Eli Manning was told to move on by his detractors. They forgot that that’s when the New York Giants quarterback is at his best.
Quarterback Eli Manning has probably been asked to leave the New York City area more often its last ten mayors and New York Knicks coaches combined. The calls for dismissal have been relayed through countless forms of technology, be it the local radio airwaves, written words in both newspaper and online print, or the tweets, posts, or photos of social media (even as Manning remains one of the few celebrities to stay off of social media).
The anti-Manning brigade had been in full force over the first two weeks of the 2018 NFL season, armed with new grounds for eviction, arguing that Manning’s continued status as the New York Giants’ starter was not only hurting the team’s current outlook, but its future prospects as well. After Manning was indirectly named the scapegoat for the most disastrous season in team history, controversially benched for New York Jets washout Geno Smith in the midst of the 3-13 cesspool, the Giants new management group hitched its wagon to the 37-year-old Manning, bypassing the chance to draft the heir to his New York throne.
The decision drove a mixed response at best. While some fans and critics cheered the consolation prize of Penn State rushing superstar Saquon Barkley, energizing a position that has given Manning little to no help in recent seasons, others tore the team apart for refusing to test the quarterback-infested waters of the 2018 draft. The situation was further exacerbated but not only the Giants’ green MetLife Stadium roommates, the New York Jets, trading up to take USC quarterback Sam Darnold with the selection immediately after Barkley, but also the team’s puzzling move to release Davis Webb. The late summer transaction bid farewell to 2017’s third-round pick, seen by many as the first legitimate Manning successor.
As a result, Manning was set to be the Giants’ primary thrower for the foreseeable future. His current contract, set to expire in 2020, includes a no-trade clause that he has no intentions of waiving.
Giants general manager Dave Gettleman was optimistic about Manning’s future control of the offense. His belief in Manning was evident in his first remarks as the lead decision-maker in East Rutherford, using a recent game against the future Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles as a demonstration in his faith.
In that game, with the Giants sitting at 2-11 and missing numerous starters on both sides of the ball, Manning led a valiant effort, going up and down the field against a strong Eagles defense. The 434 yards Manning threw for that afternoon were the most Philadelphia had let up all regular season.
The path to victory fell just six yards short, the Eagles escaping East Rutherford with a 34-29 win, but Manning had made an impression.
“The bottom line is I’m an inveterate film watcher,” Gettleman said in his introductory press conference last December. “You got to look at the film. You got to see what’s cooking, and listen, Eli has won a lot of games. He’s a great competitor. He’s very intelligent and he and I are going to talk and if what I saw (against) Philadelphia was not a mirage, and I don’t believe it was, then we’ll just keep moving.”
And move the Giants did, as Manning was the team’s opening weekend starter for the 14th consecutive season. However, over the first two games, the faith was not rewarded.
Whether Giants fans wanted to admit it or not, Manning was part of the team’s problems over a troubling first two weeks. He was nowhere near the top of the list of calamities, continuing to be betrayed by a porous offensive line, but quarterback panic was contagious amongst the fanbase. Over the first two weeks of the season, which ended in losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys, Manning struggled to find receivers downfield, mostly limited to short check-down passes, struggling to find his high-profile targets.
The annual visit to Arlington in Week 2 provided a disturbing visual aid of Manning’s decline. The numbers attached to Barkley, one of the few Giants to produce and do his job over the first couple of weekends, were perhaps the best demonstration. Though Barkley had a net total of 80 yards on 14 receptions (setting a new Giants record), he earned 97 yards after the catch, a result of Manning throwing safe conservative passes behind the line of scrimmage, seemingly ignoring home run threats downfield like Odell Beckham Jr. He would finish the Dallas game, a 20-13 loss made to look presentable by some yardage and points obtained when the Cowboys were up 20-3, with 279 yards on 33 completions.
Meanwhile, Darnold helped the Jets reach 48 points in their season-opening win in Detroit, smashing a 30-point plateau the Giants haven’t reached in over two full seasons and put up 334 yards in a loss to Miami concluded hours before the Dallas kickoff. Even with Barkley’s accomplishments, ranking fourth among running backs in all-purpose yards, civil war nonetheless broke out amongst the fan base. The cult of the quarterback became further headstrong every time Darnold completed a 10-yard pass, while the Manning and Barkley apologists took constructive criticism as a personal offense.
The ensuing six days after the nationally televised prime-time defeat began the debate all over again: was it time to move on from Manning? Did the team regret passing (pun intended) on a quarterback in the spring?
The answer, duplicating the one issued all offseason, remained a resounding “no”.
“I sense confidence in Eli. He’s a pro,” Shurmur said after the Dallas loss, according to transcripts available on Giants.com. “He battled throughout the game and I thought he did a good job. I do sense confidence.”
For the first time in 2018, Manning rewarded the innumerable faith bestowed upon him.
Facing an equally desperate Houston Texans team likewise sitting at 0-2, Manning might’ve saved the Giants season with a sterling performance. Something special, pure Manning magic, was on display from the very first drive, where Manning past two early tests in the forms of third downs. Needing five yards from his own 30-yard-line, Manning wiped out the possibility of a three-and-out with a nine-yard completion to Beckham. Moving the ball to the Houston 23 with the Giants down 3-0, Manning moved beyond a mere tie, finding Sterling Shepard for eight. One play later, Barkley’s 15-yard scoring rush gave the Giants the lead.
The Giants would never relinquish their stolen lead, thanks to Manning keeping the prosperity going throughout the first half. New York would score on each of their drives in the period, building a lead that summited at 20-3. Six of the final seven points came from the arm of Manning, finding tight end Rhett Ellison from 16 yards out just before halftime.
Though the Giants appeared to be in control, the second half featured trademark New York adversity that has chased Manning from his opening snaps in 2004.
The final 30 minutes would go on to demonstrate that there’s still work to be done if the Giants hope to truly reinsert themselves into the national football conversation. Manning was sacked three times in the second, with Texans superstar JJ Watt earning a trio on the afternoon as a whole, taking advantage of his matchup with inexperienced tackle Chad Wheeler. A first down was wiped out by a Nate Solder holding penalty. Though the defense made contributions, in the form of two second-half turnovers, the Texans whittled the score down to 20-15 by the midway point of the fourth quarter.
With the Giants’ offense stuck in neutral and the Texans’ potent offense finally clicking, the stage seemed set for another Giants choke, another collapse that has become all too prevalent in recent blue history.
Manning had the Texans, and the football world as a whole, right where he wanted them, as he firmly announced that reports of his demise were tremendously exaggerated.
He would go on to account for 66 of 77 yards on a final scoring drive, completing all six of his passes on the trek. Ironically, Manning would end the afternoon just as he began it, completing a pair of crucial third downs en route to the end zone. His final third down sealed the deal for the Giants, as a seven-yard strike to Sterling Shepard allowed the blue community to exhale. It was now the Giants’ turn to watch an opponent score a garbage-time touchdown to save face, as Houston scored with a second left to create a 27-22 margin.
Manning concluded the day completing 25 of 29 passes, good for 297 yards and two scores. His 86 percent completion percentage became the second-highest mark of his career, and he reached at least 10 yards per attempt for the first time since a December 2015 win over Miami.
“This (was) an opportunity to go win the football game. It’s going to come down to this drive,” Manning said of the final drive on Giants.com. “We had a great first half and hadn’t really done anything the second half, We had a chance to go win the football game. Guys stepped up, made some big plays.”
Shock and awe from critics will surely follow Manning’s rise from mediocrity, a begrudging acceptance that he’s not going anywhere quite yet. However, those well versed in Manning’s history will know this is far from the first time Manning has warded off an impending departure with a stellar and clutch performance that could end up saving the Giants’ season.
2007 perhaps featured the first recorded examples of calls for a Manning ousting, calls that reached a deafening octave in November of that season. In a 31-20 loss to the Cowboys at Giants Stadium, the second defeat at the hands of the eventual NFC East champions, Manning threw two key interceptions and posted a passer rating of 72.7, the third consecutive week, and sixth occurrence that season, where he posted a sub-80 rating. Giants principal owner John Mara even called out publicly during preparation for a vital road game in Detroit.
“The only thing we evaluate is ‘Can we win with this guy?'” Mara rhetorically asked, according to Ralph Vacchiano, then of the New York Daily News. “That’s the one thing. When we talk about any player at the end of the season, the No.1 question is ‘Will he help us win?’ And to take it one step further, ‘Can we win a championship with this guy?'”
Five days after Mara’s questions, Manning provided the answers, the responses firmly being “yes”.
Against their fellow wild-card contenders, Manning threw for 283 yards and a touchdown, as the Giants stole a game from the Lions, their partners in wild-card contention, to the tune of a 16-10 final. The momentum from the win lasted through February, as it became the first step in Manning’s first Super Bowl quest. The Giants would not only clinch the top wild-card spot, but would exorcise the Dallas demons with a shocking divisional round victory at Texas Stadium. By now, you know the 2007 story would end in February 2008, as Manning led the Giants to a 17-14 victory over the previously undefeated New England Patriots, setting off a celebration that ended with Manning hoisting both the Vince Lombardi and Pete Rozelle Trophies, issued to the winner and Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl.
Manning’s subsequent description of that win over the Lions over a decade ago could certainly describe portions of Sunday’s win in Houston.
“We need to get more points than we’re getting,” Manning said after that game, according to Joe LaPointe of the New York Times. “We’re finding ways to win games. It’s not always pretty. We’re doing a good job of finding ways to win. Guys step up at the right time. We’ve got to stay calm, stay patient. Turn it up a notch.
There’s no way of knowing if Sunday’s win over Houston will kickstart a similar trek. Lost in the hoopla of a precious win is the fact it came against an increasingly hapless Texans team, now owners of the NFL’s longest active losing streak. The win also masks, if only temporarily, the shortcomings that put the Giants in a 0-2 hole in the first place, including the aforementioned blocking.
But with Manning vindicating the trust management left in him, there an aura of peace, of sensibility, of contentedness, that hasn’t been felt around the Giants’ environment for a long time. Of course, Manning is one of the biggest names who can play a major role in making sure it stays, but there’s no denying the Giants have it right now.
“Pretty fair day at the office, I might say to myself,” Shurmur said on Giants.com about Manning’s game. “I think he did what you’d expect a quarterback to do, and he did it at a high level against a pretty good pass rush. He did what quarterbacks should do.”