As they sat across from one another Wednesday morning in the second-floor office at the Giants’ training facility, co-owner John Mara finally understood where Eli Manning was coming from, and why he couldn’t live with the scenario put forth to the quarterback on Monday by coach Ben McAdoo.
But by then, it was too late. The damage — some of it irreparable — already had been done, and no amount of hindsight could change the outcome nor lessen the impact of how bungled the situation had become.
Mara realizes now he should have known better, that he should have known that the quarterback who had given the franchise two Super Bowl championships could not and would not submit to a plan that involved anything less than a total commitment on the team’s behalf.
“What I did not expect — and this is my fault, and I was probably naive — I did not expect Eli to react by saying, ‘Go ahead and start the other guys,’ ” Mara said Wednesday afternoon to a group of reporters. “Especially after speaking with him today, I completely understand that. But that took me by surprise a little bit. Maybe I would have handled it differently.”
The Giants botched this one right from the start, and right from the top.
Mara has been on board with the idea of getting some idea of whether Geno Smith or Davis Webb could somehow be a part of the future, especially now that the season had spun out of control and the Giants (2-9) officially were eliminated. Fair enough, especially for a team that is almost certain to have a high draft pick in April and could very well be selecting its next quarterback.
But how the owner — or coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese, for that matter — could have thought for one minute that Manning would go along with their cockamamie plan was not only naive, it was ridiculous. To think that Manning would be willing to play the first half of the next five games to keep his consecutive starts streak intact and then give way at halftime as if these were preseason games?
Sorry, that’s not in the DNA of a two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback who knows only one way to play the game: fully committed from start to finish — whether his team is 2-9 or 9-2.
How could such a plan have been remotely attractive to a player of Manning’s caliber, even if at age 36 he’s not quite the quarterback he was during his halcyon days?
“After talking to him, I understand it wasn’t,” Mara acknowledged in an appropriate mea culpa considering the swirl of controversy created by the Giants’ mishandling of Manning’s situation. “He’s a competitor. He wants to be out there playing, trying to win, and that’s why he’s been so successful for so many years.”
Mara said it was an emotional meeting between the two, as you would expect from a quarterback who has given every inch of his soul to a franchise that is now ready to move on from him. Manning fought back tears during a brief meeting with reporters the day before, and it’s not hard to imagine he allowed those tears to flow down his cheeks when he spoke to Mara. And perhaps the owner, whose eyes moistened when he spoke about what Manning has meant to his franchise, shed some tears of his own.
Mara had hoped this would all go down differently, that Manning would have agreed to play while also allowing the team to get a look at two of his potential successors. As Mara discovered by Tuesday, those scenarios are mutually exclusive because of Manning’s competitive nature.
“I had told him that my hope here was that you were going to continue to play, not only to keep your streak alive, but I didn’t want him to go out like this,” Mara said. “But I understand his feeling. I respect his decision. He doesn’t want the streak to be tarnished, just by getting in for a few series. I was hoping he would come in, he’d be playing well, we’d have a chance to win the game, and maybe stay in there.”
But Mara can’t have it both ways, even acknowledging that he wanted to see Smith and, eventually Webb, in situations not just in garbage time toward the end of games, but with meaningful snaps with the game on the line.
“With quarterbacks, you don’t know what you have until they’re out there, facing a pass rush, making decisions at critical points in the game and making plays,” Mara said. “If we’re going to get a look at these quarterbacks, you’d like them to get in for some meaningful minutes, not just in a mop-up role with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter.”
Mara accepts the criticism — much of it well-deserved.
“I accept the fact that we’re 2-9,” he said. “We’re completely defenseless when you have a record like that, particularly when the expectations were so high.”
The mess only got worse with the mishandling of Manning’s situation.
There’s no defense there, either.