Eli Manning has only known one NFL team. Now what?

ByIan O'Connor ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 12, 2017

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning might yet return to the New York Giants next year, and any number of moves could make that happen. His team owner, John Mara, could fill the vacant general manager position with Dave Gettleman, a former Giants executive who won two titles with Manning and could be the candidate most inclined to believe a diminished Eli is better than no Eli at all.

As much as the Giants are a multibillion-dollar operation, they are run as a family business. Gettleman left the team after 13 seasons to build a contender in Carolina, but he is family. Eli is family. The consultant in the GM search and the man who acquired Eli, Ernie Accorsi, is family. The Giants often fall back on what they know and what they're familiar with. Unlike many professional sports franchises, they look for reasons to keep people, not to bum-rush them out the door.

But when Mara did fire GM Jerry Reese and head coach Ben McAdoo, he said the Giants needed "wholesale changes" that went beyond the reinstatement of Eli as their quarterback. If Mara had any private doubts about that publicly stated concession, they disappeared Sunday as he watched theDallas Cowboys and Jerry Jones -- an NFC East rival and owner whom Mara and his late father, Wellington, always loathed -- pancake the home team in the fourth quarter by a 20-0 count to win 30-10.

The Giants of interim coach Steve Spagnuolo didn't look much different from the Giants of the departed McAdoo. Of equal consequence, the Eli of Spagnuolo didn't look much different from the Eli of McAdoo, either. Eli completed a lot of short passes made necessary by a broken offensive line, missed some open receivers, suffered through a couple of drops and generally came across as a soon-to-be 37-year-old who needs a lot more help to succeed.

If anything, Sunday's loss to a 6-6 Dallas team supplied more evidence that Mara's wholesale changes will include the two-time Super Bowl MVP. The Giants currently hold the prospective No. 2 pick in the 2018 NFL draft thanks toJimmy Garoppolo's winning touch with the 49ers. If the Giants want Manning to return as a one-year mentor to whichever stud quarterback they will surely pick -- assuming they don't consider current third-stringer Davis Webbto be their better option -- Eli won't embrace that role.

"I know Eli's throwing it too good and has too much football left in him not to be playing more than that," Eli's oldest brother, Cooper, said.

Eli told ESPN.com in August that he thought he could play another four seasons. Despite his personal 2-10 record for a 2-11 team, Manning hasn't deviated from that projection. He doesn't see himself playing only one more season as a bridge to 2019 -- or to the last six or seven games of 2018, when the Giants could theoretically hand his job to the quarterback they drafted just as they handed Kurt Warner's job to a rookie Eli nine games into the 2004 season.

If the new GM and head coach don't see Eli as a three-year proposition, or if they plan on drafting and immediately playing their version of Andrew Luck and cutting Eli the way the Colts cut his brother Peyton, Eli could need a new team in the coming months. Would that team be getting a quarterback capable of winning a third ring if he was surrounded by championship-level talent? Or would they be getting a declining star whose deficiencies were clear before his temporary demotion to second-string enraged a sentimental market that rallied around the 2017 Eli as if he were the 2011 version of himself? Or both?

No matter the answers, this much is clear: Eli's talent for staying on the field while holding down the sport's most important position makes him a viable player in the NFL. Look at what happened to Carson Wentz, who tore his ACL on Sunday to prematurely end his MVP campaign. Look at what happened to Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Carson Palmer, Sam Bradford, and Ryan Tannehill earlier this season.

Those things never happen to Eli Manning. Ever. Over his 13-year career he has played through relatively serious shoulder and foot injuries that would have benched other men. He once bled so much from a gruesome head injury suffered in the 2010 preseason that he made Y.A. Tittle's famous head wound look like a paper cut. Perhaps the biggest hit Eli ever took was his first in mop-up relief of Warner in the 2004 season-opener at Philadelphia. Jerome McDougle viciously blindsided Eli, separating him from the ball and his senses. "I thought he was dead," said his father Archie.

New Yorkers have always appreciated that Manning showed up for work, regardless of how he felt. That's why they revolted when McAdoo presented his amateur-hour plan to play Manning in the first half then turn toGeno Smith and possibly Webb in the second, effectively forcing Eli to the bench. That's why the fans wore his No. 10 jerseys in the MetLife Stadium stands when the Giants hosted the Cowboys over the weekend, and gave him a standing ovation when he took the field, and chanted his name after he threw his one and only touchdown pass.

Someone will hire Eli for the toughness and durability that allowed him to string together 210 consecutive regular-season starts before he got McAdoo'd a couple of weeks ago. But that team will need more than his reliability to compete for a Super Bowl. That team will need more of the deep second-quarter ball he threw to Evan Engram on Sundayafter reading the blitz, calling an audible at the line and absorbing the hit on delivery.

Can Manning make those plays as regularly as he once did, as regularly as the likes ofCase Keenum make now given quality blockers, wide receivers and running backs to work with? It depends on who you want to listen to, and whether you want to believe the Giants are so awful that they've badly damaged a player who would otherwise be slinging it like quarterbacks with his last name always do.

The Manning Passing Academy at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, is promoted as America's premier camp for quarterbacks and the skill-position players around them. Cooper, the eldest and most naturally athletic of the three Manning boys, is one of the camp's senior associate directors, along with Eli. He was a highly regarded wide receiver when spinal stenosis ended his college career at Ole Miss before it started, and the son of a former NFL quarterback and the brother of two Super Bowl MVPs. So, he knows a thing or three about the QB position and has an interesting scouting report on Eli.

Forty of the top college quarterbacks act as counselors to the approximately 1,300 campers the academy takes in every June. Those counselors have throwing sessions during the camp, and Eli throws along with them. The draft prospects in the running to replace Manning in New York -- UCLA's Josh Rosen, USC's Sam Darnold, Louisville's Lamar Jackson, Wyoming's Josh Allen and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield -- have all shown off their right arms at the camp. But the way Cooper scouted it, the wiz kids couldn't keep up with his kid brother.

"I don't think anybody who was there would disagree that in terms of arm strength and where the ball was going and where it was being put, Eli's skills are still at the top of his game," Cooper said. "He may be throwing it with more velocity than I've ever seen. So in spirit sometimes you can look and say, 'Golly, this guy doesn't quite have it like he used to.' That was certainly not the case at the academy against some of these fresh, live arms. Josh Allen can throw it 80 yards, but if you're talking about an 18-yard break-in with velocity and zip, I'd say Eli was unmatched. No question."

Eli loyalists generally believe his play this season is a product of the injuries to his primary receivers, especially Odell Beckham Jr., and to an offensive line that rarely lets him set his feet. After delivering an 11-5 record in McAdoo's first year, the Giants were supposed to be a credible Super Bowl contender. Eli said before the season that he thought Reese had put together "a special group of guys." It was his first bad read of the year, and it sure wouldn't be his last.

As it turned out, the Giants were not special. They were not even competent. The team crumbled around Eli, and his legs couldn't carry him out of trouble. Never a mobile quarterback to begin with, he faced a next-to-impossible task to complete. Cooper described it as "doing surgery with knives and forks instead of scalpels."

On the other hand, Eli's QBR the past five seasons, including this one, have ranked him 23rd, 27th, 16th, 14th, and 27th in the league. His record over those five seasons is 32-44. Even his most enthusiastic supporters realize all of that can't be pinned on the 10 other players on his side of the ball.

The coach and general manager who will decide how much blame Eli deserves for this season aren't in the building yet. If that incoming tandem chooses to release the quarterback before March 17 to avoid paying him a $5 million roster bonus -- or even designate him as a post-June 1 release to save $16 million of his $22.2 million 2018 cap hit -- Eli's options could be limited.

Jacksonville is the most obvious destination for the most obvious of reasons: Tom Coughlin is calling the shots. The Jaguars might feel they're a veteran quarterback away from finally giving Coughlin the ring he was chasing when he led them to two AFC title games in their first five years of existence. Then again, Blake Bortles is only 25 years old and he has been on fire the past two weeks.

Denver, the other potential destination most often mentioned, appears to be a long shot even though John Elway has had it with open quarterback competitions in camp featuring unworthy participants. Yes, the Broncos GM persuaded an aging and surgically repaired Peyton to sign with the team. And yes, an aging and surgically repaired Peyton reached two Super Bowls and won a title. But that doesn't mean Eli is interested in turning Denver into the Manning Passing Academy West.

In fact, Peyton's presence and success with the Broncos might scratch Denver from Eli's list. Asked whether his youngest son could conceivably follow his middle child's lead, Archie said: "That would probably be hard. The first thing Eli did when he was recruited out of high school was tell Coach [Phil] Fulmer at Tennessee he wasn't coming."

Eli was fine with following his father to Ole Miss, but not with following Peyton to Knoxville. Eli's former Pro Bowl center with the Giants, Shaun O'Hara, an NFL Network analyst who remains close with the QB, reminded that Eli rejected an offer to host "Saturday Night Live" in 2008 because, in part, his older brother had just hosted it in 2007.

"Eli always had good judgment," O'Hara said. "Then he won his second Super Bowl, hosted 'Saturday Night Live' [in 2012], and killed it. That's Eli in a nutshell.

"So I don't think Eli would want to play for the Broncos. He's always been, 'I'm not Peyton.' In going to Denver, he would feel like he'd be riding his coattails."

Washington might be in the market for a quarterback if Kirk Cousins leaves, and ditto for Arizona if Palmer retires. Cincinnati and Buffalo could be done with Andy Dalton and Tyrod Taylor. But the truth is, none of these options is likely to be appealing to Eli, who adores the New York region and has developed a Springsteen-esque love for New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and three daughters.

"What about the Jets?" O'Hara said. "Eli lives in Summit, which is a shorter drive to the Jets' facility than to the Giants', and he'd get to still play in MetLife. Why not the Jets? They're always trying to beat the Patriots, and Eli's the only guy who's proven he can do that."

Eli wearing a green No. 10 in the Meadowlands? As hard as it is to imagine, nothing can be ruled out.

"Peyton was in Indianapolis for 14 years," Archie said, "and I never envisioned him playing for anyone else. It can happen. I was in my 12th year in New Orleans when I was traded, and I never thought I'd play anywhere else. It's part of the game."

Archie said Peyton at one point considered staying in Indianapolis and tutoring Luck because he "thought he was supposed to play his whole career in one place." Eli has badly wanted to retire a one-uniform New York Giant, and insisted on his no-trade clause to ensure that happened. When McAdoo bounced him from the lineup, the relationship between franchise and franchise player changed. The over-matched coach had blamed Eli's "sloppy quarterback play" for shaping a Week 2 loss to Detroit that set an ominous tone for the rest of the season, and it appeared he was sacrificing an Eli start in Week 13 in a vain attempt to save himself. The fans reacted as if Eli was their own kid brother, and soon enough Manning regained his job while McAdoo lost his.

The odds of staying with the Giants don't look good for Eli, but then again, he has beaten long odds before. Accorsi, the former Giants GM, could have draftedPhilip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, and by late 2006, Roethlisberger had already won a Super Bowl for Pittsburgh and Coughlin was studying tapes of Rivers and the Chargers' offense for tips on how to improve Eli. Accorsi used to dine with his son in Hoboken and look over at Eli's apartment building and imagine that the beleaguered quarterback was holed up inside. "And I'm the one who put him here," Accorsi told himself.

People laughed when Peyton finally won his long, lost ring and then celebrated the next morning by predicting his brother would lead the Giants to multiple Super Bowls. Eli made him a prophet. He made Accorsi a prophet, too. The GM had written in his scouting report on the Ole Miss Eli that the quarterback had courage and poise and "that quality you can't define. Call it magic."

Chances are, the Giants don't think Eli can pull any more rabbits out of his helmet. If personnel men around the league seem divided on the question of whether Eli has enough left to lead a team on a postseason run, consider Bill Polian, the ESPN analyst who built Super Bowl teams in Buffalo and Indianapolis, among those who believes Eli could still make it to the big game for a third time with the right cast.

"Yes, absolutely, and his brother is living proof of that," Polian said. "I definitely think Eli has a lot left. You have to protect him, that's the bottom line. He can't extend and can't make plays with his feet, and he never has. He plays with his arm and his head, and as long as you protect him he's still an excellent quarterback."

If the incoming coach and GM share Polian's viewpoint, Eli could be in business. He actually could have a shot at reaching his goal of retiring as a Giant. But if the incoming coach and GM want him to stick around for another season to help teach and groom, O'Hara thinks Eli is gone. "He wants to play three or four more years," O'Hara said.

Who knows for sure how this will play out. Things change dramatically in the NFL, and in New York. Yankees GM Brian Cashman angered and humiliated an aging and declining Derek Jeter during contract negotiations when he publicly dared the captain to go find a better offer somewhere else. Jeter ultimately made a deal with the Yankees, got his happy Bronx ending and, voila, just shipped Cashman a deferred show of appreciation in the form of Giancarlo Stanton.

One home-run hero walks into the market, one two-time Super Bowl MVP prepares to possibly walk away. The next team that employs Eli Manning would get a durable and dignified quarterback, that's for sure. What it gets beyond that, though, would be one of the more fascinating NFL mysteries of 2018.

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