11 questions (and answers) on Eli's demotion, Giants' future, more

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Wednesday, November 29, 2017

If you're a Giants fan who thought this season couldn't get any more depressing after the 2-9 record and the injury to Odell Beckham Jr., coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese sure managed to surprise you on Tuesday afternoon. After 14 years and 222 total starts under center for the Giants, Eli Manning was publicly benched in about as unceremonious of a fashion as anyone could have imagined.

The decision was almost universally derided for a number of reasons. Eli is a franchise icon. He was dumped via news release by an unpopular front office, who is benching him for Jets castoff Geno Smith. I would say the Giants might as well have called the news into WFAN themselves, but I suspect sports talk radio would have thought Jerry in East Rutherford was making a prank call.

Let's try to take a step backward, remove at least some of the emotion from the decision, and analyze it on its merits. There's some logic underlying the Giants' choice, although it's tortured and surrounded by a breathtaking amount of naiveté and/or stupidity. And then, let's start thinking about what's next for the two-time Super Bowl champion whom the Giants just made the most expensive clipboard holder in football.

Should the Giants have benched Manning?

It depends. If their goal was to field the most competitive team possible in 2017, they absolutely should not have benched Eli. There's virtually no reason to think that Smith or rookie third-rounder Davis Webb give the Giants a better chance of winning any of their five remaining games this season. You might argue that a new quarterback could shock some life back into this team, but when the patient already is dead, all the jolts in the world aren't going to make a difference.

The Giants are benching Manning, by their own words, to evaluate the other quarterbacks they have on their roster. They expect to play both Smith and Webb by the end of the season. It's totally reasonable to want a look at the other quarterbacks on their roster given the fact that they're 2-9 and likely about to enter a rebuild with a starting quarterback who will turn 37 in January.

Why on earth would anybody need to evaluate Smith at this point?

Realistically, I don't think the Giants are making this move to get a serious look at Smith, who was one of the league's worst quarterbacks with the Jets and was signed as a last-gasp veteran stopgap. Smith is a free agent after the season, and if the Giants really thought he had any shot at being their starting quarterback in 2018, they would sign him to an extension locking in an unguaranteed base salary for next year.

The Giants really want to evaluate Webb, who hasn't attempted an NFL pass. The time frame doesn't make much sense, given that Webb was a big-armed project coming out of the draft with serious accuracy and decision-making issues who was expected to possibly take over for Manning two or three years after being selected. It's difficult to believe he's going to show enough as a rookie to keep the Giants from adding a quarterback this offseason. It also wouldn't be fair, given Webb's expected timeline, to disqualify him after a few games behind a terrible offensive line with a bunch of backup wide receivers. But here we are.

The most reasonable explanation for going to Smith and not Webb right now is practice time. The Giants probably want to get Webb meaningful reps with the first-team offense before turning him to the wolves on Sunday. Nathan Peterman's disastrous debut with the Bills is the worst-case scenario of what can happen when an inexperienced quarterback is thrown onto the field without real practice time.

It seems likely that the two quarterbacks will split time with the first team in practice before Webb takes over as the starter as soon as Week 14. The Giants probably figure that it's better for Webb to make his debut at home against the Cowboys, but I'm not so sure they'll be doing Webb any favors there given the fan sentiment toward this decision.

Should Eli have been amenable to the plan the Giants proposed?

Absolutely not. It's ludicrous. ESPN's Dan Graziano reported on Tuesday night that the Giants pitched Manning on a planto which nobody in their right mind would agree. Under the aegis of keeping Manning's consecutive start streak alive while creating evaluation opportunities, the Giants were planning to play Eli during the first half of games before taking him out by design at halftime for Smith or Webb.

Manning reacted to this plan as phony, and it's difficult to disagree. It reeks of stat-padding and would have painted Eli as a player more concerned with his own legacy than with the Giants' organizational plan. I also can't think of a team in recent history that rotated their quarterbacks on a half-by-half basis, let alone did so by choice. The Giants must have known Manning would reject their idea. The only question is whether they believed, if even for a second, that they would look like the good guys and justified for benching Manning when the report of the plan came out.

Is there a way the Giants could have done this without causing a self-inflicted PR disaster?

Maybe not, but I can certainly think of a better way to go about it. The Giants should have prepared for this possibility before this week. Once it was clear that they were dealing with a lost season -- starting 0-5 and losing Beckham probably should have been enough to tip them off -- they should have started getting Webb ready for a late-season cameo.

How does that work? You start giving him reps in practice with the first team weeks before he's ready to come in. Chalk it up to maintenance or wanting to keep Manning's arm fresh. Once you get to this point, when you know that you're going to move on from Manning next year, tell him what's going on privately before holding a news conference. Announce that you're going to evaluate Webb over the final three weeks of the season. Make the Giants-Cowboys game Eli Manning Appreciation Day and confirm that it's going to be his last start in a Giants uniform. Treat it like a graduation as opposed to a funeral.

There's still going to be outrage under that scenario, but at least you're doing right by Manning and letting him get his moment in front of the fan base. Doing it the Giants' way has just ensured that the fans are going to chant Eli's name during the second half of every home game the rest of the way unless Webb looks like Aaron Rodgers.

Why didn't the Giants make this move before the trade deadline?

Great question. The Giants were 1-6 and coming off their bye when the trade deadline struck on Oct. 31. The ESPN Football Power Index gave Big Blue just a 0.5 percent chance of making the postseason at that point, but I wonder if Reese still realistically thought the Giants had a shot at turning things around and running the table. I wouldn't say that idea is rational, but NFL front offices aren't always operated under any pretense of rationality. The 2013 Giants didn't make the playoffs, but they responded to their 0-6 start by going 7-3 over their final 10 games.

The Giants could have financially made an Eli trade work under the salary cap, but there wouldn't have been many suitors with the cap space and a need at quarterback. The Texans might have been able to piece together the cap room, but they lost Deshaun Watson for the season two days after the trade deadline. Manning might not have wanted to go to the Bills. The only obvious candidate would have been the Jaguars, and given the bad blood between Tom Coughlin and the Giants organization after Reese fired his longtime coach in January 2016, it's difficult to imagine the two teaming up on a trade for Coughlin's longtime starter. More on that in a bit.

So then the Giants are tanking, right?

They could be, although they were already in great shape to finish with one of the top picks in the 2018 draft. Big Blue already had a 77.7 percent shot of ending up with a top-five pick even before benching Manning, and while the combination of Smith and Webb should be worse, it's tough to imagine them falling much further than they already have.

Specifically, there's very little chance of the Giants tanking their way to the first overall pick in next year's draft. The 49ers would need to win one game and the 0-11 Browns would need to somehow get two victories in their final five contests to force a tie at 2-14, which the Giants would likely win on the strength of schedule tiebreaker. And that's assuming the Giants don't somehow back into a win by accident.

This might move the Giants up a draft spot or two, but it doesn't suddenly shoot them into the top of the draft order. Given that the Browns are almost certainly going to draft a quarterback with the first overall pick, it seems ill-advised to tank for the second-best quarterback in the draft.

Is there any chance the Giants still plan on bringing back Manning to start in 2018?

It's difficult to imagine, but then again, I don't think I would have believed that the Giants actually would have done any of this, and here we are. Manning is under contract through the end of 2019 on what amounts to a two-year deal with $33 million in new money. None of that money is guaranteed.

The Giants should be motivated to move on from Manning for financial reasons, given that he would be an albatross on their salary cap as a backup. His 2018 cap hit comes in at $22.2 million, which is the ninth largest of any player in football. They'll have to make a decision on Eli before March 17, which is when his $5 million roster bonus comes due. That's also the third day of free agency, so I suspect the Giants will have made their decision long before then.

The most cost-effective way to move on from Manning would be to designate him as a post-June 1 release while moving on from him in March. The Giants would save $16 million on their 2018 cap and post $6.2 million in dead money (for the accounting remainder of Manning's prorated and already-paid signing bonus) onto their cap in both 2018 and 2019. They desperately need that money to re-sign unrestricted free agents Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg, who are the two best players on their otherwise-porous offensive line.

Trading Manning before June (or cutting him without the post-June 1 designation) would leave $12.4 million in dead money on the 2018 cap, which would result in a savings of $9.8 million while wiping the slate totally clean of Manning before 2019. The problem with negotiating a swap is that Manning's contract includes a blanket no-trade clause, meaning that Eli would need to approve any deal by waiving his veto.

The no-trade clause will dramatically limit the range of teams the Giants can negotiate with and the likely return they'll get, given that New York has approximately zero leverage in this equation. What will almost assuredly happen is that the Giants will permit Manning and agent Tom Condon to negotiate with teams and pick a favorite, at which point the Giants will try to get a late-round pick to try to save face. If that doesn't work, the Giants will cut Manning before his bonus comes due.

Will McAdoo and Reese be back?

The Giants are as conservative as any organization in football when it comes to firing their football executives, but as Graziano noted Tuesday, this has to be the time for change in New York. I wrote earlier this year about the problems Reese has had drafting talent, and while he deserves credit for taking Beckham and Landon Collins in consecutive drafts, the Giants' roster has become increasingly dependent upon expensive free agents by virtue of Reese's poor drafting. The 54-year-old also oversaw the Josh Brown fiasco last season, which might have been grounds for firing in its own right.

It's fair to suggest that Reese (consciously or unconsciously) threw Coughlin overboard to help save his own job two years ago, and it would hardly be a surprise to see him try to do the same thing with McAdoo. The embattled Giants coach was originally promoted to the job because of the rapport he had built with Manning in revitalizing the struggling quarterback's career, but it's safe to say that the situation has changed. The easy comparison here is to Ray Handley, who took over as coach when Bill Parcells retired after the 1990 season but lasted only two years before being fired.

The only way I can imagine McAdoo and Reese keeping their jobs in 2018 is if Webb looks like a bona fide franchise quarterback over the final few games of this campaign. Viewed that way, you might even argue that benching Eli and evaluating Webb is a strangely noble gesture by a front office that knows it's on its way out to the next group of coaches and executives, who will gain valuable insight into seeing Webb perform. Giving Webb meaningful late-season playing time is the right thing to do for the future of the Giants, even if this administration went about enacting their plan the wrong way.

Who will be the Giants' quarterback in 2018?

It's impossible to say until we know the identity of the coach and his offensive coordinator, but I suspect their Week 1 starter isn't currently on the active roster. Even with Jimmy Garoppolo presumably off the market after being traded to San Francisco, the Giants could have quite a few veteran options available. Let's assume that Drew Brees stays in New Orleans and Jay Cutler retires again. New York could look toward any of the three Minnesota quarterbacks as a possible short-term starter, especially if they considered Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur as a coaching candidate. The Giants also could weaken a division rival by making a massive offer to Washington's Kirk Cousins, who will likely either receive the transition tag or hit unrestricted free agency.

Plenty of currently contracted passers also could be on the move if things break as expected. The Jaguars are likely to release Blake Bortles at his current cap hold, especially if their success attracts superior options. Tyrod Tayloris likelynot coming back in Buffalo. Alex Smith could be a trade candidate. None of those options are surefire successes, and I think the Giants will be drafting a quarterback in the first round of the 2018 draft, but there will be life after Eli.

Where will Manning play in 2018?

I think the most likely outcome is that Eli retires, especially if the Giants play hardball on trying to find a trade partner. Remember what happened with the Cowboys and Tony Romo last year; it seemed exceedingly likely this time last year that Romo would be starting for a team like the Broncos or Texans in 2017, but the Cowboys negotiated through the media and never got anyone to bite on their proposals. Romo eventually took a plum broadcasting job and retired.

If Manning does play, as Mike Sando noted in talking to NFL executives, the most obvious fit is in Jacksonville. The Jaguars have a ton of cap room, a hole at quarterback on an otherwise competitive team, and Coughlin running things in the front office. Manning would be following millions of New Yorkers in moving to Florida as his working life comes to a close, and for however he might have slipped this season, he would likely be an upgrade on Bortles.

As Sando also noted when we discussed the Jaguars' quarterback situation on my podcast, though, Manning might not be the ideal on-field fit for the Jaguars. Jacksonville is going to be built around its defense and running game over the next several seasons, and the quarterback it needs to complement that style of play is a passer who isn't going to turn the ball over.

Eli has quietly posted the lowest interception rate of his career in 2017, but he has never been very good at protecting the football. He has the fourth-worst era-adjusted interception rate among players with 3,000 passes or more since 2004 while averaging 8.5 fumbles per 16 games, which is third highest among those 21 quarterbacks. For whatever strengths Eli has, he's going to turn the ball over more than the Jaguars would want. Alex Smith, as Sando suggested, is the far more logical option for Coughlin and the Jags, sentiment aside.

If it's not the Jaguars, where could Eli go?

Assuming that the Giants are willing to trade Manning anywhere in the league besides Washington (where he would theoretically serve as a short-term Cousins replacement) and that Manning wants to play only where he will be guaranteed to start and have a shot at making the playoffs, I see a few feasible locations. In alphabetical order:

  • The Bills clearly want to move on from Taylor, and their defense has shown flashes of brilliance since Sean McDermott took over. With no obvious quarterback of the future on the roster and no clear path to a top prospect, they might prefer to go with Manning while waiting to draft a long-term solution.
  • The Broncos are free-falling at 3-8 and might make drastic changes this offseason, but there's still plenty of talent on defense and a pair of effective receivers in Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. Making the Peyton-to-Eli comparisons might be too simplistic given that they're at different points of their respective careers, but general manager John Elway may trust his instincts in scouting a Manning more than going after a young quarterback at this point.
  • The Cardinals are talking about starting Blaine Gabbert in 2018, which is less of a plan than it is a cry for help. Bruce Arians runs (or prefers to run) a vertical passing attack that shares some similarities to the scheme Manning ran under Kevin Gilbride earlier in his career. Arizona probably isn't winning a Super Bowl with Manning as its signal-caller, but with a veteran team, Arians might be able to talk Eli into heading West if Carson Palmer retires.
  • The Dolphinscould be ready to move on from Ryan Tannehill after the Texas A&M product missed the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL. Adam Gase made his name as a coach working with Peyton Manning in Denver, so you would figure the future Hall of Famer and pizza magnate would have good things to say about a possible Gase-Manning sequel. Again, though, would Manning want to move to a division in which the best-case scenario is probably second place?
  • The Vikings are likely to re-sign one (or more) of their trio of impending free agents, but if they don't come to terms with Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewateror Case Keenum, Eli would represent one of the better alternatives available.

At this point, though, Manning doesn't have much left to prove. His legacy is settled. Eli has won two Super Bowls, authoring one of the greatest upsets in league history with one of its most memorable plays. He's more of a compiler than a superstar -- Manning is 31 passes away from topping Elway and becoming the quarterback with the most pass attempts with league history without a first-team All-Pro nod -- but he's likely going to make the Hall of Fame. Tuesday will be a footnote in the story of Eli Manning.

And yet, you have to wonder whether the Giants just gave Eli something to prove. Manning's stoic-leaning-on-goofy nature doesn't lend itself to the sort of fiery adjectives you hear about Tom Brady, but Eli hasn't lasted 14 years in the NFL without being ambitious and self-motivated. If Brady can have a "Screw You" tour, why can't Manning? After Tuesday's shocking events, the quarterback who has alternated between Good Eli and Bad Eli for his entire career might have a new identity: Angry Eli.

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