Last Monday marked the 12th anniversary of Eli Manning’s first NFL start, a further reminder of just how fortunate the Giants have been that Manning has started each and every game since then — 204 in all, including playoffs.
For the Browns, who face Manning and the Giants on Sunday in Cleveland, it is yet another painful symbol of just how futile their search has been for a franchise quarterback. Since Manning made that first start against the Falcons on Nov. 21, 2004, at Giants Stadium, the Browns have had 22 different starting quarterbacks.
“It’s amazing. It is truly a luxury,” Giants receiver Victor Cruz said of his team’s good fortune with Manning. “You look around the league and you see how many quarterbacks go in and out of this game, and to have one that has won championships here and has a high football IQ and understands everything that is going on, that is something I never want to take for granted.”
Manning, the No. 1 overall pick, came to the Giants in a draft-day trade that sent Philip Rivers, whom the Giants had taken with the fourth overall pick, to San Diego. There is not a scintilla of regret about the deal, not with Manning having won two Super Bowl titles and started the third most consecutive games by a quarterback in NFL history. Only Brett Favre, who started 321 straight games for the Packers, Jets and Vikings, and Eli’s older brother Peyton, who started 227 straight for the Colts before suffering a neck injury, have produced longer streaks.
“I feel very fortunate to be with this organization that loves football and has a great fan base,” said Manning, who will turn 36 on Jan. 3. “Every day to play, 12 going on 13 years, I try not to take it for granted and take any game of the season or any day for granted. Just appreciate that opportunity to go out there each Sunday with my teammates and try and win a football game.”
If only the Browns could experience such a luxury. Instead, since football came back to Cleveland in 1999, they have spent nearly two decades looking for the answer at quarterback. They have had 26 different starting quarterbacks since then, and none has proved to be the answer. And the regret may be even more painful after the team passed on a chance to draft Carson Wentz with the second overall selection last April, instead trading the pick to the Eagles.
Josh McCown will get the start against the Giants, the Browns’ third different starter this season. They had hoped that former Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III would be the answer, but Griffin suffered a shoulder injury in the very first game of the season, a 29-10 loss to Philadelphia. The starter for the Eagles: Wentz.
The Browns still haven’t won a game this season, and first-year coach Hue Jackson can only marvel at the kind of fortune the Giants have had over the years with Manning.
“That’s the way we hope to have it here someday in the near future,” Jackson said. “You want a guy that you know is going to be dependable and is going to be out there every snap. I think it gives your team confidence and they know this guy’s going to be there every step of the way. Kudos to the Giants for having a franchise quarterback on their team, and we hope to have one here soon.”
Jackson thinks Manning is as good a quarterback now as he ever was.
“I think he’s playing extremely well,” he said. “He’s one of the reasons that they have the record that they have at 7-3. We’re talking about a guy who’s a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, who’s won a lot of games in his career and started a lot of games, so he knows how to play. I think his team also knows how to play with him, and I think that’s really important.”
Giants first-year coach Ben McAdoo understands how fortunate he is to have Manning.
“Eli is always steady,” said McAdoo, the Giants’ offensive coordinator in 2014-15 before taking over as head coach this year. “That’s the great part about this job. There’s not a lot of franchise quarterbacks out there, one who is as steady as Eli and always prepares at a high level.”
It has been an up-and-down season for Manning, who has thrown for 2,708 yards, 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. There have been flashes of his championship form, such as his three-touchdown performance in the regular-season opener against the Cowboys. But there have been some struggles, too, including his inability to more easily close out recent wins over the Bears and Bengals. In fact, all the Giants’ wins have been by seven or fewer points.
Manning leans toward the positive with that stat, though.
“We’re winning close games, and that’s what you have to do in this league,” he said. “Those teams, win the close games and on the line, we tend to play our best football. That’s a good thing. That’s a great quality to have. You have a confidence that when you get in the fourth quarter and in these close games, we’re going to be able to pull it out.”
If the Giants do take care of business against the Browns, they will be 8-3. But then comes what no doubt will be a season-defining series of games down the stretch. They’re at Pittsburgh, home to Dallas and Detroit, then at Philadelphia and Washington. That’s five straight games against teams that either are in first place or contending for playoff berths.
If the Giants do manage to reach the playoffs after that stretch, they will have earned their way into January. All Manning wants is a chance.
“We’re winning football games and doing some things well,” he said. “We just have to stay hungry and keep competing, keep working on getting better each and every week. We just have to stay the course. Definitely room for improvement. We’re not scoring — from an offensive standpoint, we can score more points. We can finish games a little bit better.”
As long as they have Manning, they have a chance. Just the way it’s been for most of the last 12 years.