Eli Manning regrets a missed opportunity

Eli Manning addresses the media after cleaning out Eli Manning addresses the media after cleaning out his locker at the Timex Performance Center. (Dec. 31, 2012) Photo Credit: Errol Anderson

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.

Eli being Eli, there did not seem much chance of getting a heartfelt answer out of the Giants quarterback on the subject of his advancing football age, but why not give it a shot?

Lo and behold, it was evident that the topic indeed has crossed Manning's mind, what with his 32nd birthday looming Thursday and the Giants having squandered another season of his prime by blowing a playoff berth after a 6-2 start.

"Yeah, definitely, just because you know, obviously, as you get older, your seasons are becoming more limited,'' he said Monday as the Giants said their 2012 goodbyes less than 11 months after parading up Broadway.

"In my nine years here, I have seen talented teams and been on teams that weren't as talented and be able to get by with some things and win games. But we felt we have talent. We've got playmakers. We've got guys who get it, who understand what it takes to win and to play at a high level. To kind of waste that opportunity is disappointing.''

By Manning interview standards, that qualified as intense sharing, but it spoke to the real shame of the season past, even if the Giants qualify for a partial pass thanks to their recent Lombardi Trophy.

They have an elite -- there's that word again! -- quarterback heading into the backstretch of his peak years who now has not gotten a postseason shot in three of the past four Januarys.

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As teams around the NFL know, including the one that shares MetLife Stadium with the Giants, finding high-caliber quarterbacks is not easy, and every season with them is precious.

Throw in the fact that Manning's only pro head coach, Tom Coughlin, will turn 67 before coaching his next regular-season game and, well, let's just say if either man hopes to enhance his Hall of Fame resume, time is of the essence.

Like Manning, Coughlin has been around long enough to understand what many young players do not. Said Coughlin: "The opportunities these players have to take full advantage of their youth and their ability and literally the prime of their athletic lives. You just don't like to see that not happen for them.''

Coughlin plans to continue working -- "If they'll still have me'' -- but he said losses become increasingly difficult to handle with age. When someone asked a follow-up, he joked: "I'm not talking about me! I'm much too young for that.''

Manning's statistics were down from 2011 but generally in line with recent years; he finished with 26 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions, 3,948 yards, 59.9 percent completions and a passer rating of 87.2.

But that did not reflect his maddening ups and downs, part of a teamwide pattern. The setback that will haunt him most, he said, is the 17-16 loss to the Redskins on Dec. 3. Flip that result, and the Giants are NFC East champs.

"You hate to waste those opportunities,'' he said, "because you just don't know how many times you are ready to win a championship and have everything in place.''

Manning pronounced himself in fine physical condition after the long season, but that made elimination even more frustrating. "When you feel good, you wish you could keep going and extend the season,'' he said.

In addition to his own good health, Manning can draw encouragement from the family genes that have enabled his brother Peyton, 36, to storm back from a lost 2011 and have Denver seeded atop the AFC.

After Peyton watched Eli take the family lead in Super Bowl rings last winter, Eli plans to "watch my brother and the Broncos and be rooting for them to make a run.''

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You never know when chances like that will come around again, right?

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