There haven’t been many opportunities for Giants fans to directly express their gratitude for all that Eli Manning has given them in the last 14 seasons. But there almost surely will be a moment to give thanks early in Sunday’s game against the Cowboys when Manning rightfully returns to his role as the Giants’ starter after a tumultuous two weeks.
That moment most likely will arrive as Manning trots out onto the field for his first series. The MetLife Stadium crowd is almost certain to give Manning a standing ovation befitting a two-time Super Bowl MVP who may be nearing the end of his time with the only franchise he’s ever known.
Manning offers an aw-shucks expression and digs his hands into his pockets when he’s asked about what it would be like to hear that kind of ovation — especially after all that’s gone down since coach Ben McAdoo’s ill-fated plan to give Geno Smith some playing time backfired spectacularly and eventually cost McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese their jobs.
In typical self-deprecating fashion, Manning acknowledges the possibility that this could be a special time for fans to commemorate his career.
“I’m not looking for any extra attention,” he said, “but if they want to cheer, I always appreciate cheers. Better than boos.”
Will Manning show some appreciation of his own if the fans stand and cheer? Will he wave in acknowledgment?
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe. We’ll see.”
What an enchanting piece of sports history it would be — the Giants’ iron-man quarterback, who had started 210 straight games before Smith started last week’s game against the Raiders, waving to fans welcoming him back as their own. Even if this turns out to be the final month of his run with the Giants.
His future may be uncertain, especially with the Giants in position to draft Manning’s heir apparent, but he at least will get the chance to finish what he started and go out with the dignity and appreciation to which he’s entitled.
It still is difficult for Manning to process all that has happened, mostly because he didn’t see it coming. Even though the Giants had fallen to 2-9 with Manning at quarterback, when team owner John Mara suggested to McAdoo and Reese that it was time to at least get a look at Smith and rookie Davis Webb, Manning was unprepared for having his job taken from him.
“This is all I know is playing for the New York Giants, and I’ve never wished to change that,” he said. “I appreciate everything the Giants’ organization has done for me, and you have so much family in this building. From the Mara family, the Tisch family, people in the equipment room and the film room, the training room. I’ve known a lot of these people for 14 years and grew up around them. So this is all I know. Hey, I’m going to finish out this season and then I’m sure there’ll be a discussion with the organization to figure out what’s the plan going forward.”
That discussion will be for another day, and it will be brutally honest. The Giants will be getting a new coach, a new GM and a new direction, and Manning might not be a part of the plan. The Giants certainly haven’t eliminated the possibility that he’ll be back, and if they assure him that he will go into the 2018 season as the starter, perhaps he can be persuaded to stay at least another season.
But there also is the possibility that, given the rare opportunity of having a top pick in the draft — right now, the Giants have the second overall choice behind Cleveland — the team will look at a blue-chip prospect and anoint him the quarterback of the future. Manning theoretically could stay to be a mentor to a young quarterback, but he made it clear he’s not interested in simply being a placeholder.
He need only think back to the year he was drafted to know that scenario would be problematic. At the time the Giants selected Manning, Kerry Collins was the incumbent starter, and then-general manager Ernie Accorsi looked forward to the prospect of Collins helping Manning find his way.
Collins wasn’t interested and demanded his release, eventually finding another starting job with the Raiders.
Manning sounds as if he’d feel the same way if the Giants drafted a first-round quarterback.
“I want to play,” he said. “I want to play quarterback. I want to be a starting quarterback. I want to be the starting quarterback next year. After the season, I’m sure I’ll sit down with John Mara or whoever the new GM is or whoever the new head coach is and see if I’m in their plan. If I’m not, then I think I got a lot of good football in me. I don’t want to leave the Giants. I appreciate and love the New York Giants. I love my job. I love playing quarterback for the Giants. I don’t wish to go anywhere else, but we’ll see. I want to play.”
He will have opportunities to play if it doesn’t work out for the Giants. In fact, his best fit could be with the coach who shepherded him through most of his career and helped him win two Super Bowl titles. Tom Coughlin is the director of football operations in Jacksonville, and his Jaguars might be a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender. It makes all the sense in the world that he’d have an interest in reuniting with Manning, especially if the Giants draft another quarterback.
If that happens, good for Eli. He deserves to be with a team that’s close to winning another championship — just as older brother Peyton was with the Broncos after the Colts released him.
Eli had hoped he’d be able to finish his career with the Giants, but he understands you don’t always get to live out those dreams.
That’s what makes his return to the starting lineup all the more meaningful. He could be making his final farewells to the fans he has adored — and who have adored him — during a special run as the Giants’ greatest quarterback ever.