If this was the end of the Big Blue road for Eli Manning, it was missing the atmosphere of some earlier stops, notably the ones littered with confetti in Glendale, Arizona, and Indianapolis.
But even on a bitterly cold Sunday in a largely empty stadium for a mostly meaningless contest, he departed with lasting memories.
Fans at MetLife Stadium chanted his name late in an 18-10 victory over the Redskins.
Then he was smothered in hugs from interim coach Steve Spagnuolo to new general manager Dave Gettleman to his teammates to his wife and two of his three daughters, with whom he posed for pictures outside the locker room, in full uniform.
Come to think of it, Manning kept on his work clothes longer than he usually does after a game before finally doffing his home No. 10 jersey and stuffing it into the bag he carried out into the late afternoon.
Was it for the last time? That was, is and will continue to be the question as the Giants ponder a delicate matter: They have the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft and a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback who will turn 37 on Wednesday.
Can Manning still be productive? Yes, he can. There even is historical precedent: The last time the Giants had an offensive player named The Associated Press’ NFL MVP, he was a 37-year-old quarterback — Y.A. Tittle in 1963.
But if the Giants have a conviction on UCLA’s Josh Rosen or anyone else as a franchise quarterback . . . sorry, Eli, but they must use the pick for that purpose, even if it means Manning saying “no, thanks’’ to mentoring and opting to move on.
These sorts of opportunities do not come along often, thank goodness. But Gettleman, not Manning or I, is in charge of such decisions, and he is keeping his options open. He said on Friday that Manning is his quarterback “as of now,” but there are no guarantees.
Reporters overheard Gettleman say “Good job” when he hugged Manning outside the locker room. What did Manning recall from the interaction? “He said, ‘Congratulations and we’ll talk soon,’ ” Manning said.
So he has not spoken to Gettleman yet? “No, I have not,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll talk. I don’t know what ‘soon’ is. But we’ll talk soon.”
Manning was aware of what Gettleman said Friday, but he said, “I always think talks in person are more important than what’s said in the media. We’ll have a discussion, and I look forward to it.”
After 14 years and a franchise record-tying 216 regular-season games, Manning reiterated there is nowhere he would rather be. “This is where I want to play,” he said. “This is my family: the New York Giants. Hopefully, they feel the same way and we can make that work out.”
Manning said it was too soon for him to focus on and/or worry about the draft. “We’ll see,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve got a while until April. We’ll know a lot more by then.”
No matter what happens, he always will have Sunday, a feel-good finale that he thoroughly enjoyed.
His statistics were poor — 10-for-28 for 132 yards, one touchdown, one interception — but he was undermined by drops from a green receiving corps, and he was too happy afterward to care.
Yes, he heard the fans’ chants despite his frozen ears, and he waved as he left the field. “You always appreciate the fans, especially the fans in a tough year and in this situation — cold, and not playing for much — and coming to the game and be cheering the way they did and hanging in there,’’ he said. “I appreciate all the fans and their support this whole year. It’s been overwhelming.”
Spagnuolo asked a cameraman to get a picture of him hugging Manning afterward. “It’s a memory,” the coach said. “We’ve both been through a lot, and none more than him with this season, but he never changed. I value that in people that can stay that balanced through ups and downs. He’s had the highest of highs and this was certainly very, very low, but he’s a tremendous competitor and I appreciate him greatly.”
Manning called it his toughest year in football, given the losses, the injuries to teammates and having his games-started streak end at 210. But he said it was “the losses more than anything. It’s tough. It’s tough to prepare every week and to put all the effort into it and not get the outcome you want. It’s been tough, but hopefully we learn from it and grow from it.”
Will he be part of “we”? On a frigid New Year’s Eve that turned warm and cuddly, that was a question for a new year.