Dec. 14, 2008 was the last win at Texas Stadium for the Dallas Cowboys franchise. The game was played against Eli Manning and the New York Giants. In that month, December 2008, almost nothing went right for the Cowboys. But, one thing that did was this Sunday Night affair against their bitter rivals.
In that game, the Cowboys battered, bruised, and flat-out beat up Manning to the tune of eight sacks. DeMarcus Ware had three. Greg Ellis had 2.5. Bradie James and Chris Canty each had one, and second-year LB Anthony Spencer even picked up one half of a sack. The Cowboys won that game 20-8, over the then Super Bowl Champion Giants, and felt that they had cracked the code on how to beat the younger Manning brother: Beat him up. But, since we have mentioned Texas Stadium and Greg Ellis in the opening two paragraphs of this story, it has been a while since that night.
Since then, the two teams have squared off six times. Manning has won five of them, losing to Cowboys’ back-up QB Jon Kitna in Jason Garrett’s first game as head coach in 2010.
And since that night, the New York Giants have run 230 pass plays against the Cowboys 3-4 defense. And in those 230 passes over the span of three seasons and six games, the Cowboys have sacked Manning four times or once every 57.5 pass plays (as a comparison, the Cowboys averaged a sack every 14 pass attempts against the league last year). And to make it much, much worse, over those 230 pass plays, DeMarcus Ware has 3.5 of the four sacks. That’s right. The rest of the Cowboys defense, with 230 chances at getting to the QB, only Jason Hatcher has tallied even half of a sack. Pitiful may not properly sum up this reality.
So, the pressure does not get to the QB without blitzing. And when blitzing, Eli can get rid of the ball to exactly the proper place, ripping the cornerbacks of the Cowboys to shreds. Have a look at the game log of Eli since that fateful night at Texas Stadium:
That is unreal. His AVERAGE game against the Cowboys over the last three seasons: 24-38-365-2-1 for a QB rating of 101. That is average, as he has done much better than that.
The NFL is a matchup league. Teams play in a division that requires them to see the rest of their division twice a year. Therefore, it is mandatory that as you build your team and plan drafts and free agency every year, you must consider those teams that you will see every single year. Twice.
And in the case of the Giants and the Cowboys, we are going through a period of time where it seems rather clear that the Giants hold some rather substantial matchup issues on both sides of the ball. It has been and will be well documented how the Cowboys offensive line has very little success keeping the Giants DL off of Tony Romo (9 sacks against in 2011). But, perhaps it has not been properly investigated that the Giants hold a similar, fundamental advantage in this matchup because the Cowboys defense, regardless of coordinator, has had no good answer against Eli Manning.
What is interesting to note is that Washington has had great success in slowing down Eli Manning as he has a NFL average QB rating against Washington of 80. Against Philadelphia, he is 1-5 since 2009. But, against the Cowboys, he has all day and shreds the defense so much so that nobody thought it was out of line that he autographed the wall in the Cowboys visiting locker-room in Arlington. He really does own them. But, it should also be noted that Washington has 10 sacks in three seasons. Philadelphia 13 sacks. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have four.
And yet, when you examine the numbers, it seems disingenuous to simply blame the pass rush. In fact, the Cowboys seemed to speak with their actions this spring that they believe Eli Manning owns them because their secondary was not good enough. It is worth noting that from 2009-2011, the top 3 corners on the Cowboys remained the same: Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins, and Orlando Scandrick.
And, time after time, he lit all of their rears on fire whenever they played. Jenkins was the least burned, but his health kept him off the field for almost half of the action. But overall, Eli could throw in any direction. Take a look – Here are the numbers for the six games combined when Manning threw the ball at a particular Cowboys’ corner (numbers courtesy of ProFootballFocus):
Clearly, Eli Manning loved playing the Cowboys because he loved throwing at the corners.
First, the plays against Terence Newman, where Eli would seek out No. 41 and his “off and soft” techniques and seek him again and again. Sometimes, he would go after him to a fault and he almost threw away last season’s game in Arlington, but a pass that hit Newman between the numbers fell harmlessly to the ground. But in 48 passes at Newman over six games (8 per), he amassed nearly 500 yards or over 80 per game. What is also worth noting is that none of these corners were able to stay on the field. All three of them missed at least 97 snaps in these games due to bangs, bruises, and breathers.
The Cowboys knew that this was an issue and so did anyone watching. Newman’s diminished performance was one of the worst kept secrets going around in Cowboys land. So, in free agency, the Cowboys made a tremendous upgrade when they paid Brandon Carr to join their side for $50M. This should challenge Manning with a physical corner who has both the size and the speed to take things away on occasions where the Cowboys wish to press.
However, after doing the research and reviewing Manning vs Scandrick over three years, I was reminded about the nights that Steve Smith dominated Scandrick before Cruz was even in the league. Scandrick may be a reasonable slot receiver and a player who they did not need to focus on replacing, but Scandrick against the Giants has had a pork chop hanging around his neck. A line of 31-43-405 and 5 touchdowns against 0 interceptions equals a QB rating that approaches perfection. The receivers have changed against Scandrick, but the QB and the corner remain the same in the slot, and Eli loves to throw at No. 32.
These numbers – the idea that Manning has thrown for 500 yards against Newman and 400 more against Scandrick – reveal the issues that Wade Phillips and Rob Ryan have faced when playing him. Either they try to get pressure and risk the secondary being undermanned, or they fortify the secondary and give Eli all day to pick them apart. Either way, they are dead.
And the proof is on the scoreboard, where the Cowboys held the Giants to under 31 points in a game just once in the last six meetings. And, in this league, when you give up 31 points or more, you lose. Since 2009, the Cowboys have allowed 31 points on 11 occasions, and are 1-10 (lone win at Indianapolis in 2010, 38-35 (overtime)).
With Carr and the first round pick, Mo Claiborne, the Cowboys have now invested in the corner position to a point that it risked other spots on the field to be ignored (OL). With Claiborne, it is more of a long play than a fix for the immediate nature of Wednesday night. Corners, no matter how special and talented, endure a growing process filled with pains, lessons, and tests against veteran QBs. And you can bet that on Wednesday, it will be up to Claiborne to answer all of the questions that are asked of him when Rob Ryan decides to leave him on an island with whoever he is being asked to blanket. Rookie corners always get welcomed to the NFL in the most unkind way possible.
To me, Eli Manning is one of the most complicated QBs to rate in the NFL. He does things that the very best QBs don’t do that detract from his greatness. He reminds you of what Jimmy Johnson used to say about league MVP, Brett Favre: He will throw a few to us if we are patient. Manning always mixes in a few plays that could be disastrous. In Super Bowl 42, the Patriots had the game in their hands but Asante Samuel dropped the sure pick. Newman did Manning the same favor last December. As did the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game last January.
But, in Dallas, the biggest argument for him is not that he has two rings (although that is a rather large argument). The biggest argument for Eli Manning in Dallas is that he owns the Cowboys. He has unreasonable success against the team that loathes him the most. And no matter how they try to slow him down, he wears that smirk and throws another touchdown.
With no Newman to kick around anymore, and two very important pieces at the corner position, it will be most interesting to see what posture the Cowboys defense brings into this battle. The good news is that the bar is 365 yards and 31 points. Anything south of either of those two numbers will be considered better than usual. The bad news is just how low that bar is right now.