As Ravens' QB transition nears, Giants' plan still in limbo

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Thursday, December 6, 2018

Giants coach Pat Shurmur stood there Monday, the day after a gutty upset victory in overtime by his 4-8 team, and spent the second half of his news conference fielding questions about quarterback succession plans. Shurmur doesn't want to talk about quarterback succession plans, at least not publicly, because (a) the Giants still aren't mathematically eliminated from playoff contention and (b) the Giants' situation in particular is extremely tricky.

The last coach who had the idea to sit franchise icon Eli Manning and spend December seeing what the other quarterbacks on his roster could do got fired less than a week later. That was last year, when Ben McAdoo and then-GM Jerry Reese made Geno Smith the starter for a week with a plan to play Davis Webb in later games, but both lost their jobs almost immediately and watched from a distance as Manning finished the season.

It's a new regime in New York now, as you certainly know, but the Giants are dealing with the same conundrum. Manning clearly isn't what he used to be and clearly isn't the future at the position. But with four games left and the rest of their division stubbornly refusing to eliminate them, the Giants are still struggling to figure out the right way to do this. They made fourth-round rookie Kyle Lauletta active Sunday for the first time this year, which means he could have gone into the game if they'd wanted to see him in it. Shurmur indicated Monday that he'd go with the same arrangement -- Manning as starter, Lauletta as backup -- this week in Washington.

But beyond that, he won't say, and it's entirely possible the Giants haven't figured it out yet. And while it might be temping for frustrated fans to rip them for that, I can't. What the Giants are trying to do isn't easy.

Quarterback succession plans, especially when the incumbent is a Super Bowl champion (twice, in the Giants' case) and a supremely solid citizen-leader who never misses games or causes off-field grief for the organization, are tricky. There are a number of ways to do them, but they're seldom neat. Kansas City seems to have pulled it off, trading Alex Smith after his big year and transitioning right into this brilliant season Patrick Mahomes is having, but the Chiefs are the exception.

The Patriots had a succession plan a year and a half ago, but they scrapped it when they sent Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco during Tom Brady's age-40 season. The Chargers and Steelers, who landed their current QBs the same year Manning joined the Giants, don't appear to have any concrete post-Philip Rivers or post-Ben Roethlisbergerplans. The difference between those teams and the Giants is that they're all winning and those quarterbacks are still playing at a high level, but at some point they're all going to need to figure this out, and it's seldom as easy as it was for ... well, the Giants in 2004 when Kurt Warner was a placeholder and gave way to Manning at midseason.

Watching Week 13, it struck me that the Baltimore Ravens may be pulling it off, though not because of any great plan they made.

Baltimore has started first-round rookie Lamar Jackson each of the past three games and won them all. Unconventionally, sure, but 3-0 is 3-0 and this team was 4-5 and seemingly going nowhere when Jackson took over. What happened for the Ravens is that incumbent, Super Bowl-champion starter Joe Flacco got hurt, and the Ravens put in Jackson because Flacco physically couldn't play. Now that Flacco's on his way back, they may have a decision to make, though as long as they're winning it's hard to see how they can make any decision other than keeping Jackson in place.

Manning has never done the Giants the favor Flacco did -- of getting hurt so they had no choice but to look at other options. Since he became the Giants' starter midway through his 2004 rookie season, the only game Manning has missed was that Geno Smith game last December. The Giants treat that episode the way "Family Guy" treats the Season 12 death of Brian the dog -- as an ill-conceived mistake they're better off pretending never happened. Had Manning been forced by injury to miss a game or several games while Ryan Nassib or Davis Webb were his backup, the Giants would have had an organic means of at least finding out about other options. Manning's uncanny durability has been an asset to the Giants, but as it pertains to succession plans it has been a bit of a wrench in the works.

"Longtime starter gets hurt" is a surprisingly common means of triggering a QB succession plan, by the way. It happened in Indianapolis, when Manning's older brother missed a season due to neck surgery and put the Colts in position to draft Andrew Luck No. 1 overall. It happened in Dallas, when a Tony Romo back injury forced the Cowboys to take a look at fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott.

But the other key issue is that the Giants have never during Eli Manning's career done what the Ravens did this year -- namely, draft a quarterback in the first round. Nassib and Lauletta were fourth-round picks, Webb a third-rounder, and backups such as Smith and David Carr were never supposed to be real threats to Manning's job (though Smith somehow turned out to be). The Giants have always treated Manning with the reverence his durability and accomplishments deserve. You win us two Super Bowls and play every game for a decade and a half, we'll do right by you, too.

Which is the main reason this is so hard. Talking to people close to this situation, it becomes clear that the organization's love and respect for Manning is driving a good chunk of the decision-making. It's the main factor that convinced the Giants not to take a quarterback with the second pick in this year's draft, even if the brilliance of Saquon Barkley will always provide them cover for that decision. It's the reason they never found out if Webb could do it, and it's a big part of the reason they may get through the rest of this season without finding out whether Lauletta can do it.

There are other reasons, of course. Lauletta is a fourth-round rookie out of Richmond whose list of pre-draft knocks centered on his ability to throw the football. Just because he's the next-best quarterback on the roster behind Manning doesn't mean he'll ever be a real NFL starter, nor does it mean the organization is obliged to play him. The Giants drafted him as a developmental player, and even if they thought he'd blossom into a starter someday, that day wasn't on the 2018 calendar.

And then there's the sticky little matter of the standings, where the Giants are 4-8 and assured of their fifth nonwinning season in the last six years but still, somehow, not mathematically eliminated. Had they lost -- and had the Vikings and Washington won -- the Giants would no longer be able to claim they still have a chance to make the playoffs. But they can, and it's to their credit that they feel compelled to try to win every game they can until that's no longer true. Further, having spent a fair bit of time around the Giants organization, I can assure you that they firmly believe in making winning each game an organizational priority even AFTER they're eliminated. The people who run the Giants are of the opinion that, as long as fans are still paying for tickets, parking, hot dogs, etc., the team is obligated to put its best possible product on the field. So even after they're inevitably eliminated in the next couple of weeks, don't assume that means Manning rides the bench the rest of the way.

The Giants have their own, deliberate way of doing things, and Manning is a special case. He's a ring of honor player whose accomplishments will be honored and cherished by the organization and its fans for a period of time far longer than that which this current sticky exit situation occupies. And that absolutely factors into every step they're taking.

For some teams, this happens easily. Flacco's injury and Jackson's 3-0 record have put the Ravens in position to be potentially (we'll see how it keeps going for Jackson) one of those teams. But a year after their first botched attempt to transition out of the Manning era, it still seems as if the Giants won't be. The answer to the question of what comes after Eli in New York is still a long way off.

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