Welcome to the second decade of Eli.
It was 10 years ago this weekend that Tom Coughlin made the decision to name rookie Eli Manning the Giants' starting quarterback. Little did he -- or anyone else -- know at the time that it would be the last time he would have to make such a decision.
In the last 160 games, Coughlin has made thousands of decisions about personnel and staff, philosophy and direction. And the franchise has made just as many important decisions about its own infrastructure, including some about Coughlin himself.
But at no point during that time was there ever a need to ponder the question that often haunts NFL teams, sometimes on a weekly basis and other times in year-to-year discussions:
Who will be our starting quarterback?
"That separates the teams that have success and the teams that don't have success, having a franchise quarterback that plays every week and plays at a high level," Giants president and CEO John Mara told Newsday this past week. "I remember thinking about that before that 2004 draft and discussing that with Ernie [Accorsi, the general manager who traded for Manning]: If you have a franchise quarterback, you're always going to be competitive. Even when the rest of your team isn't so good, you always have a chance to win.
"It lifts the whole franchise when you have a quarterback who can play at that level," he added.
Of course, not everyone was on board with the decision when the Giants returned from a loss to the Cardinals and, on Nov. 15, 2004, announced they were making the change. The Giants had been playing well with Kurt Warner as their quarterback. They were 5-2 through the first seven games before losing back-to-back contests against the Bears and the Cardinals.
Still, they were 5-4, a winning team with a chance to make it to the playoffs.
But Coughlin decided it was time.
"Coach Coughlin just told me that it was what he felt was best for the organization moving forward," Warner, now an analyst for NFL Network, said of the demotion. "Basically told me, 'This has nothing to do with you, it has nothing to do with your play and what you haven't done.' What I believe he was trying to say was, I think we all understood that even though we had a decent record, we weren't a great football team. To go down that path with me was just kind of prolonging the inevitable."
Mara said Coughlin thought the change could give the Giants a spark. Instead, it sunk their season.
"I remember being excited because of the pedigree of the young man and what he could become," Tiki Barber, a veteran running back on that team, recalled of the switch. "But then the struggles immediately following, those six games were torturous. Just mistake after mistake . . . It was frustrating seeing a quarterback like Kurt who had had some success, had won a Super Bowl, get pulled for the young kid and having no idea where it was going to go."
It wasn't as inevitable as many believed that Manning would be given a chance in 2004. Although the Giants had paid a high premium for the young quarterback, trading four picks to the Chargers to acquire him on draft day, had they not stumbled in those two games against the Bears and Cardinals, things could have turned out differently.
"If we had won those games or maybe even won one of them, that would have delayed Eli's appearance, I think," Mara said.
"It's odd because he wound up taking Arizona to the Super Bowl a few years later, but at that point, Kurt was done in people's minds," Barber said. "He was just a veteran presence for a young player. [The change] was expected because we didn't have any high expectations for Kurt. But Kurt played well a few games. It was just shocking to lose, to consistently lose, which is something we hadn't been through in a while."
In his book "A Team to Believe In," which was written after the 2007 Super Bowl season, Coughlin wrote about the decision. He noted that the media "crushed" him for giving up on a potential playoff season and that Wellington Mara, when told by Coughlin he was going to make the move to Manning, smiled and told him: "We think the same way."
Well, it wasn't only the media questioning the decision. Nor was the entire organization thinking the same way.
"I remember being a little concerned about it at the time because Kurt Warner had played fairly well for us," John Mara recalled. "Because he struggled for most of the second half of the season, I remember questioning whether that was the right move or not because we had a chance to have a decent year that year."
Mara admitted that his father also had reservations. Wellington Mara was not a proponent of drafting Manning to begin with, having grown fond of Kerry Collins.
"I think he was also probably feeling his own mortality at the time and asking, do we really want to start all over again with a rookie quarterback?" John Mara said. "That was kind of a different era. Rookie quarterbacks didn't play successfully right away. It usually took them a few years. I think all of that was in his mind . . . But I think he was excited when he saw him play."
Not everyone was. The Giants dropped six straight by some overwhelming scores. They lost, 14-10, to the Falcons (quarterbacked by current Jets starter Michael Vick) at Giants Stadium on Nov. 21, 2004, but then fell to the Eagles, 27-6, and to the Redskins, 31-7. The low point was the 37-14 loss at Baltimore in which Manning completed 4 of 18 passes, threw two interceptions and had a passer rating of 0.0.
"I think you always feel like you're ready and then you play and you learn and you realize it's hard to prepare for everything," Manning told Newsday this past week, looking back on his rookie year. "You learn so much from just playing in games, from mistakes or different looks from defenses. You always feel like you are prepared and ready to go. You always learn a lot along the way."
The Giants stuck with him, though. He played well in a 33-30 loss to the Steelers in December, facing off against fellow first-round draft pick Ben Roethlisberger for the first time. And in the final game of the year, Manning engineered a game-winning drive to beat the Cowboys, 28-24, for his first win as a starter.
"The last game my father ever saw was the final game of the 2004 season against Dallas when Eli takes us up the field at the end of the game and wins the game for us," John Mara said. "That was the last game he was ever at."
Before he died, Wellington had glimpsed the future.
Ten years later, Manning has brought the Giants two Super Bowl victories and a level of consistency at the quarterback position that is unmatched throughout the league. His 160 straight starts are the most of any active player in the NFL, regardless of position. Only two quarterbacks have ever started more games in a row than he has, Peyton Manning (208) and Brett Favre (297). Since he was named starter, there have been 160 other starting quarterback in the NFL. That's a turnover of one per week.
There are no other players on the Giants' current roster who were around in 2004. The last one to predate his arrival was offensive lineman David Diehl, who retired after last year. For every single Giants player this season, Manning is the only quarterback they have ever known.
"It's gone by quickly," Manning said of his first decade at the helm. "There have definitely been some changes. The locker room is different, the stadium is different, the practice facility. Lots of changes with the players and the coaches, but that's part of football."
No changes at quarterback, though. Even when he injured his shoulder in 2007 and his foot in 2009 and was unable to practice, he played. He remains, to this day, the only move Coughlin has ever made at quarterback. He'll start game 161 Sunday against the 49ers.
Mara recalled that day against the Cowboys when Manning earned his first win. Mara was on the field beforehand talking to former Giants coach Bill Parcells, then the head coach for Dallas.
"I was exchanging pleasantries and asking him how he's doing," Mara said. "He said, 'Not as good as you.' I said, 'What do you mean? We're in last place?' And he said, 'Yeah, but you have a quarterback.' "