“I guess he's basically Brett Favre to Giants fans — lots of good throws and lots of INTs — but with the mentality that he just found out he got to play in the NFL today every day of his career.”
That’s how my best friend, a lifelong Giants fan, described Eli Manning. Whatever I write from here on, I won’t do any better than that. Whether Eli was good or bad, he seemed like somebody who genuinely enjoyed what he was doing in a way that a lot of NFL players don’t. He appreciated his position as much as anyone can, but not in a serious way. Football just seemed to strike Eli like a really cool thing to do for a living.
Eli isn’t retired or dead, but the Giants’ decision to bench him this week feels like the end of his career in essence. The decision ends a streak of 210 regular season games started — 222 including the playoffs — that was second all time to Favre and would have kept going if the Giants hadn’t stopped him.
Of course, that’s the Giants’ prerogative. Fans should want their favorite teams to win games, and benching Eli was done as a step towards doing that — both immediately, and into the future. Starting for the Giants sure did mean a lot to him, however, for what that’s worth:
No, this isn’t the end end. Eli could be back starting for the Giants in Week 14, or next season, or for Jacksonville. It is the end of Eli being the big galoob you could love even if he was throwing interceptions, however.
He is tainted now by the set of expectations that apply to most other quarterbacks in the league. If he plays for the Giants again, he can expect to be replaced if he struggles. Anywhere else, he won’t be a folk hero in the same way he was in New York.
Two Super Bowls bought Eli a lot of grace, but not quite enough. And maybe that’s fine. The NFL likes to bill itself as a great meritocracy; for the 2-9 Giants, why not make a change? The offense’s struggles aren’t really Eli’s fault: The offensive line is terrible, and the offensive skill players available are hurt or substandard. Head coach Ben McAdoo and GM Jerry Reese appear to be lame ducks for good reason — but OK, benching Eli can’t hurt at this point.
But how the Giants benched Eli feels so mean, like he was just any other roster body. A lot of former players noticed. They were not happy.
I'm absolutely speechless. I've watched every game & have sat through this rough @Giants season & this what you do to a man who has lead this team for 210 straight games— David Diehl (@davediehl66) November 28, 2017
I think most of the outrage for the Eli situation isn't the actual benching. It's the casualness of the benching like he's a young player who hasn't earned the right to a better sendoff.— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) November 28, 2017
I will say it again... He deserves better, and yet he gave his all when Better wasn't available..REMEMBER THIS.. He Didn't QUIT on his TEAM a single damn Play!! let that sink in.. HE NEVER QUIT A SINGLE PLAY!!!— Carl Banks (@CarlBanksGIII) November 28, 2017
You’ll note in a lot of the uproar that Eli’s level of play isn’t mentioned. The fact that he was only occasionally good the last several years isn’t really relevant. Eli’s 210 straight starts and two Super Bowl rings gave him well-earned tenure, bolstered by the fact that everyone who knows him seems to love him.
Another Giants fan friend of mine calls Eli a “hero of the awkward” — “this soft spoken guy that makes a ton of mistakes ... yet finds ways to do the impossible.” The most impressive feat Eli ever pulled was getting one of the most hardened-soul cities in the world to unconditionally stand up for him, a boyish man or a man-ish boy who carried the teeny-tiniest pail around with him on the beach.
The greatest moments of Manning’s career may very well have been accidents. If the helmet catch never happened, then it wouldn’t hurt so bad to see him on the bench. And yet, it’s hard to imagine anyone except someone so blissfully unaffected by the normal pressures of football pulling it off.
Eli was so earnest, and he played earnestly. During an NFL Films documentary of the 2007 Giants’ run to the Super Bowl, he looked at the camera and claimed “I like to say I’m not superstitious, but I am a little ’stitious,” with a pleased little shucks smile on his face. You can see it here:
Later in the documentary, as Grantland noted, the line was repeated in a way that completely missed the point of Eli Manning.
While that does indeed sound like something the quarterback might say, Sepinwall explained that it was ripped from a Michael Scott line in an episode of The Office. That was lost on NFL Films producers and on narrator James Gandolfini: “later in the episode,” Sepinwall wrote, “Gandolfini repeats the line with all the gravity of John Facenda referring to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.”
Eli doesn’t do gravitas, just like he doesn’t do self-doubt. There was never any question at any moment that he was performing to the best of his ability, because it has never seemed to occur to him that he might have the option. No one could possibly say he wasn’t up to the task of any given moment after what he did to the Patriots — the best franchise of this century — twice. Recently, it almost seemed as if the more Eli struggled, the more endearing he was. If his best was bad on a given Sunday, you could forgive him.
Eli plays and acts a lot like a youngest sibling, frankly. I’m the youngest of four, so I should know. You keep quiet a lot growing up because you’re always the dumbest person at the dinner table. You get good at being on your own because everyone else’s attention is divided. You learn patience. You may seem slow. You become someone who struggles to see what’s happening around you — whether danger, or opportunity — and that can be both good and bad.
In Eli’s present situation, to be oblivious is a good thing. A lot of people are furious for Eli because they feel he has been mistreated. Eli could be mad, too, but he has already moved on to acceptance, saying that the starting streak only matters to him if he deserves to play. He may hurt right now — we may, too — but Eli will bounce back much more quickly than any of us will. He knows very well that there is always a way forward, and that this isn’t really the end.