The end of a magnificent sports career is never easy — not for the player, not for the coach making the decision about the player, and certainly not for fans who have come to celebrate an athlete who has delivered so many memorable moments.
From Joe Namath’s awkward final games in a Rams uniform to Willie Mays’ clumsy time with the Mets to Dan Marino’s swan song in a humiliating 62-7 playoff loss to the Jaguars in his last game as a Dolphin, the conclusion to a once-glorious career can be painful.
For Eli Manning, that day is fast approaching, if it hasn’t already arrived.
At 1-7 and unable to summon the kind of wherewithal that made him the greatest quarterback in Giants history, Manning may have played his final game for the Giants.
While coach Pat Shurmur said Monday that “Eli is our quarterback” a day after a desultory showing in a 20-13 loss to the Redskins, he offered no guarantees that he will remain the starter moving forward. When asked if Manning will start when the Giants return from their bye to face the 49ers in San Francisco in a Monday night game on Nov. 12, Shurmur said, “We’ll see.”
It was the first time this season that Shurmur did not offer unequivocal assurance that Manning wouldn’t be replaced by either rookie fourth-round pick Kyle Lauletta or journeyman Alex Tanney.
And with those two words — “we’ll see” — the Eli watch is on.
You knew this day would come at some point. The bell tolls for every great athlete, none of whom has ever beaten Father Time.
For Manning, the end may come at nearly the identical point in the season when it began. He was a rookie in 2004 when Tom Coughlin decided to transition from caretaker quarterback Kurt Warner after nine games. The Giants were 5-4 and still in playoff range, but Coughlin believed the time was right for Manning to take over.
Manning went 1-6 in those last seven games, throwing six touchdown passes and nine interceptions and looking mostly lost in coordinator John Hufnagel’s offense. But he put in the work under Coughlin’s steady hand and began to flourish after Kevin Gilbride took over the play-calling, growing into a Super Bowl champion and MVP after the 2007 season.
Manning got the better of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in Super Bowl XLII, delivering one of the most memorable passes in NFL history on the way to upsetting the unbeaten Patriots. Four years later, he did it again, beating the Patriots in another classic upset.
Manning has broken every meaningful passing record in Giants history, has achieved career numbers in line with many of the NFL’s all-time greats, and has Hall of Fame credentials, as far as I’m concerned. In 15 seasons, he has carried himself with class and dignity, shouldering the burden of leadership without ever blaming a teammate or coach for anything that has gone wrong.
The Giants had hoped he would continue as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks, and first-year general manager Dave Gettleman had said he believed Manning had good years — that’s years, with an “s” — left as a top quarterback. But Manning has shown his age, in part because of the horrendous blocking supplied by one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines but also because he has slipped.
Shurmur left himself some wiggle room to keep Manning as his starter, but the coach also is mindful of the important business of figuring out what comes next, because Manning clearly is no longer part of the team’s future.
With the Giants headed for a high draft pick for a second straight year, drafting a quarterback now becomes paramount unless there is an unexpected long-term solution on the free-agent market.
Manning holds out hope that he will continue as the starter.
“I expect and want to be the starting quarterback until I’m told differently,” he said.
But he also said he’d step aside if asked.
“I’ve always been a team player,” he said. “I do what I’m told.”
Unfortunately for Manning, it might be time for Shurmur to tell him.