Most quarterbacks are judged by their numbers. Touchdowns. Wins. Super Bowls.
Lately, it seems the number that has become the identifier for Eli Manning is 36.
That’s the age of the Giants’ quarterback as he enters his 14th season. And it’s not just the outside world that is focusing on it, either. It seems every chance the Giants get, they take extra care to point out the increasing number of candles on Manning’s cakes.
It started at the end of last season when Jerry Reese said that Manning is “on the back nine” of his career, continued during the offseason as the Giants drafted a quarterback in the third round and reappeared on Thursday when Reese talked about having Manning — who has never missed a game — on a “pitch count.” He compared him to Tony Romo whose injuries forced him to retire (without a Super Bowl title, by the way).
Ben McAdoo even told Manning and the other older players — meaning those 26 years and above — the story of Frasier the Lion, a washed-up circus performer in the 1970s who was rescued by an animal safari park and regained his king of the jungle mojo. “I’d never heard of Frasier,” Manning said straight-faced of the R-rated story. “Good to know.”
Now it is up to Manning to see if he can muster another roar. “I know how old I am,” he said Friday after the first practice of training camp, a light workout that lasted just over an hour and did not feature any team drills. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with being 36. I’m proud of it.”
In the NFL, though, that’s the age when questions start to creep in. Is it downhill from here? Has he lost a step? The fact that Manning hasn’t won a playoff game since Super Bowl XLVI in 2012 and has appeared in only one since then doesn’t exactly foster the image of an ascending player. Manning insists, though, that he’s still the same quarterback he was when he won a pair of titles and earned MVP honors in those Super Bowl games.
“Hey, I feel good,” he said. “I can still make all the throws, I can still run around when I need to. It is what it is. But I don’t see myself slowing down at all and I feel like I still have great football ahead of me.”
Manning is far from the NFL’s Methuselah. His brother Peyton won a Super Bowl at age 40. Tom Brady will be 40 at the start of the season. Drew Brees and Carson Palmer are older than Manning.
As for that pitch count, that’s part of a longer process that began when McAdoo arrived as the offensive coordinator in 2014. The Giants started to reduce the number of snaps Manning took in practices, working out a system that would allow him to get the work he needs with the key receivers on the team while saving the physical toll that comes from practice reps. McAdoo said on Friday that it’s not only about saving Manning’s arm but his legs as well.
Manning said he is excited about this season. The Giants have given him plenty of weapons, adding Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram as passing targets. On paper, this would seem to be the most dynamic group of players Manning has ever been surrounded by in his NFL career.
“There are some talented guys out there, and we’ll see if everybody can come together as a group and as a team, as an offense, and put it all together,” Manning said. “I think there is the possibility of being a special group, a very talented group.”
Maybe. This could be one of Manning’s last chances with the Giants if he doesn’t pull a Frasier-like turnaround. While team co-owner John Mara backed Manning on Friday, saying he “shows no signs to me of slowing down” and “looks as good as he ever has,” the hints from the front office and coaching staff are growing less and less subtle. They see that number — 36 — and know that it will never go down, only up.
The only way to make folks forget about it is for Manning to have them focus on new Super Bowl rings rather than the rings in his tree trunk that mark the unyielding passage of time.
The oldest projected starting quarterbacks in the NFL this season:
Tom Brady, Patriots, 39*
Drew Brees, Saints, 38
Carson Palmer, Cardinals, 37
Eli Manning, Giants, 36
Philip Rivers, Chargers, 35
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers, 35
Aaron Rodgers, Packers, 33
*Brady will turn 40 next week