By John McMullen
New York is all about the bright lights of the big city, but at least one of the its football teams has been able to fly under the radar.
The New York Giants are the big brother in the nation’s No. 1 media market yet it’s the Jets who find the back cover of the tabloids far more often. Meanwhile, in the NFC East, “Big Blue” is downright serene compared to Chip Kelly’s machinations in Philadelphia or the never-ending soap operas Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder have created in North Texas and inside the Beltway, respectively.
That doesn’t mean the Giants are happy about playing second fiddle to both the Cowboys and Eagles in 2014, though.
There was at least some talk the 68-year-old Tom Coughlin would not be back for his 12th season as the Giants’ head coach after missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season and failing to reach double-digits in wins for the fourth straight time.
And while two Super Bowl titles should give any coach a lifetime-dispensation card, the fact that Coughlin and the Giants have made the postseason just once over the past six years is starting to wear thin in a what-have-you-done-for- me-lately culture.
So what is going to make 2015 different?
Well, the Giants didn’t do all that much in free agency and what they did do wasn’t exactly sexy like bringing in a versatile piece at running back in Shane Vereen or snaring a solid kick returner from Dallas in Dwayne Harris or helping the defensive line depth with ex-Jets defensive tackle Kendrick Ellis and former Cowboys end George Selvie.
So what’s the plan?
It seems like the NYG is counting on continuity and the fact that Eli Manning will be much more comfortable now that he is in his second season under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
Last year, Manning’s 11th season in the NFL was about learning a new offense, designed to cut down on his heavy-interception ratio and up his somewhat shaky completion percentage by concentrating on quicker, easier throws.
The transition wasn’t easy as Manning struggled with his mechanics at times in McAdoon’s system while recuperating from a persistent, balky ankle.
“I’m excited about this upcoming season,” Manning told the Giants’ team website. “Last year during the offseason, I was coming off an injury and going into a situation with new coaches. And the way the CBA works now, you don’t get much, if any, communication with the coaches. There were a lot of uncertainties and I didn’t know how quickly I would heal. I had to learn a new system and new mechanics. There was a lot of anxiousness.”
That anxiousness evaporated and Manning’s season was a success, at least statistically. Eli connected on 63.1 percent of his passes, a career high and way up from is 57.5 clip in ’13, while his TD-to-interception ratio went from a league-worst 18-to-27 to a solid 30-14.
The Giants’ offense finished 10th in the NFL one year after it was ranked 28th, averaging 367.2 yards per game, nearly a 60-yard improvement from the 307.5 mark in ’13.
Manning, meanwhile, set franchise records with 379 completions and the 63.1 completion percentage, while his 4,410 passing yards was the second-highest total in team history.
The bottom line hardly changed, though. In fact it went down a tick as New York went from 7-9 with the “bad offense” to 6-10 last season.
“I’m not pleased with the amounts of wins,” Manning admitted. “That is the important thing. There are still some situations that we need to get better at and that I need to improve on and, as an offense, we need to improve on. There is definitely still some room for improvement, but I feel good that I can play at a high level in this system and can definitely make improvements and we can win a lot of games and play a lot better this year.”
Having the spectacular Odell Beckham Jr. on the field with Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle — something that happened for only 1 1/2 games last season — will only help.
“The good thing about having guys that are smart and versatile is that you can move them around in different positions,” Manning said. “Victor and Odell can do a lot of the same things. The more guys you can have that are great athletes, the more you want to try to get the ball in their hands. You can change up formations, you can move them inside or outside. Victor can play outside, he can play in the slot. Odell can do both of those things, so I think that is an advantage to us.”
There is one wild card, though.
The reality is numbers can lie and McAdoo’s West Coast offense didn’t play to Manning’s one true strength, which is getting the football down the field for big plays, something former coordinator Kevin Gilbride understood.
Unlike his big brother Peyton, Eli has never been defined by consistency and has always been more comparable to a streak shooter in the NBA. When Manning is on, like he was in the playoffs after the ’07 and ’11 seasons, he’s been virtually unstoppable as evidenced by the Lombardi trophies housed in the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
When that jumper isn’t falling, however, it can get ugly and no QB has handed it to the opposition more than Eli, who has three different 20-interception seasons.
The key is finding a happy medium and reining in Manning’s frustrating habit of forcing the football while still encouraging him to take an ample number of shots over the top of the defense.
“This year I feel great about the system,” Manning said. “My body feels good. I am excited about coming in and knowing what I need to improve on and make strides in, rather than learning a complete new system. I have been working hard and looking at some stuff from last year and keeping the plays fresh and in my head. I’m trying to keep it all fresh in my mind and I am excited about getting back.”
John McMullen is the NFL Editor at SportsNetwork.com