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Different teams, same question- SNY( Chad & Eli)

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08/07/2007 12:24 PM ET

Different teams, same question

Pennington, Manning must quiet skeptics to succeed in 2007

By Michael Salfino / SNY.tv analyst

Eli Manning has all the physical tools, but has yet to show the intangibles that make a great quarterback. (AP)

There's so much written about the locals in the NFL preseason that you get the sense that all the moving parts make it impossible to forecast their 2007 fortunes.

But professional football is a very simple game. The vast majority of the time, the team with the better quarterback wins. More specifically, the team whose QB plays the best in that game prevails.

So, to be a playoff team in the NFL, you better either have a QB who's better than the vast majority of opposing QBs or a pass defense that is dominant enough to cut the signal callers it faces down to size.

Let's look at the numbers. Since 2004, the top ten teams each year in net yards per pass attempt (YPA) win an average 67 percent of their games (about 11). The bottom 10 teams in that same stat each year win an average of 33 percent of their games (about five). If you forget about defense all together and just look at the top and bottom 10 each year in offensive YPA, the totals are 65 percent (10 wins) and 39 percent (six wins).

Skeptics say that the top and bottom in every category are probably comparably good or bad. But the net yards per rush the past three years, average wins are 9 (top 10) and 7 (bottom 10). There's only one team stat that correlates to wins and losses better than net YPA the past three years, net turnovers -- and only by one percentage point for the top 10 (the bottom 10 teams averaged exactly the same amount of wins in both categories).

Again, though, with net turnovers, it's still about the QBs. First of all, they fumble more than any other position by far via sacks. And interceptions lost matter far more in who ultimately wins or loses than do lost fumbles. In fact, NFL stat guru Bud Goode has estimated that the point value of an interception is more than twice that of a lost fumble.

So after all the offseason moves and all the hope invested in various draft picks and other newcomers, the fundamental quesstion becomes whether Eli Manning and Chad Pennington can play better in 2007 than in 2006. If they can't, it's very unlikely either team will advance further. And if they regress for any reason, disappointment surely will be dealt.

Let's summarize Manning's 2006. Despite the 24 TD passes in each of the last two years, his upside appears limited. Almost every great QB has reached a level of greatness before the 40-start mark of his career. And I adjust the criteria for era, because the 80 QB rating that was befitting an All-Pro a generation ago today gets you benched. Manning has passed that games-played threshold and has not sustained anything more than lightning flashes of greatness.

You want to blame conservative playcalling? Eli Manning attempted 69 percent of his passes 10 yards or less; but "dink and dunk" is the name of the game today. We know that Manning has a strong arm because he obviously passed all those scouting combine drills with flying colors. Should Manning throw deeper more often? From 11-to-20 yards, he had a 58 QB rating and completed 42 percent of these throws. He also had seven interceptions on just 36 throws 21-to-30 yards from scrimmage. He did very well on throws over 30 yards, but good luck if that's your offensive bread and butter. You can't call Manning a choker because he's the same in the fourth quarter of close games as he is overall: mediocre. Same for the last two minutes of a half. The only stat I can find supporting a bullish stance on Manning is 11 TD passes in 22 attempts inside the opponent's 10 yard line. When viewed within the context of all the other signs of mediocrity, this screams sample-size fluke.

This brings us to Pennington -- the Jamie Moyer of NFL QBs, as butterflies seem to sail faster than some of his spirals. All of the measurables are overrated with QBs. But there are bare-minimum requirements for things like arm strength and Pennington is dangerously close to that line, if not under it completely.

Pennington was once Montana-esque in his ability to compensate for his so-so arm with great timing and touch. But those days appear to be gone. During that magical 2002, Pennington was the best intermediate passer in the NFL. But he's well below average now on 11- to-20 yard passes and the Jets have put the deep ball in mothballs, throwing just eight percent of all passes more than 20 yards from scrimmage. When Chad is effective on intermediate routes, it's over the middle of the field where arm strength isn't as needed. Teams now dare Pennington to throw the out to either sideline and he just can't muster the strength to do so. It's sad to watch. Unless there's a miracle recovery, the Jets will have no choice but to turn to Kellen Clemens, given a big thumbs up on draft day in 2006 from QB guru Ron Jaworski. Clemens was very impressive early in camp.

Here's what the bulls say about both QBs.

Manning's 24 TD passes the past two years are a floor. Who cares about the loss of Tiki Barber with Sinorice Moss healthy and again the explosive playmaker he was at The U. Plaxico Burress is a dominant, king-making receiver. We'll cross our fingers on Jeremy Shockey's health. Plus, we love the bloodlines.

Of course, if bloodlines mattered, Tim Hasselbeck would be starting somewhere and Chris Simms wouldn't be on the chopping block in Tampa Bay.

The Pennington bulls say that his shoulder is going to be stronger another year removed from the second major shoulder injury. They may be right. Unfortunately, there are no comparables for Pennington because no QB that I'm aware of ever had two surgeries on this throwing shoulder on the scale that Chad has endured.

Though both QBs enter 2007 as serious question marks, the questions come from opposite sides of the player personnel equation. With Manning, we wonder if he has the intangible factors that scouts can't really measure but that are critical to QB greatness: essentially, the ability to perform to your full talent level when the bullets are flying for real.

Most serious NFL scouts and observers believe that Pennington has this in spades. They only question whether he has what's taken as a given for almost every other NFL QB -- the ability to sufficiently throw the football.

If you could fashion the players together in a laboratory, you have a great QB, something pretty close to Peyton Manning. But skeptics believe you'd have a just as good a chance of pulling off this Dr. Frankenstein act as Pennington has of finding his arm or Eli developing anything close to his brother's supreme mental wiring for dominating the game's most essential position.

Michael Salfino is a nationally syndicated analyst and columnist.


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