Eli Manning's legacy? Greatest quarterback in Giants history

No longer the starting quarterback for the Giants, Eli Manning now can assume his new role as the greatest quarterback in franchise history.

He’s held that title for a while, but it was always in the background. In the day-to-day, week-to-week churning of the NFL, Manning remained focused on trying to beat the upcoming opponent and make the team better. Now he and fans can fully embrace it.

That legacy is no longer obscured by the losing, misguided decision-making and ugly football that has marked the second half of his 16-year tenure with the team. His connection to rosters that missed the playoffs in six of the last seven years and counting no longer is the most in-your-face part of his resume. Instead, he has instantly become more closely tied to the teams he guided to Super Bowl victories after the 2007 and 2011 seasons.

That’s not to say Manning is blameless for the losing. He certainly could have done more to avoid this spiral of misery the franchise finds itself in, done a better job of helping to make mediocre players winners.

He’s made more than his share of mistakes and bad plays that have led to losses. But there are plenty of other culprits responsible for this era of futility besides Employee No. 10, lots of members of the coaching staffs and front office whose missteps and poor choices sunk the team from one of the best to one of the worst in the league in a matter of just a few years.

Eli Manning of the Giants late in the fourth quarter...

Eli Manning of the Giants late in the fourth quarter against the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 15, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

So instead of being part of the Giants’ mountain of problems in 2019, Manning now ascends to the Rushmore of Giants history.

Manning came to the Giants in 2004, acquired in a draft-day trade with the Chargers that rescued him from a franchise he never wanted to represent. He was the first overall selection by San Diego, but before he left the building in New York City where the draft was being held, he was a Giant.

In Week 10 of his rookie season, he was named the starting quarterback. It was a position he held, with the exception of one asterisk of a week in 2017, for the next 14 seasons.

He started 210 straight games, playing through significant shoulder and foot injuries, before being benched for Geno Smith in Week 13 of the 2017 season. That decision, decried by a large portion of the fan base, created more upheaval in the organization than just the quarterback position. The day after the game, the Giants fired coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese. Manning was reinstalled as the starting quarterback.

From that first start in 2004 to now, he began to compile career numbers that not only put him atop every significant list in the Giants record book but nestled him comfortably in the NFL’s top 10. He has thrown for 56,537 yards, 362 touchdowns and 241 interceptions. He is one of 15 quarterbacks in NFL history with 100 or more victories. His career record as a starter in the regular season is 116-116.

Manning’s mark on the franchise and league history is not measured in numbers but in moments. He was never a serious candidate for an MVP award, never voted a starter in a Pro Bowl and never came close to an All-Pro team. But when the Giants needed him the most, Manning was able to step up and produce.

That was never more evident than in his pair of playoff runs that resulted in championships, which are riddled with iconic plays and upset victories.

Perhaps none is more unforgettable than his spinning away from a potential sack and chucking a blind pass down the middle of the field, where David Tyree pinned the ball against his helmet to help beat the unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

A few plays later, Manning hit Plaxico Burress in the end zone for the winning touchdown.

He repeated his knack for such dazzling postseason plays against the Patriots four years later when he hit Mario Manningham on the sideline late in Super Bowl XLVI to spark that game-winning drive. That may have been the most perfect and precise pass he threw as a Giant, and it came at one of the most critical times of his career. He was named MVP of both Super Bowls.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning, left, and his coach Tom Coughlin...

Giants quarterback Eli Manning, left, and his coach Tom Coughlin look at the Vince Lombardi Trophy as they celebrate after the Giants beat the New England Patriots, 17-14, in the Super Bowl XLII on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008, in Glendale, Ariz. Credit: AP/Stephan Savoia

In recent years, those plays have faded into memory. He has spent the last few seasons surrounded by teammates who were in high school or middle school when he was winning Super Bowls, teammates who weren’t allowed to stay up late enough to watch his late-game achievements on those February Sundays.

Images of his finest moments are painted on walls all around the Giants’ training facility; for nearly a decade, though, they’ve served more as a reminder of what was rather than what is.

Manning has seen a lot of traffic flow in and out of his locker room during the past decade and a half. Some of the players who arrived after him already have been inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor. Some of those who greeted him as a rookie are in the Hall of Fame. Jeff Feagles was the punter in 2004. He was 38 years old that season, the same age Manning is now.

When Manning departs — he is in the last year of his contract, having earned nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in salary from the Giants in his career — he will take some history with him. He is the last active Giant to have played under Hall of Fame owner Wellington Mara. He and long snapper Zak DeOssie are the only two players who remain from the 2007 championship team (as well as the 2011 one). They also are the last two Giants who played home games at Giants Stadium.

In Week 2 of this season, the Giants celebrated Alumni Day and honored many players who helped bring Lombardi Trophies to the Meadowlands. While his contemporaries were being feted on the field at halftime, Manning was in the locker room trying to figure out how to come back from a 21-7 deficit against the Bills. His rightful place should have been among those showered with applause and appreciation rather than doused with boos as he trotted through the tunnel.

Manning may yet again hear cheers while in uniform. The Giants could have him make a Week 17 start in the final home game of the season (assuming it is as meaningless to the standings as it projects to be at this point). He might even have to return to the field at some point if Jones is injured. He is, after all, one of the backup quarterbacks.  

But the next time Manning receives the full embrace of the fans at MetLife Stadium may well be when he strolls out to be inducted into the Ring of Honor in the not-too-distant future.

Or when he makes a post-playing-days curtain call and waves to the crowd, surrounded by the members of the offensive line who shielded him in his best seasons (and continued to try to do so from criticisms in later years), flanked by the receivers who pulled in his most memorable passes, and joined by the defenders who kept the Giants in those important games long enough for Manning to work his magic.

There is an immediacy to sports. Fans care about now, not then. They want to know how a player can help this team win this game. As long as someone is in uniform and on the field, his resume, no matter how impressive, remains an afterthought.

Manning’s struggles in recent years have been difficult to watch, akin to Willie Mays dropping pop-ups at Shea Stadium or Y.A. Tittle kneeling in the mud with a bloody forehead. In those moments, such missteps elicited frustration and groans. It was only afterward that they conjured some sympathy and respect, that they were seen through the perspective of otherwise glorious careers.

Manning, freed from the burdens of starting quarterback, now can gracefully move into that realm. He can be remembered for all that he has accomplished rather than scrutinized for what he hasn’t.