Eli Manning has had a bad season, but he's not done yet
The smile that flashed across Eli Manning's face -- and there wasn't a trace of disingenuousness about it -- was somewhat jarring, considering it came only three days after the worst statistical performance of his 10 NFL seasons.
But there he was in the Giants' locker room -- just a few minutes after his first practice since throwing a career-worst five interceptions in a 23-0 home loss to the Seahawks -- with an expression more befitting of his two Super Bowl MVP performances than what might have been the low point of his career.
"I had a good day, had a good practice. We did good stuff," Manning said as he stood by his locker, wearing his usual midweek attire -- fleece-lined sweater over a button-down shirt and a pair of jeans. "Players are enthused. We've got some young guys who are practicing, they're excited about playing, and it gets you excited. You have some guys that have a chance to play and you want them to do well. Maybe it's the spark that we need."
Searching for a spark? Seriously? If you didn't know any better, you'd think the Giants were going into Sunday's game against the Lions with a chance to reach the playoffs.
Instead, the Giants are nearing the end of their worst season since Manning's rookie year in 2004 -- the only other time he was on the downside of .500.
But those who have been around Manning for any period of time know that the man is always searching for answers about what he can do to lift his game and help his team.
And although it is unsettling -- OK, downright alarming -- to see him match his career high of 25 interceptions a decade into his career, you understand that his relentlessness will never cease. Not as long as he still has another Sunday to prepare for -- even if it's a meaningless one as far as the standings and the playoffs are concerned. Such as the one Sunday in Detroit.
And what you also need to know about Manning is this: Even after suffering through one of the worst days of a career in which he has won more Super Bowl championships since 2007 than any other quarterback in today's NFL, he is just as eager to learn from the experience and put together a winning effort against the Lions as he would be if a third Super Bowl title were on the line. It's just the way he's wired. Manning has a great ability to put his last game behind him, regardless of whether that last game is a Super Bowl MVP performance or a clunker.
"I still love what I do," he said. "I love coming in on Tuesdays, you start watching film of Detroit and you get excited again. You see opportunities. You see chances. You know your offense, and you see we're going to have some shots. I'm already thinking of what plays we're going to be on. You come in on Wednesday, you get the [play] sheets. You see what they are, and you kind of know why they're in there.
"So I love that part, and you love competing," he said. "Obviously, you have days like last Sunday, and it's tough. Sometimes you ask, 'Why do I love this?' But you put it behind you and you move forward and [by] next week, you're back excited again. So that's the great part of it. Each week, you kind of get excited about the opportunities, you go compete and you play the game that you love."
We have seen this before with Manning. Unlike his older brother Peyton, whose regular- season performances seem to get better with time, Eli goes through these mystifying streaks in which you wonder how he won those two Super Bowls and whether the Giants can count on him getting back to that level. Especially now, as age begins to creep into the equation, with Manning turning 33 on Jan. 3.
But it would be just as wrong to assume that Manning's career trajectory has begun its descent, just as it was wrong to assume during earlier struggles that he was incapable of winning Super Bowls. That's when you need to remember what's inside his head and inside his heart, because there are no outward indications yet of a physical decline. Sunday's game will be his 150th straight start, the second-longest active streak behind Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who has announced his plans to retire at season's end.
Manning isn't the first championship quarterback to experience problems like this. Remember when Brett Favre threw 29 interceptions with the Packers in 2005, a stat that prompted plenty of people to wonder if he was done at 36? Favre had one of his best seasons in 2007 and wound up losing to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game. He went to another NFC Championship Game with the Vikings after the 2009 regular season.
Kurt Warner was released by the Rams at 32. He played for the Giants before being replaced by Manning and then led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl at 37.
Phil Simms, who got hurt in 1990 and was a backup the next two seasons, had one of his best seasons the year he turned 39.
Manning is not near the end.
And don't forget the factors he couldn't control this season. His offensive line has been battered by injuries. Same with the running backs. Hakeem Nicks has been either injured or ineffective. Now Victor Cruz is done for the season.
Still, Manning puts it mostly on himself.
"In this game, there's always growing pains," he said. "You have to adapt and so I've had some bad breaks and I think -- I know -- I can bounce out of it and come back. I'm not going to lose my confidence. You want to fix it. You hope there's a quick fix, but there's not definitely one. You just have to get back to work, got to keep grinding and obviously, this offseason, you're going to look at it closely and see if there are any common trends of what some of the problems were from an offensive standpoint. What do we need to do to fix it and make those improvements?"
He's already at work trying to find the solutions, even as the Giants' failed season winds down.
It's what he does. It's who he is.