How elite? Eli Manning makes magic with good-guy backup Ramses Barden

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Barden, in the middle. (nfl.com)
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When the Giants announced Tuesday that Hakeem Nicks would sit out last night’s game with a still-tender foot, the Super Bowl champion Giants, playing against a team that finished 6-10 last year, went from slight favorites to slight underdogs.

Before the game, each of the four N.F.L. Network studio analysts picked the Panthers to win. Summing up the thoughts of the group, Deion Sanders said, “I believe in Eli, but not without Hakeem Nicks.”

Everyone should have known better. Several times throughout his career, Eli has dealt with the loss of seemingly irreplaceable weapons. Nearly each time, he has responded by proving that those weapons weren’t so irreplaceable after all, and that he himself was better than people thought before:

There was 2007, when Jeremy Shockey’s season-ending injury might or might not have enabled Eli’s sudden ascension from a mediocre quarterback to a good one. There was the 2009 season, the first without mainstay top receivers Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, during which Eli had his best year to that point and made Steve Smith the franchise all-time leader in receptions. Most famously, there was last year, which began with panic over the loss of Smith and Kevin Boss, but ended with Victor Cruz writing a book and Eli having the best season a Giants quarterback ever has.

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(An exception to this rule: 2008, when Eli, like the rest of the team, suddenly lost his mojo when Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg.)

Last night, the beneficiary of Eli’s adaptability was fourth-year receiver Ramses Barden. In the span of one half, Barden shed the bust label that has followed him nearly his whole career, since shortly after he was drafted in the third round in 2009 as an unpolished 6-foot-6 project from small-time Cal Poly. Barden also benefitted from Panthers coverages that were rolled over to the side of Victor Cruz, as Panthers coach Ron Rivera admitted to the NFL Network’s Alex Flanagan at halftime.

Up until last night, Barden has been a pleasant but useless piece of furniture on the Giants’ sideline: He’s tall and handsome with a charming smile, and is frequently shown by both live broadcasts and embedded NFL Films cameras as an enthusiastic sideline cheerleader. But he never plays, and often doesn’t suit up, and to see a man enduring the humiliation of street clothes nonetheless be so buoyant invited a natural question: Does this guy even want to play?

With 15 career catches in three years, and with the Giants having just selected what they termed a “pro ready” receiver in Rueben Randle in the second round, the writing seemed on the wall for Barden going into this year, the final year of his contract.

But he flashed something in the third preseason game, catching three passes for 46 yards and a touchdown, and drawing an endzone pass interference penalty. He was at least adequate, he had proven. And having been on the team going on four years, he knew the offense better than Randle. When Nicks and third receiver Dominick Hixon went down, the Giants figured that with Eli at quarterback, an adequate receiver with a superior feel of the offense was a better short-term fit than a rookie with an ostensibly higher upside.

Thus, Barden’s nine catch, 138-yard night, which is more impressive when looking at his stats at halftime, comprising the portion of the game that was earnestly contested: seven catches on seven targets for 123 yards.

It began on the Giants’ second play from scrimmage, when Eli saw the Panthers playing in off coverage and got Barden’s feet wet on a simple 8-yard slant. That became a theme of the night: The Panthers’ defense had numerous soft spots and vulnerabilities, and Eli spotted and exploited them with ease.

Barden’s next catch came on what looked like a similar slant against off coverage, but with one exception: Instead of leading Barden across the middle, Eli stuck the pass on his back hip, which served as a cue to Barden to pirouette in the opposite direction and away from the cornerback who was hustling to make up for lost ground. Barden spun, lost the defender, and ran for a 21-yard gain. It was one of those many subtle masterful things that Eli now does regularly, but it took a receiver who was on the same page.

Four of the next five completions to Barden came on deep square-in patterns. Giants fans will remember the deep square in off play action as a staple of the Plaxico Burress era. The challenge of the play is to get the ball over the outstretched hands of linebackers dropping into coverage, so it helps to have a tall receiver like Burress and Barden: Instead of relying on touch to arc the ball over the linebackers and into the hands of a shorter receiver, Eli can basically just throw a high, hard one and have the tall receiver go up and snare it.

The second of these four square-ins was a perfect illustration: After a holding penalty pushed the Giants back to a second and 20, Barden ran a square-in past the first down marker. Eli’s throw was high enough to barely clear the fingertips of Panthers’ linebacker Jon Beason, and Barden hauled it in. (This despite the insistence of NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock that the ball was tipped, and that Beason should have intercepted it. Neither was true: The throw was wobbly, but nobody touched it, and the ball cleared Beason’s fingertips by several inches.)

Barden’s suitability for the square-in makes him a good candidate for the third receiver job, which will almost exclusively play on the outside because of Victor Cruz’s spatial mastery of the slot position.

The square-in over Beason came midway through the second quarter, and gave Barden the astonishing stat line of six catches for 106 yards. It set up a Lawrence Tynes 49-yard field goal, which made the score 20-0 and effectively ended the game.

Later in the game, with the starters having been pulled for their safety, Barden was in a familiar place. He conducted a “Let’s go Giants” chant among Giants fans who had moved down behind their team’s bench. Then, during a quarterback pow-wow between Eli and David Carr, Barden came up from behind and engulfed Eli in a grateful bear hug.