Just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, the New York Giants compounded a lost season by losing their way. As a lifelong Giants fan, every moment of this 2-9 fiasco — one that began with legitimate Super Bowl hopes — has been painful. And yet, nothing compared to Tuesday’s decision to bench Eli Manning.
For 14 seasons and 210 consecutive starts, through Super Bowl trophies and six-win slogs, Manning has been the constant for the Giants. Some weeks he’d hit every receiver in stride; other times he’d hit the back of their heads. But that, like his goofy facial expressions, just made him more endearing. He wasn’t perfect. He was Eli.
And no matter the obstacle, he found a way to play. Manning separated his shoulder during the 2007 opener in Dallas and was supposed to miss the next month. The following Sunday, No. 10 was back under center. In 2009, he played through most of the season with torn plantar fascia and notched the first of six seasons with at least 4,000 yards passing. Somehow, in a league built on violence, Manning endured.
Now the Giants are rewarding his durability by turning him into a scapegoat. The Giants have long held themselves up as a model franchise, one that resisted the temptation of emotional decisions and prized loyalty and commitment. Just look at their rivals to see the difference: The Eagles, Cowboys, and Jets have started 12 quarterbacks apiece since 2004; Washington has started 10. The Giants had been different, but not anymore.
Benching Manning is just the latest example of bad judgment by head coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese.
Last year, the offensive line couldn't open a hole for a running back or protect its quarterback. It was the most obvious issue with the team, yet Reese and McAdoo did nothing to address it in the offseason.
So this year’s results shouldn’t be surprising. According to Next Gen Stats, Manning averages just 2.53 seconds to throw per attempt this season, which is less time than all but four opening-day starters. When he isn’t forced to rush a throw, no one is open. Manning has operated for most of the season without his top three targets — Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, and Sterling Shepard — because of injuries. A successful play these days is one where Manning doesn’t end up in the concussion protocol. Yet this mess is somehow his fault?
McAdoo couched the move as a chance to evaluate Smith and rookie Davis Webb, but get real: Smith has produced more than enough evidence that he is not a starting-caliber QB, and Webb was a third-round pick last April. This isn’t exactly Aaron Rodgers waiting behind Brett Favre.
Nor can any good come from evaluating passers playing behind a substandard line and with a broken group of skill players. It’s like trying to decide whether you like coq au vin when it’s been prepared by a 4-year-old over a campfire — there are no rational conclusions to draw from anyone playing in this environment. That the Giants think they can gain any meaningful knowledge about Smith or Webb shows the same critical thinking skills that led them to believe Ereck Flowers could be a foundational left tackle or that McAdoo was fit to lead a team.
That’s the other illogical aspect of this whole debacle. McAdoo, the man primarily responsible for the decision to bench Manning, would inspire a riot from Giants fans if he coaches another year. And that was before he opted to start Smith. Yet he’s being allowed to make a decision that, at a minimum, tarnishes the relationship between the franchise and its quarterback, and might forever alter Manning’s legacy.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with former NFL QB Chris Simms last winter
Back when I worked at Bleacher Report, I would see Simms at the office. We were discussing the Giants and how they seemed to run only a handful of pass patterns — all slants and shallow crosses. I had assumed that was McAdoo’s way of scheming around the team’s porous O-line. Quick passes helped make up for the fact that the linemen couldn’t block.
But Simms said that wasn’t the case: This was McAdoo’s offense, and it was as bland as any in the league. Simms told me McAdoo did nothing to aid his line in pass protection, nor did he utilize sophisticated route combinations to create space for his receivers. It was just the same, antiquated version of the West Coast offense that most of the league had long since abandoned. And it played to none of Manning’s strengths.
Watching this season, it became clear that Simms was right, and the results have followed. So maybe it isn’t surprising that McAdoo would make such a short-sighted decision. And Reese hired McAdoo, so maybe he’s not capable of thinking clearly either.
But John Mara should know better. He is the guardian of the Giant Way. He learned the value of stability from his father and celebrated four Super Bowl victories as an outgrowth of that philosophy. He has been around this franchise long enough to know what Eli means to Giants fans, to recognize that even if this move were strategically valid, it would still lead to a PR nightmare.
Yet Mara allowed this to happen on his watch. And predictably, New York exploded in anger. Fans burned up talk radio lines to bash the move. Former Giants, from Tom Coughlin to Shaun O’Hara to Justin Tuck, lashed out publicly. The future has never looked so bleak. And to what end? A chance to play Geno Smith?
Manning’s days in New York may not be done. Ownership willing, the Giants will have a new GM and a new coach next season and, if they don’t take a QB at the top of the first round, Manning could be back in his old job at age 37. But after fighting back tears on Tuesday afternoon, how can he ever look at his bosses the same way? How can he trust the Mara family? How can he view himself as a Giant for life?
This is not the way to treat a man who has given so much to this franchise for so long. Eli Manning deserved better. And we Giants fans won’t let them forget it.