If this is to be Eli Manning’s final time walking onto the field as the Giants’ starter for a season-opening game, the 38-year-old quarterback insists he is not thinking about it to any great degree. Nor is he entertaining many nostalgic thoughts about what might be the final phase of his 16-year career.
But Manning, who is famously impervious to the outside noise and any other non-football factor that might impact his preparation, is at least mindful of the reality that this could be it. And that he understands just how special this has all been for a man who is the first player in franchise history to make it to a 16th season.
“As you get into your later years, you’re always grateful for the opportunity that you’re still playing football, that you’re still part of a team, part of something special, a great organization,” Manning said Wednesday as the Giants continued preparations for Sunday’s opener against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium outside Dallas. “You’re always appreciative of the circumstance, and as you get older, you appreciate it more.”
That’s about as close to wistfulness as Manning will allow as he gets ready to face the Cowboys on the road for what could very well be the last time. With No. 6 overall pick Daniel Jones now in the equation, it’s only a matter of time before Manning is asked – or told – that he’s no longer needed as the starter.
But he does take pride in the fact that he has made it this far, farther than anyone else in franchise history. Manning will surpass Giants legends Michael Strahan, Phil Simms and Mel Hein, all of whom played 15 years before leaving the team.
“I didn’t know that until someone mentioned it,” Manning said. “I guess it is something to be proud. I’m just blessed to be with this organization, and no one has enjoyed playing with this organization more than I have. I’m appreciative of it.”
He has won two Super Bowl MVP trophies and put together a resume that might one day get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But time catches up to everyone sooner or later, and Manning knows he’s in the fight of his life to keep the job and hold off Jones, who looked terrific in the preseason and will no doubt be called upon if Manning does not play well enough.
That said, Manning isn’t obsessed by Jones’ presence, nor is his prime source of motivation to keep the rookie on the bench.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily a concern,” Manning said when asked he will feel pushed more because of Jones’ presence. “You’re pushed to succeed always. You prepare to win football games. You want to do it for all the guys in this locker room, and coaches and the organization and fans and everybody that puts so much into having a great year. That’s what pushes you more than who is on your team.”
Manning is unapologetically optimistic heading into the season, as he is every year, regardless of the roster surrounding him. And despite the consensus from outside the locker room that the Giants simply don’t have enough talented players to compete in the NFC East, Manning believes there is more than enough to work with – starting with All Pro running back Saquon Barkley and a veteran offensive line that has been significantly upgraded during the offseason.
“I think the offensive line is strong,” he said, when asked to compare this year’s line to last season’s less experienced group. “That first year going into a new offense with a lot of new guys can take a little time getting on the same page. Unfortunately, you’ve got to have some mistakes before you fix them. Now, with a more experienced group that has played together, a lot of the questions have already been answered.”
Offensive line upgrade aside, there are still plenty of doubters out there, many of whom believe Manning’s time is almost up. Do those skeptics motivate Manning to prove them wrong?
“There’s always something special in that, but we have a long season to do that.”
A long season indeed.
How long that season lasts for Manning remains to be seen.