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January 4, 2005 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Was Eli Manning Worth the Playoffs?

BY SEAN LAHMAN
January 4, 2005

The New York Giants' season ended on a high note, with a spirited, come-from-behind victory against the Cowboys at the Meadowlands Sunday night. But the jubilation of that thrilling finish can't mask the heavy disappointment of the team's 2004 season.

Despite the addition of some talented young players and the energetic work of a new coaching staff, neither Eli Manning nor Tom Coughlin could make this a substantially better team than it was before they arrived.

The Giants' organization maintained through most of the year that the struggles of this season were necessary to pave the way for a brighter future. By inserting Manning into the lineup when they did, they gave him a chance to become acclimated to the professional game, to gain some confidence, and to earn the respect of his teammates.

Perhaps they accomplished those goals. But many fans feel that in keeping its eye on the young quarterback's development, the team ignored the opportunity staring it in the face. The controversial decision to make a quarterback change in mid-November sent the Giants into a tailspin and cost them a real chance at the playoffs.

The team, after all, had a 5-4 record with Kurt Warner at the helm. At the time, that was the third best record in the NFC, and the Giants had already earned a tiebreaker advantage with wins against wild-card contenders Green Bay and Minnesota. Things may not have been perfect, but the Giants seemed to be in good position to reach the playoffs so long as they didn't implode.

Of course, that's exactly what happened. With Manning behind the wheel, the Giants lost their next six games and fell out of contention. His supporters would argue that his first five games came against incredibly good defenses, and that's certainly true. But Warner had already faced two of those teams - the Eagles and Redskins - earlier in the year, producing 37 total points and a win, while Manning produced just 13 points and two losses against the same opponents.

As Manning sank deeper into the doldrums week by week, it appeared that his teammates had given up hope of winning another game. It certainly felt as if the coaching staff and the front office were conceding the season by sticking with a quarterback who was playing horribly. The entire team went limp; gone was the spirit and intensity showcased in convincing wins over the Packers, Cowboys, and Vikings.

It's not hard to make the case that with an average performance by Kurt Warner, the Giants would have beaten Atlanta in Week 11 and Cincinnati in Week 16 and slipped into the soft NFC playoffs.

Having said that, it's worth asking whether the Giants are better off where they are now or where they might have been had they stuck with Warner. With the defense gutted by injuries, Big Blue wouldn't have made much noise in the postseason. In the stick-with-Warner scenario, all the Giants really do is gain is an extra week of work and a salvage a bit of pride.

So what have they gained by playing Eli Manning in 2004? First, they've given him a chance to get those rocky starts out of the way. Consider the scenario that played out in Cincinnati.

Like the Giants, the Bengals started last season with rookie Carson Palmer, who was selected first in the draft. When the team went on a mid-season winning streak with veteran starter Jon Kitna, they opted to stick with him and keep Palmer on the sidelines. The Bengals went on to finish 8-8, knocked from playoff contention in the final week of the season.

When Palmer finally got the chance to play at the start of this season, he struggled mightily and the Bengals lost five of their first seven games. By the time he started playing well, Cincinnati had dug too deep a hole and a strong 6-3 finish wasn't enough to make the playoffs.

The Giants hope they've avoided the same pitfall and put themselves in a position to compete in 2005. Instead of spending this off-season preparing the young quarterback to make his first NFL start, they can examine what he did well and what he struggled with, and tailor the 2005 playbook accordingly.

The payoff must come in 2005. Ernie Accorsi and Tom Coughlin are saying that the disappointments this season will lead to victories next season. Merely making the playoffs next year won't be satisfactory. Now that the price for acquiring Manning includes not just draft picks but a chance to play in this year's postseason, the upside has to be pretty bright.

If Manning really is a once-in-a-generation quarterback, then the 2004 season will be little more than a footnote in a Hall of Fame career. Either way, we'll know by this time next year.

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