SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Given how well he played under such difficult circumstances, Eli Manning had a curious choice of words as he described the feelings of accomplishment and relief after Monday night’s 27-23 comeback win over the 49ers.
Manning seemed to pull back the curtain on his emotions just a bit more than usual after orchestrating his 36th game-winning drive. He joked about receiving a text from his wife after the game, a message he clearly enjoyed but said he “can’t repeat” at the start of his postgame news conference. And he talked about the challenges of going through a losing season and being one of the main reasons for the Giants’ 2-7 record.
“Wins are important, and wins mean a lot, especially after the season and what we’ve had to go through as a team and what I’ve had to go through and the questions and this and that,” Manning said.
Even acknowledging that he has been the subject of questions – questions about his long-term viability as the Giants’ starter – was a departure for Manning, who usually shrugs off even the hint of speculation about his future. He certainly doesn’t let on that it bothers him, but that seemed to change this time. And then came the line that makes you realize that for all the good will he created by throwing three touchdown passes – including the winning score to Sterling Shepard with 53 seconds to play – there is a limit to how long the euphoria might last.
“Just to be able to have a two-minute drive to win a football game,” he said. “Hopefully, we can just focus on some positive things for at least one more week.”
At least one more week.
An interesting phrase, to be sure. And a revealing one, too.
Manning understands there is no permanence in the NFL from one week to the next, even for players who have built a Hall of Fame-caliber resume over nearly 15 seasons. It was almost a year ago when Manning's remarkable streak of starts – dating all the way to his rookie season in 2004 – was snapped because Ben McAdoo wanted to get a look at what he had behind Manning.
Manning had the chance to keep the streak alive, but only if he agreed to be removed during a game against the Raiders. Rather than experience the humiliation of being benched for journeyman Geno Smith at halftime, Manning said it was best for all concerned if McAdoo went the entire game with Smith. The botched handling of the episode set off a chain of events that quickly resulted in the firing of McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese.
While Manning came out of the fiasco with his reputation intact and perhaps even enhanced because he came across as a sympathetic figure, it was not lost on him that his unquestioned hold on the job had been shaken. And shaken badly.
As much as Manning has built a reputation for keeping his head about himself and not letting the noise in, his brief expression of vulnerability Monday night made you understand that he absolutely understands his situation. Hoping to focus on “some positive things for at least one more week” is a whole lot different than showing the kind of optimism that Monday’s game might represent a new beginning of sorts.
I’ve often used the phrase “relentlessly optimistic” to describe Manning’s psyche, and he has shown time and again through his power of positive thinking that he has been unruffled by any and all criticism directed his way. But Manning is smart enough to realize that Pat Shurmur’s unwillingness to promise his quarterback anything beyond the chance to start against the 49ers was the clearest indication yet of his perilous position.
But as he has done so often throughout his career, Manning responded when it was least expected. He has made a career of pulling off upsets, exemplified by his two Super Bowl MVP performances against the Patriots. So Monday’s performance might not have been all that surprising, given his history.
He knows, however, that the future is no longer open-ended, that the Giants eventually will move on from him. He bought himself at least a week, but if the offense can’t build on the fine work from Monday night, and if Manning cannot summon the kind of play he put forth against a struggling 49ers team, then Shurmur will want to get a look at what he has in rookie Kyle Lauletta or backup Alex Tanney.
With general manager Dave Gettleman and a full contingent of the Giants front-office personnel scouting Oregon blue-chip quarterback Justin Herbert on Saturday, the search is most assuredly on for Manning’s heir apparent.
Manning knows time is running out, and that the only way to hold off what appears to be the inevitable change is to produce more of the magic he showed Monday night.