There will be no walking off into his NFL sunset after winning a Super Bowl — the ultimate career finish enjoyed by only a handful of NFL players, including his older brother Peyton. But for Eli Manning, this was about as close to the perfect conclusion to a mostly terrific career as the greatest quarterback in Giants history as he could have hoped for.
The Giants are about to finish with one of the worst records in football, and the player who delivered two Super Bowl championships and fashioned a potential Hall of Fame resume no longer is a part of their future. But for one splendid afternoon at MetLife Stadium, he enjoyed the kind of emotional sendoff that gave more than 70,000 fans the chance to say a proper goodbye.
Best of all, he walked off the field, perhaps for the final time as the Giants’ starter, with a victory.
Which is what it always has been about for Manning.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen going forward,” he said after the Giants beat the Dolphins, 36-20, on Sunday afternoon. “My focus was just getting this win, play well, get into a rhythm and put the team in a situation to have this feeling. It’s still the feeling of winning in the locker room with your teammates after a hard-earned game to get the ‘W’ is the best feeling.”
This had all the trappings of a career finale, the kind of sendoff that only the great ones get to enjoy.
The fans stood and applauded when he came onto the field for the first time. They chanted his name at various points in the game, more than they had in years. Maybe ever.
And when Pat Shurmur picked just the right moment to take Manning off the field — with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter — to allow the fans to give one more opportunity for a full-throated appreciation, they stood. They roared.
Manning’s reddened eyes glistened as he acknowledged the cheers and greeted his teammates with handshakes and hugs. He doesn’t like to be the center of attention, and there was some weirdness to the moment. But Manning knows this will be remembered as one of the most special times of his life.
“The fans and the chants and the awkward feeling of standing on the sidelines, circled around me, everybody looking at me, staring at me and a camera on me and not feeling very comfortable in that circumstances,” Manning said. “Just getting taken out in the fourth [quarter] and having all my teammates come up to me and say something. You appreciate all those guys and everything they’ve done in getting this win.”
He brought his family onto the field — wife Abby and their four children — for a picture to memorialize the moment. His father, former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, and mother, Olivia, watched from a suite during the game.
“It’s special that my kids get to come and watch some games,” said Eli, who threw for 288 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. “I don’t remember my dad playing at all. My brothers had memories, they always talked about the locker room and games, but I don’t remember. So I try to bring my kids around. My son [who was born last February] won’t remember any of it, but at least I’ll have a picture to show him one day.”
So many emotions. So many memories. And all on a day when Manning not only was able to summon some of his best football but saw that there are plays he no longer can make that tell him it’s time.
Two of his interceptions were brutal, and if not for the Dolphins’ ineptitude, they might have cost the Giants a chance to stop their losing streak at a franchise record-tying nine games.
Manning got his chance to say goodbye, and at least it comes after a win.
“It’s very important,” an emotional John Mara, the Giants’ president and co-owner, said after sharing a moment with his quarterback and leaving the locker room. “You want to see him go out — if, in fact, he is going out. You are making an assumption here. It was just nice to see him smile in the locker room.”
Manning smiled at the win. He smiled at the chance to go out with dignity, even if he couldn’t go out on top.
One last moment for the best quarterback the Giants have ever known. The quarterback who gave them everything he had.