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Eli Manning's struggles 'tough to watch' for Victor Cruz

Giants quarterback Eli Manning after a 33-18 defeat

Giants quarterback Eli Manning after a 33-18 defeat to the Saints at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 30, 2018. Credit: Mike Stobe

Eli Manning is running out of games.

As the clock ticks down on his tenure with the Giants and his nearly uninterrupted 15-year run as the team’s starting quarterback, it’s becoming apparent that this is the way it will end.

Not with confetti, not with a trophy, not with one last comeback to punctuate a career full of them, but with a team that struggles to score points, behind an offensive line that offers him little protection. It’s a losing team that already has started to dump ballast in an effort to be more buoyant in coming years.

Sunday might, in fact, be Manning’s farewell to the fans at MetLife Stadium. The Giants will host the Redskins at 1 p.m. and then will head into a pair of defining marks on the calendar.

There is the trade deadline on Tuesday, which could present an opportunity for Manning to waive his no-trade clause and join a team with a better chance than the 2018 Giants. That’s unlikely. Then there is the bye week, which should give the Giants some extra time to get rookie quarterback Kyle Lauletta up to speed and ready to show what he’s capable of in the second half. If the Giants are truly sacrificing their present for the future, then that’s the move that must be made.

It’s hard to watch as a fan. Imagine how it feels for a former teammate.

“That’s definitely tough,” Victor Cruz told Newsday. “I’ve been through the best of the best with him, and these last two years really have been really tough for him. I spoke to him in passing last year and I could tell that things were weighing on him a little bit, and I know this year hasn’t been any better.”  

In some ways, it’s been worse. Last year the Giants had injuries and Manning scrambled to keep the offense functional. One of the more miraculous performances of his career took place in the depths of that spiral in the last game when the Giants beat the Redskins.

“You go back and watch that game, you can barely remember some of the names on the team,” Manning said jokingly.

This year, the expectations were much higher. Everyone was healthy. The line was supposed to be improved. Manning was given a new weapon in Saquon Barkley. Instead, the losses have piled up and the Giants have changed their mindset from giving it a last-shot, win-now-with-Manning approach to a white flag fire sale and a wait ’til next year — or the year after that — outlook.

All of which leaves Manning on the outside looking in as — right in front of him — preparations are made for a future without him. It’s a harsh business.

Giants co-owner John Mara said Manning was treated like a “punching bag” a few weeks ago. But he’s been jabbed at by fans and the media for most of his career. These body blows from the organization have to be the ones that hurt the most.

“There comes a time for all athletes, not just quarterbacks, not just him,” said Cruz, now an analyst for ESPN. “Obviously, he’s Eli Manning, so it’s a big deal, but it happens to everyone, man. I don’t know if it’s the right time to do it for me personally, but it feels like the team does and the people who make decisions over there do. That’s the decision they’re going with. That’s tough for me to hear and I’m sure it’s tough for everyone around the world who is a fan of Eli Manning.”

The funny thing is that once the Giants are done with Manning, he’ll be more beloved than ever. He’ll no longer be the guy who hasn’t been able to lift the Giants to a winning season in what soon will be five of the last six years. He won’t be the quarterback whose career won-loss record as a starter has dropped from 69-50 the last time he won a Super Bowl to 112-109 heading into Sunday’s game. Instead, he’ll slip into the warm embrace of being a two-time Super Bowl MVP and wear the crown as the greatest quarterback in franchise history.

“When he comes off the field, he’ll be remembered for all the great things that he’s done and hopefully not the last couple of years of his career, which weren’t as great as the first few,” Cruz said. “I think that he’ll always be remembered as great. That will never change in people’s minds.”

Not even this ending can alter that.

Life after football for Cruz

Cruz said he is doing well adjusting to life at ESPN and, most importantly, not having to wake up sore after playing football.

Of course, he’s still taking some licks from the sport watching the 2018 Giants struggle.

“It’s very difficult, not just because of their record and the way they’re playing the game, but everything that comes with the game,” he said of the roster overhaul taking place. “Obviously, I understand what it takes to win, the preparation and things like that. Everything else that’s surrounding the game that they’ve been a part of, that’s been tough to watch. I’m not that far removed and I wish I could help and do certain things. It’s just a tough spot to be in and be like a true fan now and not feel the emotional ties.”

Cruz was always a fan favorite, but he said after retirement that he’s really found himself embraced by Giants fans. They no longer complain to him about losses or injuries or dropped passes. Instead, they remember the good times.

“Now that I’ve retired, guys want to see me and say hello and give me their opinion about my career,” Cruz said. “It’s all good. I’ll take that. If retiring brought me love, I’ll take it.”

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