Eli Manning will do whatever Ben McAdoo tells him, whether it’s playing the entire game Sunday against Washington, playing only a few series to get warmed up or skipping the game entirely.
It’s all up to McAdoo, whose Giants are in the playoffs and face a regular-season finale that has no bearing whatsoever on their playoff seeding.
The smart play for the first-year coach: Use Manning as if this is a preseason game and get him out of there no later than halftime.
With zero to gain by beating the Redskins, other than the satisfaction of a division win that would get them to 11-5, it would make much more sense to ensure that the Giants have a rested and ready Manning for what they hope will be an extended playoff run.
The Giants are uncertain of their first-round opponent, but the one guarantee is that they won’t get a bye week and they’ll be on the road. Though there is something to be said for momentum heading into the playoffs, there’s an even greater reward if McAdoo can energize his soon-to-be 36-year-old quarterback.
Those skeptical about that theory can point to Tom Coughlin’s gutsy call heading into the final weekend of the 2007 season, when the Giants faced the unbeaten Patriots a week after clinching a playoff berth. With the playoffs beginning the following week, Coughlin could have rested his key players in that game, but he played to win and nearly pulled off a huge upset.
Manning was extremely sharp in that game, throwing four touchdown passes in a 38-35 loss, and the players spoke afterward of being invigorated by almost ending the Patriots’ perfect season. They wound up doing just that five weeks later on a much bigger stage.
“I guess there’s benefits either way you look at it,” said Manning, who will turn 36 next Tuesday. “Obviously in ’07, we clinched the spot in the playoffs and couldn’t make a difference in the last game whether we won or lost. But we went and played well offensively and got into a good rhythm, kind of took that confidence into the playoffs. I think we’re going to be confident going into the playoffs no matter what. The mindset is we’ve got a game to play, and I’m going to be ready to play.”
Credit Coughlin with creating the right dynamic in 2007 by going for it all and setting the stage for a rematch against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. In one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history, Manning drove for the winning touchdown in the final minutes — complete with a spectacular completion to seldom-used wide receiver David Tyree, who pinned the ball to the side of his helmet — in a 17-14 win.
McAdoo surely will take that example into consideration when figuring out his approach this week, but he should add into his calculus that Manning isn’t a 26-year-old quarterback with no Super Bowl experience, as he was in 2007. He’s an aging quarterback who has started 209 straight games, including playoffs, dating to his rookie season in 2004.
There have been some disconcerting moments this season for Manning, whose inconsistency has raised the possibility that his best days are behind him. He is coming off a 24-19 loss to the Eagles in which he threw three interceptions. In his last four games, he has six touchdown passes and as many interceptions. He had 20 touchdown passes and 10 picks in the first 11 games.
Manning has a high football IQ, and his arm still is good enough for him to function better than most NFL quarterbacks, but for the Giants to go deep in the postseason, he absolutely has to raise his play to the levels he showed in his previous two Super Bowl championship runs, when he had 15 touchdown passes and two interceptions.
McAdoo could consider playing Manning the whole way against Washington and trying to use it as a springboard to the playoffs. But think about Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, each of whom suffered a broken leg this past weekend. The risk is simply higher than the reward.
You can’t put Bubble Wrap around the players to ensure their safety, but you can play it smart and realize the benefit of having Manning fresh for the games that really matter.
“My take is to play,” Manning said. “I think that’s the mindset. Until I’m told differently, that’s how I’m taking it.”
McAdoo would be wise to tell him differently. Let Manning play a few series, or even the first half, but there’s simply no wisdom in risking more than that.