Game Preview: New York Giants at Oakland Raiders, December 3, 2017
The Eli Manning era began on November 21, 2004 with a 10-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. It ended on Thanksgiving night on November 23, 2017 with a 10-20 loss to the Washington Redskins. In between came 210 consecutive starts (second most in NFL history), four Pro Bowls, an 8-4 playoff record, two miraculous playoff runs, two Super Bowl MVP awards, and – most importantly – two Super Bowl trophies. In the end, Eli will be leaving the Giants owning just about every meaningful record a quarterback can hold for the 93-year old franchise, including over 50,000 yards passing and 334 touchdown passes. There were also 40 game-winning 4th-quarter drives in the regular and post-season.
This transition was inevitable. Father time waits for no one. And unless there was going to be a Michael Strahan-like Cinderella finish with Eli walking away on his own terms with a third Super Bowl trophy, the ending was always going to be less than ideal.
It is important to remember where the Giants were in April 2004. Since the departure of Bill Parcells early in 1991, the franchise had been adrift. While the team teased with an unanticipated Super Bowl appearance in 2000, the New York Giants appeared to be treading water as they just fired their third coach in a row after a disastrous 2003 season. The conservative Giants stunned the NFL that April doing something they never do – they traded away two #1 picks for the goofy kid from the University of Mississippi. At the time, it smelled like a desperate roll of the dice. And the early returns were not good. During his rookie season, the quarterback with the permanently-boyish face actually finished a game with a 0.0 quarterback rating. Manning may have hit rock bottom in November 2007 after a 4-interception, 3-pick-6 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Fans rapidly became annoyed with the lack of visible emotion and the shoulder shrugs after each bad play. The Giants appeared to have made a huge mistake.
Then came the still-unreal playoff run in 2007. And the second one in 2011. 8-0, beating the NFC’s #1 and #2 seeds on their respective home turfs. Twice. And beating the unbeatable AFC #1 seed Patriots. Twice. And wrecking the inevitable “perfect season” in the process. In each of those runs, Manning was THE key figure. He became a new quarterback in January 2008 when he efficiently sliced his way through an outstanding Tampa Bay defense. A week later he calmly changed the complexion of the entire game by marching the Giants down the field with pinpoint passing for a touchdown right before halftime in Dallas. Then came perhaps his best game, the -24 degree wind chill, NFC Championship in Green Bay where he clearly out-dueled legendary Brett Favre. Two memorable 4th quarter touchdown drives against Bill Belichick’s defense, including what NFL Films guru Steve Sabol labeled as the “greatest play in NFL history” resulted in Super Bowl trophy #1 and perhaps the greatest upset in sports history next to the “Miracle on Ice.” Eli had pulled it off. He had done it. And we caught a rare glimpse of emotion from him as he fought to hold back the tears.
The Giants were even stronger in 2008 but injuries and the Plaxico Burress shooting incident sabotaged what could have been another run. Then in 2011, Eli had his career-season. Encumbered with a bottom-ranked defense and running game, and a once-venerable offensive line that was eroding fast, Manning literally carried the team to the playoffs with six 4th-quarter regular-season comeback victories, and then two more in the post-season. He blew the game open late against the Falcons. He out-dueled the 15-1 Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. He was never tougher despite getting the crap kicked out of him against the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. And his late-game beyond-perfect pass to Mario Manningham in the Super Bowl was the dagger that resulted in Super Bowl trophy #2.
In January 2011, Eli Manning was still only 31 years old. A young 31 who was coming off a league MVP-like season. He had an 8-3 record in 11 playoff games. In hindsight, that was the pinnacle of his career. While the reasons vary, his play noticeably declined in subsequent years with an ironic uptick in 2014-15 when Ben McAdoo became offensive coordinator. The overriding sense is that team management screwed the pooch by not surrounding Eli with enough talent on offense, defense, and special teams from 2012-2017. Six years wasted. An offensive line in permanent shambles. A finesse offense that couldn’t pick up an inch in short-yardage. Last-place defenses that couldn’t hold a 4th-quarter lead. Inevitable and catastrophic special teams breakdowns. An injury-plagued and riddled roster year after year. Bad coaching hires, particularly on defense – remember Bill Sheridan and Perry Fewell? When all is said and done, Eli only played in 12 playoff games.
Quarterback is the most important position on every NFL team. And the Giants have been 41-50 in the regular season since their last Super Bowl. Eli has been a victim of his team’s roster, but he also hasn’t played like a $20+ million per season quarterback. Perhaps the same inner passion and hunger has dissipated with success and time. He has a family now and priorities become different. Perhaps the skills have eroded enough to make subtle but meaningful difference. But 2011 is long gone and Eli can no longer carry a team.
Let’s go back to April 2004 again. If you were asked at the time if you would give up two #1 picks for a quarterback who would pass for 50,000 yards in his career and win two Super Bowls, you would gladly accept that in a heartbeat. Regardless of how it began or ended, Eli Manning’s career was a tremendous success. He IS the most successful quarterback in team history. And in an era of douchebag assholes permeating the league, he was a class act through and through. New York Giants fans are PROUD that he was our quarterback.
The most alarming aspect of this week was not that Eli Manning was benched, but how the transition was handled. Geno Smith is not the future of this team. It’s either Davis Webb or a yet-to-be-drafted quarterback. The Giants season ended in September. In October, Davis Webb should have been bumped up to the #2 spot. Not in case Eli got hurt, but simply to give Webb the extremely limited #2 quarterback practice snaps. Webb isn’t ready to play. He hardly had any snaps in training camp, barely played in the preseason, and has hardly thrown the ball in practice since the season started. When and if he plays late this year, it won’t be pretty. Success comes with preparation and Webb has had none. And now fans in a foul mood are ready to jump on him when he struggles.
Beyond that, the optics of Eli’s benching are horrific. John Mara spoke to Eli after the announcement, not before. You don’t do that. Not to the face of the franchise for the past 14 years (or 15 percent of its entire 93-year history). If Mara had previous commitments, you cancel them. Or you postpone this move. And you don’t have Eli answer questions in the locker room with a bunch of clueless fucking teammates yucking it up in the background while he is struggling to fight back the tears. You hold a press conference. In the proper setting. With the owner, general manager, and coach explaining what hopefully is the real reason for this move – to get Webb some late season snaps. Because if this is about Geno Smith, and Geno Smith plays every snap in the five final games, then Giants’ ownership/management may be beyond redemption.
Ben McAdoo (aka Ray Handley 2.0) lost his job when San Francisco embarrassed the Giants. If you don’t think Mara is stupid, then this reeks of Mara throwing McAdoo further under the bus to justify his firing. (Which he really didn’t need to do given how the fan base already feels about the coaching staff). Perhaps this is a set up for a complete house-cleaning. We’ll see. But I don’t trust Mara’s public statements. And the competency of ownership/management and the team structure that has existed since 1979 is now very much in question as the Giants have rapidly turned into the Cleveland Browns. (Keep in mind, these guys hired Ben McAdoo in the first place).
The best general manager the Giants have ever had was the 1980’s edition of George Young, who unfortunately was at a loss in dealing with the salary cap and the new NFL in the 1990’s. Ernie Accorsi, his hand-picked successor, was not the same caliber. But he clearly was a better GM than Jerry Reese, who doesn’t seem to understand how to put together an offensive line or linebacking corps. In hindsight, what we’ve learned is how important Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning were to the franchise in their respective primes. As various parts came and went, they held this mess together and somehow willed the team to two more NFL titles.
As Matt in SGS has adeptly pointed out, what this move does do is clear the way for the new coaching staff in 2018. The new coach won’t have to deal with the public relations nightmare of being the one who dumped Eli Manning. He’ll get to start from scratch. By botching this so badly, the Giants have most likely burned any bridge that Manning could come back in 2018 under a new regime. And the Machiavellian in me thinks that may have been intentional. The only way I see Eli sticking around is if the Giants hire a coach with an exceptionally strong persona who demands that Eli return to mentor the new QB for one more year. But that’s not likely.
So if this is it, Eli, we thank you. You never complained. You never threw anyone under the bus. You worked your tail off each and every year, organizing unofficial passing camps, conducting private post-practice film sessions. There was never any visible ego involved in your game, no “look at me” narcissism. While we wish you had more on-the-field success, the highs were so high that expecting and wanting more may have been too greedy on our part. Decades from now, fans will look back in wonderment at the two playoff runs, shake their heads, and just say, “Wow!”