Two years ago, there was real concern Eli Manning's best days were behind him. His 2013 season was nothing short of a nightmare. He posted his lowest completion percentage in six years. His touchdown total was the lowest of his career other than his rookie year, when he only started 7 games. He was throwing interceptions at a higher rate than rookie Geno Smith.
The Giants made a change at offensive coordinator offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride retired before the team could fire him. In came Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo with a new system. These two seasons have seen a big bounceback. The top two completion percentages of Eli's career have come in the past two seasons. Last season he threw 30 touchdown passes for the first time since 2010, and he has 23 through 11 games this season. Particularly notable is Eli's interception rate. He has thrown an interception on 2.2% of his attempts since last season started, a full 1.2% below his career before that.
This by no means will be a comprehensive study on the differences, but here are some of the things I think have been key.
Gilbride cut his teeth in the NFL using the run and shoot system. At the heart of the run and shoot are option routes. On these routes, the receiver has multiple options on which route to run. He has to read the coverage and base his route off that. At the same time, the quarterback has to read the coverage and anticipate which route his receiver will run based on it.
Gilbride did not use a straight run and shoot during his time with the Giants, but option routes were certainly in his offense's DNA.
As with any system, there are strengths and weaknesses. The strength of option routes are that they build into any play an answer to beat any type of coverage. The weakness is they require two different players to make the same read on the fly. When that does not happen, it can be catastrophe.
Here was an interception from a 2013 game. Rueben Randle could choose either the yellow path or the blue path depending on what he saw in coverage. Randle chooses yellow. Eli reads that he should run blue. The result is an easy interception. The play isn't even contested because the quarterback and receiver were not on the same page.
This is not to condemn an offense like this. The Giants did have success in Gilbride's tenure. In 2011, this type of offense meshed with the breakout season of Victor Cruz.
A perfect example of Cruz excelling in a run-and-shoot play this season came in Week 3 against the Eagles. On third-and-2, Gilbride called an old staple — the "switch" concept. At the snap, the inside receiver, Cruz, and the outside receiver, Hakeem Nicks, were to "switch" their releases by crisscrossing past each other. But that’s just where the fun begins. Each receiver still had multiple decisions to make. Nicks’ job was to run an inside "seam read" route. Depending on how the defense played him, Nicks might go vertical or he might break across the field. Cruz’s first responsibility was to get deep, but if the defense played him over the top to take away the deep ball, his job was to stop and look for a pass in the open space. On the play, the Eagles blitzed and Cruz found an open spot in the defense and waited. Manning found him, and 74 yards and several broken tackles later, the Giants had a touchdown.
I think by 2013, though, this type of offense became more of a negative than a positive for the Giants. The receiver position did not help the team. Nicks wasn't the same receiver at that point. Rueben Randle was inconsistent. The offense suffered.
Enter McAdoo. McAdoo came school in Green Bay's West Coast principles. There are less option routes. More is left on Eli's plate to read the defense correctly and find the open guy. Less is on the receivers. The main advantage is everybody is going to be on the same page. Even if the ball goes to a covered receiver, he will be there to make a play on it. At the very least, he can contest the defender and prevent an interception.
In tune with a West Coast philosophy, the Giants have started getting the ball out quicker on short, high percentage passes.
According to Pro Football Focus, Eli's average time from snap to pass was 2.73 seconds in 2013 under Gilbride, who liked to stretch the field more. Under McAdoo, he was at 2.49 last season and is currently at 2.43, rating fourth quickest release in the league both seasons.
On the same note, the Giants have incorporated their backs in the passing game more. Their backs already have more receptions this season than they did in all of 2013. This has come to mind in their roster construction, in particular the decision to sign Shane Vereen, a back with really good receiving skills, from New England.
These have not only led to a higher completion percentage. Protection was a major issue for the Giants in 2013. One way to make the pass rush less effective is to get the ball out quicker on short routes and give the defense less time to get to the quarterback.
McAdoo's scheme is up tempo. Football Outsiders keeps track of how quickly teams snap the ball. Last year, the Giants were the seventh quickest offense. They are up to third this year with an average of only 25.07 seconds to snap the ball. This isn't because they are playing from behind. They are in the top six of every game situation. The Giants were only on the top half of the league once in seven seasons under Gilbride.
Teams use tempo to great effect in the NFL now. It takes things off the table for the defense. Substitutions can be limited, which prevents defenses from throwing multiple personnel groupings at an offense. It also means the same players stay on the field and are apt to become fatigued after a rapid succession of plays and no ability to take one off. Defenses can't be as complex. They cannot disguise their fronts as much and then drop into a different look with the play clock winding down because the offense might snap it at any point and catch people out of position.
Of course, the flip side is this also gives the quarterback less time to decipher what the defense is doing, which is something Gilbride liked. In this system, the Giants have done a good job dictating the terms of engagement.
Odell Beckham, Jr.
Scheme is important in the NFL. You need a system that fits the skillsets of your players. You need to find players with the ability to fill the roles in your system. A player might be really good in one scheme and bad in another because his tasks change. The right system maximizes the talent you do have. The wrong one does the opposite.
Talent matters more than scheme, though. The last two years in Philadelphia, we heard a lot about how revolutionary Chip Kelly's offense was. This year we are hearing a lot about how the struggles of the Eagles prove you cannot import a college system into the NFL. The biggest difference on that offense, however, might just be that guys like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and LeSean McCoy are gone.
I do think the change in offenses has helped Eli Manning, but what has helped him the most is the addition of 2014 first round pick Odell Beckham, Jr. Playing quarterback gets a lot easier when you have a guy who can make plays like this.
The Jets face a really effective quarterback on Sunday. They will need to be at their best to slow him down.