EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Sometimes a fist pump is just a fist pump. Other times it seems like something more. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was grooving last Sunday night when he found Rueben Randle for a 16-yard touchdown. It was one throw – one perfect throw to the back of the end zone – but Manning showed in that pass that his arm was strong, his accuracy faultless. Just like that, worries about Manning, and the Giants, went quiet.
Then he celebrated, and it was difficult not to search for meaning in it.
“There was no doubt that we would get back on the same page,” wide receiver Hakeem Nicks said after the Giants’ 38-10 win over the Green Bay Packers. “We got our confidence back.”
Manning played that night at the level he has touched often throughout his nine-year career, though he has rarely been consistent. He plays in New York, and his last name is Manning, so bad games, or even average ones, are magnified and scrutinized. It doesn’t help that a belief had worked its way through the Giants organization and into the conversation: that Manning’s right arm was tired, that he was unable to make passes with the necessary power or accuracy.
Before last weekend’s win, Manning was on pace to throw the fewest touchdown passes since his rookie season, and he hadn’t found the end zone in three games. He had four interceptions during that time, and the mistakes amplified talk that something must be wrong, though he and others denied it.
When the Giants began their bye week earlier this month, Manning took a vacation from football. He returned with his family to Mississippi, where he attended college at Ole Miss and still has a home. Though he had downplayed the talk, he rested his arm anyway. His mind was on sabbatical, too; Manning said he didn’t even take his laptop to Mississippi, indicating he didn’t watch film.
It was a gamble, and a loss to Green Bay would have set up a matchup Monday night against the Washington Redskins for first place in the NFC East. Manning said later that he was aware of the stakes.
“A big game,” he said after the win against the Packers. “We needed to come out and play well.”
When Manning returned to practice after the bye, teammates noticed a difference. Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said Manning told him that his arm felt as strong as it had before the season. Then the Packers game arrived, and Manning further impressed his teammates. The gamble had worked.
“It was good to see his arm come back alive,” wide receiver Victor Cruz said.
A moment later, Cruz clarified that he didn’t mean to imply that Manning’s arm had seemed tired before the bye, only that the quarterback returned with new energy and had been sharp in his first game since the break.
“I’m not referencing that his arm was faulty before or anything like that,” Cruz said. “I was just saying that he was definitely out here and he was playing with some excitement and he was completing some footballs, which was good to see.”
The idea that Manning could be having arm problems is a sensitive subject around the Meadowlands, not just because it suggests Manning isn’t himself, but also because of what it would mean for New York’s hopes for a third Super Bowl in six years. As Manning goes, so go the Giants. When he is sharp, the Giants win playoff games. When he is sloppy, the team struggles and talk resumes that maybe Manning isn’t an elite quarterback, and that Coughlin should be fired because he’s unable to consistently pull greatness from his most high-profile player.
Manning and Coughlin had done the most to reject talk about Manning’s arm. But after last Sunday’s win, Manning acknowledged that it felt recharged.
“I never thought my arm was tired, never felt like it the last [few] weeks,” Manning said. “But, you know, after a week off and coming back to practice, it felt, like, good. It felt live. The ball seemed to be coming out with a little extra pop on it.”
Now the question is how long this version of Manning will last. If his arm had indeed been exhausted, one week away from football likely has only so much restorative power. There are still five regular-season games left, and then the playoffs.
For one night, though, Manning showed how good – and, more important, influential – he can be. At one point in the first quarter, when he was unable to find an open receiver on third down, Manning scrambled and lowered his right shoulder into Packers cornerback Tramon Williams. Teammates and coaches winced – “that wouldn’t be recommended on a normal basis,” Coughlin said later – but Manning would say that his team simply needed the first down.
The Giants got more than that.
“It sparked our sideline, that’s for sure,” Coughlin said. “To see him do that, I think, sent a message to the rest of our team as well, in terms of whatever you have to do to succeed, do it.”
Manning was later asked about it.
“Maybe they’ll be proud of me,” Manning said, referring to his teammates.
They were at least inspired. New York’s defense sacked Aaron Rodgers five times, the most for the Giants’ pass rush since it brought down San Francisco’s Alex Smith six times in mid-October. Defensive backs shut down Green Bay’s receivers, holding Rodgers to 219 passing yards and a season-low tying 14 completions. In the same game that Giants running back Andre Brown suffered a season-ending broken leg, Ahmad Bradshaw averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
In other words, the Giants’ machine was humming.
Manning passed for 249 yards, threw no interceptions and snapped his scoreless streak with three touchdown passes. It wasn’t his most dazzling game, but it was efficient and timely. His final touchdown, in the fourth quarter, was the 200th of Manning’s career and broke Phil Simms’ franchise record. It was impressive enough, but none had the psychological impact of his first.
Early in the first quarter, Manning overthrew several receivers. His passes were wobbly and, even on short throws, he lacked pinpoint accuracy. Was this nationally televised evidence of a tired arm, of a quarterback who had lost his magic, of a team in real trouble as it entered the stretch run?
Then he dropped back on third-and-5, scanned the field and found Randle running toward the back of the end zone. Manning’s pass came out smooth and strong, hitting Randle in stride for a touchdown.
“We played the way we know we can,” Manning said, and he might as well have been talking about himself.
After the pass to Randle, several teammates ran toward the receiver. The quarterback stayed put. This was Eli Manning at his best, and as teammates surrounded Randle, the quarterback celebrated alone, his fist pumping, his body spinning – looking relieved.
Like a man who just proved something to himself.