultimately are only judged by wins and losses. Manning will have paid off the big bet the Giants made on him this offseason and he'll be all but immune to naysayers.

    The flip side of that is pretty ugly, though. If the Giants don't go beyond the first round of the playoffs or, even worse, don't make the playoffs at all it won't much matter how well Manning plays. It doesn't matter if no receiver broke through, if injuries debilitate the defense or if the Giants win 10 games and somehow get squeezed out of the playoff mix, Manning will be the guy on the spot. Sure, there will be those who still support him but one need only look at the experiences of Donovan McNabb to see how things will play out.

    McNabb has been a top-flight quarterback for a decade, but his failure to get the Eagles a ring has continually come back to reflect poorly on him. That he's had mediocre receivers, spotty offensive lines and assorted other reasons for falling short, the label of not being able to get it done remains the same. Manning will always have that ring, but a second straight bust when things get tight will make it seem like he's only Butch Cassidy if Plaxico is playing Sundance.

    From week to week there will be other stories and other heroes and goats, but when all is said and done this season is going to be a litmus test for Manning. If he fails it, the hand-wringing of the past will seem like child's play compared to the pressure he'll be under for the rest of his career.

    Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to FanHouse.com and ProFootballTalk.com in addition to his duties for NBCNewYork.com.