Cosell Talks: Eli’s Arrived

Greg Cosell, Inside the Game, New York Giants

I’ve spent much of this spring and summer writing about quarterbacks. I have intentionally stayed away from rankings and lists. I strongly believe there are far too many variables to distill detailed and intricate evaluation to a generic list that does not inherently acknowledge or recognize those factors. In addition, as is always the case with lists, most focus on the order, rather than the substance of the reasoning.

I have also isolated the play of the quarterback from circumstances and situations outside of his control, basing my comments solely on the attributes, traits and characteristics necessary to consistently play the position at a high level. Certainly playoff wins and Super Bowl championships carry weight, but it always seemed disingenuous and dishonest to reduce judgment — and ultimately, legacy — to a mathematical equation based only on postseason wins and losses.

This is all prelude to a discussion of Eli Manning, now the proud owner of two Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants. I would submit few quarterbacks in recent memory have developed gradually and steadily over time in the manner Manning has. One could easily make the argument that this kind of measured, methodical progression is the ideal for quarterback development.

Note that winning Super Bowl XLII has absolutely no relevance to this discussion. That game was the signature example of the disconnect between result and process. Can anyone truly give Manning credit for David Tyree’s catch? A few plays earlier, the sure-handed Asante Samuel dropped an easy interception. But of course, the result made Manning a champion and a “winner.”

Manning has always been a quarterback willing to turn it loose. He intuitively understood “open” is different in the NFL than in college. Against zone coverage, voids are more constricted and close more quickly; against man coverage, the area in which to place the ball is much smaller. Manning never struggled with that transition. The willingness to make stick throws into tight windows is a positive in the NFL, not a negative. There’s no question he’s thrown some poor interceptions in his career, but he’s also pulled the trigger and completed balls on passes other quarterbacks would not have even attempted. Always keep in mind that interceptions must be closely scrutinized on an individual basis. It’s not a number that can be tossed out cavalierly, in an offhand manner, as if nothing more needs to be said. Unfortunately, it’s presented that way. Again, an example of reducing a multi-faceted element of the game to a simple statistic that often signifies nothing.

Manning, right from the start of his career, was given a full plate. His learning curve was accelerated. He was expected to recognize defensive fronts and adjust the running game accordingly at the line of scrimmage. That’s very difficult for a young quarterback. Early in his career, his head is filled with information that must be systematically processed, and more importantly, isolated so that the right call is made against the defensive alignment. Manning has been outstanding controlling the Giants running game. It’s an aspect of his game that is often overlooked.

In 2011, I saw significant improvement in two other elements of Manning’s game: progression reading and pocket movement, with the corollary ability to extend plays outside the pocket. We all remember the 38-yard completion to Mario Manningham late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI; it was the single biggest play in the game. It also reflected many of the attributes that I have often written about, beginning with pre-snap recognition of the coverage.

It was Cover 2, with both New England Patriots safeties split, each responsible for one deep half of the field. The initial read for Manning was to the right, the two-receiver side. (Manningham was the single wide receiver to the left of the formation.) When Eli hit his plant step in the pocket, the routes to his progression side (the right) were not defined. He did not have a clear picture. There was no throw. Manning knew he had Manningham on the back-side fade. It was the safety to that side, not the corner, that he had to beat to make that throw.

Remember all this is happening instantaneously, within a three-second time frame. Without any hesitation, Manning pulled the trigger. It was the throw that made that play far more than the catch. He dropped the ball right into Manningham’s hands, in the only spot that made a completion possible.

That one play, in a critical situation, provided a capsule summation of many of the attributes of high-level quarterback play: pre-snap recognition, progression reading, willingness to turn it loose, exact ball location.

That memorable play was the most visible due to its magnitude, but it was by no means the only example. In fact, the 27-yard touchdown pass Manning threw to Manningham in the NFC wild-card game against the Atlanta Falcons was another illustration of economical progression reading within the precise timing of the route progression. Manningham was the third read on that play. Once again, Manning put the ball right on his receiver’s hands.

The other part of Manning’s game that dramatically improved in 2011, and I believe it was a defining reason as to why he had his best season yet, was his efficiency moving both within the pocket and outside the pocket. As I’ve discussed numerous times, pocket mobility is an essential trait to perform consistently at a high level. Manning, once a little frenzied and out of control when he was forced to react in response to the pass rush, is now more poised and composed. His movement is more deliberate and calculated. His downfield focus is sharper, with better clarity. In addition, his ability to extend plays on the perimeter was particularly evident last season. In years past, there were times Manning would be somewhat scattershot with his throws off movement. That deficiency has been lessened, and it’s led to better overall play. It’s a huge reason why Manning elevated his game in 2011.

Manning always had excellent throwing ability. That was evident when he was the No. 1 pick out of Mississippi. As he’s played in the NFL, and remarkably has never missed a game, he has continued to expand and refine the necessary attributes. Over time, it’s measurable and quantifiable traits that produce top quarterback production in the NFL. Manning has progressively developed the subtleties of the position. It’s very clear watching tape that Eli understands the discipline demanded, and he’s gotten better and better each year.

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