Eli Manning stood in front of his New York Giants locker for perhaps the final time Monday morning, sporting — of course — a conservative quarter-zip and the same laconic Southern accent that he brought to town 15 years ago.
His contract is up, and he was asked if he’d consider returning to the Giants as a backup.
What he should have said: “A backup? A [censored]-ing backup? I won two [censored]-ing Super Bowls for this [censored] franchise! [Censored] you and [censored] anyone in this [censored] organization who thinks I ought to be carrying a [censored]-ing clipboard. Get the [censored] out of my face with that disrespectful [censored].”
What he did say, because he’s Eli Manning and he was raised right: “I doubt it. Backing up is not real fun.”
Would anyone have asked Peyton Manning if he wanted to come back as a backup? Will anyone ask Tom Brady? (Nobody ask Brett Favre; he’ll say yes.) It’s a mark of how the Giants have dinged Eli’s image over the past half-dozen years that the question even hits the air.
From 2005-13, he was 84-60 as a starter. In the last six years, he’s 32-51. And while wins aren’t the best way to judge a quarterback — Manning isn’t better than, say, Dan Marino — they’re a good indication of how badly the Giants organization has stumbled in the back half of Manning’s career.
Let’s be clear: Manning doesn’t deserve the starting job in New York. His skills have declined; there’s no shame in that. But he deserved better than to be treated like the guy at your office that you invite to join for drinks just because it’s too awkward to leave him out. He was the primary reason the Giants have been relevant in this millennium despite taking more grief than any other two quarterbacks you could name.
A strange pairing from the start
Eli Manning and the Giants were a strange marriage from the start, a soft-spoken kid who always has a look like he’s just woken from a nap and a city that fancied itself the center of the sporting universe, a crucible from which only champions will emerge.
Manning spent a decade and a half inside that crucible and — against all odds — somehow emerged a champion twice over. He did so while playing for an organization that fielded coaches ranging from abrasive to overmatched and general managers whose draft styles veered wildly between “strategic genius” and “wild guess.”
Manning spent most of his career in New York with a turnstile at offensive line, and the Giants spent far more money on the defense than on parts that could have helped him. Tom Coughlin’s splenetic style wore thin with players. Former general manager Jerry Reese, on duty for most of Manning’s tenure, had an eye for top-line talent — Odell Beckham Jr., Landon Collins and Jason Pierre-Paul arrived on his watch — but Reese struggled to fill out the Giants with impact contributors from the later rounds.
It all began to spiral with Coughlin’s departure, and it cratered in 2017 when former head coach Ben McAdoo benched Manning in favor of Geno Smith. The move halted Manning’s streak of 210 straight starts, but more importantly, it seemed to have no basis in reality. McAdoo got the boot, but the institutional rot remained, and since then it’s grown only worse.
It’s now reached the point that Ron Rivera — the consensus best choice for head coach among the retreads on the market — is apparently willingly choosing the Redskins, of all teams, over the Giants.
Play backup for this organization, now? Manning might just be getting out while the getting’s good.
Should Eli have shown more fire?
Maybe Manning needed to rip an underperforming teammate a new one on live TV. (He certainly had a wealth of choices.) Maybe he needed to offer up more pithy T-shirt-worthy quotes, or treat the media with the same barely disguised disdain that Brady does. Instead, he spent 15 years being the chill guy at the bachelor party, keeping everything calm and running smooth while chaos swirled elsewhere.
And he did so while getting ripped by his own teammates; Tiki Barber once called Manning’s attempts to lead the offense “comical,” and Beckham called his quarterbacking style “pretty safe.” The media dogpiled Manning from the jump for the crime of not being Peyton. Fans turned “Manning Face” into a meme before the word even existed.
This isn’t scolding from on high. Manning’s made more money than any player in NFL history. Plus, it’s worth remembering that Manning didn’t exactly help his own case, his tendency to throw picks at the worst possible time infuriating even the most bleed-blue Giant fans. Manning’s stats are a measure more of longevity than artistry; he ranks seventh all-time in both passing yardage and passing touchdowns. (He’s also the active leader in interceptions.) He was named to only four Pro Bowls, and never won All-Pro status.
None of that matters for one simple reason: he’s got two of the most important honors in the NFL. He’ll make the Hall of Fame one day — no, we’re not opening that debate again — on the basis of those two Super Bowl victories. In both, he succeeded against all odds and predictions, dragging New York to victories no one expected then and no one will see again anytime soon.
When Manning finally hangs up his cleats, whether in two days or two years, the Giants ought to build a statue in his honor. And you know exactly what kind of expression it would have.
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