I have never been around a better professional than Eli Manning.
Great player with a Hall of Fame-caliber resume. Unbelievably devoted teammate who never — ever — criticized anyone in his locker room. Exceptional ambassador for the game. A willing face of the franchise who never found it too burdensome to carry the weight of expectations.
He produced iconic moments that will go down as some of the most important in Giants history. The only quarterback to beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady twice in a Super Bowl. The breathtaking passes to David Tyree and Mario Manningham that keyed those wins. The win over Brett Favre at Lambeau Field in the 2007 NFC Championship. The battering he took in San Francisco in the 2011 NFC title game that he survived and won. Two magnificent playoff runs he dominated with his arm.
Manning set the standard for the Giants as Derek Jeter did for the Yankees. He led by example, never flinched from his responsibilities on and off the field, always accepted blame for mistakes and never blamed anyone else for theirs.
It is a different role for Manning now, one he had hoped to avoid in this, his 16th NFL season, but one he understands had to happen. Coach Pat Shurmur went with his gut feeling and took the ball away from Manning and gave it to Daniel Jones in hopes of breathing life into an 0-2 team. Manning may end up playing again, but only in the event of injury or prolonged and irreparable and sustained ineffectiveness by Jones.
Manning accepted his fate with the kind of professionalism and maturity that have been hallmarks of his career as much as any of his passes. And he also offered his inimitable sense of perspective.
Someone asked the quarterback at his locker, “Is this the end of Eli Manning, or is this another phase?” To which Manning replied, “I’m not dying, and the season’s not over. There’s a lot to be positive about, a lot to be grateful for. I just have to accept my new role and make the best of it.”
Manning is understandably disappointed, and probably more than a little angry at the decision, although he didn’t publicly express any outward resentment. But he handled it as diplomatically and as deftly as the great teammate he has been all these years.
“I didn’t know how everything was going to shake out this year,” he said. “You just know when you draft a young quarterback, there’s a possibility [of not playing] if things don’t go well. We didn’t start fast, and that’s the situation we’re in now.”
Manning made it clear he will not be a distraction for the newly anointed Jones, the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft. And he will do everything possible to help the young quarterback.
“I’ve been trying to help him every which way I could throughout the preseason and training camp,” Manning said. “Now, [I will] still do that and support him, answer his questions, if he has any. Don’t get him thinking too much. Just give him the information I’ve learned over 15 years that I think he can use.”
He wants Giants fans to embrace Jones.
“Be great fans and support the team and whoever is in there,” he said. “Daniel will do a great job. He’s worked hard and handled the situation well.”
It is certainly an awkward situation for Manning, although he did get some sense of what this might be like when Ben McAdoo sat him in favor of Geno Smith late in the 2017 season. But that benching lasted only a week; this one’s permanent, unless something happens to Jones.
“I’m just taking this day by day, so just trying to figure out how to run the scout team, now that’s my No. 1 objective of today,” he said. “I thought I did pretty well.”
And what about Manning’s future?
“I’ll get into futures later on,” he said. “Right now, my future is I’m the second-string quarterback for the Giants and I’ve got to get myself ready to play and do whatever I’m called upon to help out the rest of my teammates.”
My sense on Manning’s future: Barring a change of heart, he’ll remain with the team through the end of the season and retire. That may change if it becomes clear another team is interested in him and he waives his no-trade clause. But I know that it’s important to Manning that he finishes his career with the same team he started.
In the meantime, he’ll deal with his situation with the kind of attitude and perspective that have made him such a beloved figure within the organization.
“Everybody has different stages to it, and I think you handle all of them the same way you handle wins, losses,” he said. “The only thing you can control is your attitude and your decisions you make and the mindset you have going into it.”
It is a mindset that has benefited the Giants for so many years. The wins are not there, and at 38, he’s not the same quarterback he once was. But he’s still the consummate professional, even in this, the final stage of his athletic life.