By John McMullen, NFL Editor
New York, NY (SportsNetwork.com) – Perhaps the most difficult thing in the NFL is determining when a star player has begun what is an inevitable descent.
The New York Giants believe Eli Manning has not yet hit the tipping point in his NFL career and they’re banking their 2014 season on that fact.
The Giants will begin what they hope is a sojourn back to the top of the NFC East when they kickoff a Monday night doubleheader on Week 1 of the NFL season by visiting the Detroit Lions and their new head coach Jim Caldwell.
New York began last season with the goal of becoming the first team in history to play in the Super Bowl at its own stadium, a dream dashed after an NFL-worst 0-6 start.
The club rebounded to go a solid 7-3 down the stretch but head coach Tom Coughlin was smart enough to not buy into any fool’s gold and looked at his impotent offense, which finished 28th in the league in scoring while amassing a league-high44 turnovers, and realized change was needed.
Longtime Coughlin confidante Kevin Gilbride was steered toward retirement and replaced at offensive coordinator by Ben McAdoo, a former Green Bay assistant charged with the task of bringing the West Coast offense to New York and helping elevate Manning’s often sickly completion percentage.
Results were slow to come in the preseason as Manning, who prefers to throw downfield, struggled with the quick releases and anticipatory throws McAdoo is searching for.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’re ready for Week 1,” Manning said. “But I think as a season goes on, you’re always looking to improve, whether you’ve been in a system for 10 years or whether you have young guys and need guys to step up or you have new players, there’s always room for improvement.”
Detroit, on the other hand, is entering a new era under incoming head coach Caldwell.
Led by talented but inconsistent quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Lions ranked third in the NFL in passing yards in 2013, yet a slight improvement on the field wasn’t enough for Jim Schwartz to keep his job in the Motor City largely because his team remained undisciplined, win or lose.
Caldwell was handed the task of not only cleaning up the now trademarked boneheaded play with the Lions but also the mechanics of Stafford, who often relies on his plus-arm strength to make up for shoddy footwork, poor arm angles and questionable decision-making.
“You can tell he has worked at it even during the summer,” Caldwell said when discussing Stafford. “In every facet, I can see improvement. Footwork, accuracy, timing, command of the offense, all of those things. So now we get a chance to see if he can put it all together.”
The Lions took an NBA approach to upgrading their high- octane offense around Stafford. Detroit wanted to take some of the LeBron James-like load off of star receiver Calvin Johnson after Megatron suffered through a nagging, injury-plagued 2013 season.
Former Seattle receiver Golden Tate will be Johnson’s new running mate on the outside while athletic rookie tight end Eric Ebron has Caldwell envisioning a Jimmy Graham-like impact in the middle of the field at some point, although Ebron hasn’t caught on early.
Monday’s contest marks the 42nd regular season meeting between the Giants and the Lions and things have been as even as it gets with the series tied at 20-20-1. New York, however, has won the last three meetings, in 2007, 2010, and 2013.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Two Super Bowl titles will buy you a lot of things in the NFL and one of them is the benefit of the doubt. Many just assume the highly-regarded Coughlin is on the precipice of turning things around with “Big Blue” but a more logical look may point toward a different outcome.
The offensive line was truly offensive for the Giants in 2013 as Manning again led the league in turnovers. Meanwhile, New York’s running game put up the franchise’s worst numbers since 1945.
Manning and whomever plays running back, whether it be free-agent pickup Rashad Jennings or rookie Andre Williams, will be toiling behind one of pro football’s worst blocking units again, especially after veteran Chris Snee was forced into retirement in July and underrated free agent guard Geoff Schwartz went down with a dislocated toe.
Defensively the Giants took a major hit when starting middle linebacker Jon Beason went down with a ligament tear and a small fracture in his right foot during OTAs. The veteran, however, has worked very hard on his rehabilitation and it’s touch and go as to whether he will be able to play in Detroit.
One area where the Giants did improve significantly in the defensive backfield after adding veteran cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond. DRC arrives from Denver to give the Giants a pure cover guy with excellent ball skills and should team with Prince Amukamara and Thurmond to give the Giants the best CB group in the defensively-challenged NFC East.
The Lions, meanwhile, can move the ball like few others with Stafford coming off his third straight season of more then 4,500 passing yards, Johnson piling up 110 receptions for 1,492 yards and 12 TDs, and Reggie Bush adding another 1,006 yards on the ground.
Few teams can match that kind of three-pronged explosiveness.
“We’re incredibly motivated after what happened last year,” said Johnson while referring to the team’s four-game skid to end the season, a slump which punctuated the fact that Detroit has missed the postseason in 13 of the past 14 years. “We know what we had in our grasp. We learned from that, and we’re in a position now that we can win those games and get into the playoffs.”
“It’s very good – very, very good,” Coughlin added when talking about Detroit’s offense.
The major issues for the Lions remain on defense where a strong front, featuring Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah, must make up for a shaky defensive backfield.
The Giants will be searching to win their 50th road opener in the franchise’s lore with Manning under center for the 151st straight time, by far the longest active streak by a QB.
Maybe that is all apropos because this version of the G-Men seems to be more about history than the present. Expect the Lions’ offense to be a little too explosive for New York to keep up with.
Predicted Outcome: Lions 27, Giants 23