It wouldn't be fair to place all of the blame for the New York Giants' 0-2 start on Eli Manning, but elite, Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks are supposed to be superheroes. While the entire Giants team has struggled during the first fortnight of the 2013 NFL season, Manning has contributed to the problem rather than rising above it.
And if that doesn't change soon, the Giants will be watching the playoffs from home for the fourth time in five years.
Manning threw three fourth-quarter interceptions in Sunday's ugly loss to big brother Peyton and the Denver Broncos, increasing his league-leading pick total to seven. It's the first time he's ever thrown seven interceptions in a two-game span, and only three quarterbacks since the 1970 merger have tossed more picks during the first two weeks of the season.
Necessary caveat: The offense has been disgustingly one-dimensional. David Wilson was useless in a starting role Sunday, averaging only 2.4 yards per carry, while the entire backfield combo of Wilson, Brandon Jacobs and Da'Rel Scott could only manage 23 total yards on 19 attempts.
Only nine percent of the Giants' total offensive output this season has come on the ground, and that's a big reason why they were just 1-of-3 in the red zone and 1-of-11 on third downs in Sunday's 41-23 loss.
Still, seven interceptions in eight quarters?
"Somehow, someway," said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin after the game, per Conor Orr of the Star-Ledger, "we've got to stop the interceptions."
The pass protection wasn't even too shabby against Denver. Manning was pressured 20 times but hit only twice on 50 dropbacks. Considering that the running game was MIA, that's borderline impressive.
And yet, four interceptions on his last 29 passes? Unacceptable.
Manning has never been consistent, but this is a new low. Yes, he needs more support from a running game that was nonexistent Sunday and a pass rush that also failed to show up and a special teams unit that surrendered a back-breaking touchdown. But he also just has to stop making bad decisions.
Manning has his top three receivers healthy and a solid pass-catching tight end in Brandon Myers. He's gone against two beatable defenses to start the year—the Cowboys were missing Anthony Spencer and adjusting to a new scheme and the Broncos were missing Von Miller and Champ Bailey—but he has failed to capitalize because he's just having too many careless moments.
"Before the season starts, I like to set a goal of keeping interceptions in the single digits," Manning said after Sunday's loss, per Dan Graziano of ESPN New York. "So obviously, I kind of have to start over from here on that one."
In the opener in Dallas, this is Manning quite literally throwing the ball directly into DeMarcus Ware's hands. Nothing is disguised:
His second pick against Dallas was just a misfire, and his third and final pick came on a deflection off of Scott's hands. Those things happen, but you can't afford to be so far off target when you've already made a bad decision on a previous pick.
What happened against the Broncos wasn't as easy to forgive. Manning threw away three points at the end of the first half on this strange end-zone interception to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie:
"Just a bad decision by me," he admitted after the game, via the Giants' official website. "I was really just trying to kind of...throw the ball away, where we wouldn’t get an intentional grounding. It was unfortunate that I threw it in a spot where their guy could make a play."
And while an unfavorable bounce factored in, Manning had no business trying to squeeze this pass in for Rueben Randle with the Giants down only a single score early in the fourth quarter:
“It was just a play that we thought we should've made, but we didn’t,” Coughlin said, per Michael Eisen of Giants.com. “On a slant, the first indication that trouble is there, was that the defender’s arm was reaching in towards the ball as the receiver was doing the same thing. It wasn’t clean."
He became more desperate after that. This was a calculated gamble on 4th-and-10 midway through the fourth quarter:
I get it, but he had to see how well the Broncos had that covered and look for something underneath.
He saved the worst for last, throwing the wrong route in a desperate attempt to salvage something in the final minute. Bad communication from the veteran leader:
"The last one was on me," Manning said, per the team's website. "Rueben did the right thing; he ran the right route and I threw the wrong route."
What has to change? Quite simply, Manning has to get his act together. He has to be the steady, reliable rock for a team that isn't that good elsewhere.
Will that be enough to save this season? Maybe. The Giants couldn't run at all in 2011 and went on to win the Super Bowl. But they only won nine games that year, and defying the odds twice isn't easy.
Yes, they also started 0-2 in their 2007 Super Bowl campaign, winning the Lombardi Trophy despite a middle-of-the-pack defense, but the running game averaged a solid 4.6 yards per carry that year. And in both cases, the pass rush became dominant down the stretch.
So it can't just be Manning adjusting his focus, but it also doesn't have to be a complete transformation. Manning has to be smarter, but his team also needs to help him out with more bite on defense and more support in the offensive backfield.
The good news is this is salvageable. It's only Week 3 and the G-Men are one game out of first place in the NFC East. It's not pretty, but it's also not time to panic just yet.