Olivier Vernon sidled up to Eli Manning in the Giants’ locker room last week to explain why they are teammates.
Vernon signed with the Giants in the offseason, landing a five-year, $85-million free-agent contract, and let’s not kid ourselves — that played a pretty large role in the defensive end’s decision. But the Jaguars and Jets were offering big-money deals, too.
Vernon, however, said he always had his eye on the Giants even before the final proposals came in. The reason?
“I told him I’m here because of you,” he told Newsday. “It’s the truth. Eli, he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the league, I think. He’s been there before. It’s hard for a team to get a quarterback. There are not too many teams that have a quarterback nowadays. I’m just glad I had the opportunity for the Giants to give me a look and I came here.”
Vernon, it seems, is not the only one who believes that Manning, 35, is the biggest difference-maker for the Giants. General manager Jerry Reese already had expressed similar thoughts about the quarterback, who is entering his 13th NFL season.
The Giants spent a quarter of a billion dollars to bolster their defense this season, they have Odell Beckham Jr. and budding star Sterling Shepard at receiver, and they have a new coach to whom they have handed the reins of the organization. But in Reese’s mind, the season — and perhaps his own job security — hinges on one person.
“We expect big things out of him,” he said of the two-time Super Bowl MVP, who has not played in a postseason game since February 2012. “He’s still a really good football player in this league and we are on his back. I think he is up to the challenge.”
If nothing else, he’s up to the pressure that such a declaration brings. At least used to it.
“I think as a quarterback, you understand you have big responsibility,” he said. “You have to play well, you have to take over. I have to do my job. I’ve got to play at a high level. I understand that. I demand that of myself, anyway. I go out there and try to do my best. But I have to play well.”
Manning was named MVP of his two Super Bowl wins and had a number of memorable plays and passes in those games. But those teams also were bolstered by a tenacious defense and a strong, physical running game. The Giants can’t be sure they will have either of those this season, so they are pinning their hopes on the one thing they can be sure of, and have been sure of for more than the past decade: Manning.
So far this summer, he has lived up to that burden. Manning’s first competitive pass of training camp was intercepted by Devon Kennard in a seven-on-seven drill. That was on July 29. Manning hasn’t thrown a pick in practice since.
He hasn’t always been on target — on Saturday, he missed a pass badly and appeared peeved by the routes and the reads of his receivers — but there have been plenty more cheers than groans.
“I feel like I’m having a good camp,” he said. “I’m playing fast, seeing things well, throwing the ball accurately. We have to keep that going.”
“Eli has been sharp,” Ben McAdoo said. “He’s worked at it in the offseason, had some good work then. The first pass, he got that [interception] out of the way quickly, but he’s been sharp since then.”
Manning’s reaction to that quick pick was what the Giants have come to expect from him. He was about as stone-faced after the turnover as he was when his brother Peyton Manning threw the game-winning touchdown pass for the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
“[Offensive coordinator] Mike Sullivan has known Eli for a long time, and he says all the time that if Eli wasn’t playing football, he’d probably be the world’s greatest poker player,” McAdoo said of Manning’s reaction to the interception. “He didn’t flinch. He just keeps playing.”
Manning is equally stoic about the idea that the Giants’ fate rests squarely on his shoulders, that he is the most important player on the roster. It’s not a new concept, but the way it is being voiced around the team shows just how deeply the dependency runs.
Manning’s feelings about all of that showed in his reaction to Vernon’s heartfelt locker-room declaration. “He just laughed,” Vernon said. “I don’t think he knew how serious I was being. But I’m serious.”