Eli Manning knows it’s coming.
With every incompletion. With every interception. With every sack.
The scrutiny will be more intense now than it’s ever been in his previous 15 seasons as the Giants’ starting quarterback. The dynamic has shifted profoundly now that Daniel Jones is here and will lurk in the shadows until the day comes when it’s his turn to replace Manning.
When that day will come, no one truly knows. But it’s coming. And Manning knows it. He insists there is no extra emphasis on his preparation; he has been one of the NFL’s hardest-working players since coming into the league in 2004. But he understands, just as then Giants QB Kurt Warner understood that first season of Manning’s career that the torch will be passed.
“The biggest challenge your leash is always short,” Warner said of Manning’s situation in a recent interview. “Are you performing at a certain level every single week? Any time you slip up, no matter how good you’ve been, it’s an opportunity for everybody to sit back and go, ‘Is it time? Is he hitting the wall?’ ”
I relayed those comments to Manning a few minutes after Wednesday’s minicamp practice, and he knew exactly what Warner was talking about.
“I think that’ll come,” he said of the increased pressure. “Just knowing that all of a sudden, you have struggles, things can change.”
There has never been a serious threat to Manning’s job security, never a veteran presence or a highly rated young quarterback to take over. The one and only time he didn’t start — late in the 2017 season — was a miserably handled decision by soon-to-be-fired coach Ben McAdoo, and Geno Smith wasn’t about to take over on a long-term basis.
But this time is clearly different, and Jones is clearly the team’s quarterback of the future. Everyone knows it, including the 38-year-old Manning, who will nevertheless try to prepare the same way he has throughout his career.
“I don’t think you can stress that,” he said. “You got to go out there. I’m going to do my best every time I’m at practice and every time at the games and hope that’s enough for us to win the games.”
Does he need to prepare psychologically for what lies ahead?
“I think it’s still kind of a situation where you have to have the same approach you’ve treated all the other years and just kind of hope for the best.”
The 38-year-old Manning remains highly motivated, but not simply to fend off Father Time and keep Jones at bay for as long as he can. No, that’s not the point for one of the game’s great competitors and a two-time Super Bowl MVP.
“You’re driven just because it’s football and you’ve got a job to do and you want to win games,” he said. “That’s what drives you, going out and winning. You work hard to do that, and you deserve to win games and continue to win games. That’s what’s driving you to compete every day in practice.”
Wednesday’s practice was exactly what you want to see from Manning and Jones. After an uneven session the day before, both quarterbacks were on point, with only a handful of incompletions among them. That’s the best-case scenario, where Manning looks sharp and Jones continues to learn the offense.
“I see improvement from [Jones] every day,” coach Pat Shurmur said after practice. “He displays to me that he gets it and he’s becoming more and more comfortable with what we’re doing offensively. He’s making plays in every practice, and in our view, he’s getting better in every practice.”
Shurmur will be the one to make the call on when it’s time for Jones to take over, and Manning will do everything in his power to delay that decision as long as possible. But the only way that happens is if Manning plays at a high enough level to remain the starter.
“Mindset is, ‘Hey, I have to do my job. I have to compete and make plays,’ ” Manning said. “That is what you’re trying to do.”
Manning’s mission: Making it impossible for Shurmur to take him out of the lineup.
As Warner found out, and as Manning may eventually discover, nothing is guaranteed.