Eli Manning may have lost his starting job after an era that began in 2004 and spanned 4,748 days, but he gained something he never expected.
Not until his job essentially was taken away from him did Manning realize all the good will he had built up over the years with teammates — mostly the ones he previously played alongside.
Manning started hearing from them as soon as they heard that Ben McAdoo would start Geno Smith and end the second-longest starting streak by an NFL quarterback at 210 games.
There were phone calls and texts, hundreds of them. They provided sustenance during the most difficult week of Manning’s 14-year career.
“I think with the amount of people that reached out to me this week, the importance of being a good teammate really kind of hit home,” Manning said after Sunday’s 24-17 loss to the Raiders. “Just the fact that all the old teammates that have reached out to me, I appreciate the support. It helped me get through these past couple of days, and these tough days. It reminded me I needed to be a good teammate and do my part.”
He was the quintessential teammate in an understudy role, roaming the sideline with an earpiece to hear the discussions among the offensive coaches and relay any words of advice to Smith. Manning looked out of place, without a helmet and sometimes walking aimlessly on the sideline. He’d even put his right hand to his mouth, licking his fingers as if he were ready to throw passes — even though he never got that chance.
“Hey, I want to be out there. I want to be playing,” he said. “But this is the situation we’re in. We were 2-9, they were going to take a look at the other guys. I understand it.”
He said he’s not bitter.
“I’m not mad at anybody,” he said. “I don’t blame anybody for the way it was handled. I think coach McAdoo tried to do something right by me, saying, ‘We’re going to let you play [to keep the streak alive].’ ”
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But Manning just couldn’t live with himself knowing he wouldn’t go into a game with the chance to finish it. That’s not in the DNA of a quarterback who has won two Super Bowl MVP titles and likely is headed to the Hall of Fame.
“Just knowing I was going to come out of the game, I couldn’t play that way,” Manning said of McAdoo’s plan to start him and replace him with Smith to start the second half. “I appreciate them giving me that option, but I think he understood when I said I can’t do it that way.”
The controversy over how the iconic quarterback was handled might well be McAdoo’s undoing — that and the fact that the Giants have plummeted so swiftly from last year’s 11-5 playoff season to a 2-10 team limping to the finish line. There are reports that the Giants are ready to fire McAdoo as early as Monday, and if that happens — or if he is fired later — his poor handling of Manning’s situation will be the final straw.
What comes next for Manning? He’s not sure. If McAdoo stays, he’s likely to stick with Smith next week against the Cowboys in a home game that will invite plenty of rage from disgruntled Giants fans. There is even a report that several former Giants plan to attend wearing No. 10 jerseys in honor of Manning.
The controversy that surely will swell even more at that game could prompt co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch to avoid it by parting ways with McAdoo this week. It would be a highly unusual move, because the Giants haven’t fired a coach during a season since 1976.
Either way, Manning will receive a hero’s welcome from Giants fans who clearly sided with him in this fiasco, and it could fuel his desire to continue his career. Asked if he wants to play in 2018, Manning said, “I plan on playing next season.”
When asked if he wants to play with the Giants or somewhere else, Manning replied, “I plan on playing next year.”
It remains to be seen whether the Giants have burned the bridge to next season, or whether Manning will be given the chance to live out his dream of playing his entire career with them.
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Whatever the case, Manning understands the impact he’s had on those around him, and the support will help sustain him through the uncertainty of what lies ahead.