Eli Manning will be back before you know it.
Manning was unceremoniously benched Tuesday afternoon after 14 seasons and 210 consecutive starts. The two-time Super Bowl MVP will be replaced by former tabloid back-page chew toy Geno Smith, a quarterback so inept that he deserved about half of the criticism he received during his Jets tenure.
The Giants have a more likely quarterback of the future on the roster in rookie Davis Webb, but Ben McAdoo, a lame duck whose New Year’s Day plans involve updating his LinkedIn page, is now the coaching equivalent of a movie character climbing into the cockpit of a crashing spaceship and randomly mashing buttons.
Recent history teaches us that starting quarterbacks always return quickly after their coaches/organizations make flailing, desperate decisions like this one. Trevor Freakin’ Siemian came back after four games. Benching is never forever in the NFL, unless Tom Brady and Drew Bledsoe are involved. And Geno Smith ain’t no Tom Brady.
Smith replaced injured Ryan Fitzpatrick early in a 2015 game and got injured himself in the fourth quarter, forcing the banged-up Fitzpatrick back into the game briefly. Smith survived just eight pass attempts in his last NFL start before Fitzpatrick had to replace him again. He will either get crushed while running for his life behind the Giants line or play to his usual Geno Smith level of sub-mediocrity.
McAdoo may then turn to Webb to see what a third-round pick can do for a team with no healthy receivers and an offensive line that was only recently upgraded from “disaster” to “embarrassment.” Or he may do Webb the favor of re-inserting Manning. Either way, an ugly Giants season is about to become septic.
As for the Eli Manning era in New York, it’s already over. Even if Manning relieves Smith at halftime on Sunday. Even if Manning returns next year, when McAdoo is just a bad flashback and the new coach decides not to look the gift horse of a proven incumbent quarterback in the mouth.
The Manning era was over before Smith was named the starter. It was over before the Tuesday morning announcement that the Week 14 Giants-Cowboys game has been deemed so irrelevant that the television networks flexed it out of a favorable time slot—for a Jaguars game, no less. It was over before Manning threw for 113 yards and an interception in a Thanksgiving loss that sent America to sleep before halftime.
The Eli Manning era ended the moment McAdoo blamed Manning for the delay of game penalty at the goal line in the Week 2 loss to the Lions.
WATCH: Coach Ben McAdoo's postgame reactions following Monday night's loss pic.twitter.com/sQF0DdDfgr
— New York Giants (@Giants) September 19, 2017
That’s when McAdoo displayed his true colors. That’s also when it became clear that, for all their spending, the Giants’ Super Bowl strategy boiled down to hoping Odell Beckham Jr. would carry them every step of the way.
The 2017 Giants were short-window contenders, custom-built to win one more Super Bowl while Manning was still a viable franchise quarterback. The experiment has been a slow-motion failure since the start of camp. But there was still hope in Week 2, when Beckham made his triumphant-but-brief return from injury, Brandon Marshall was still a thing and the Giants defense still had a chance to live up to its reputation and price tag.
But that loss, and McAdoo’s foray into the Manning Blame Game, sent the Giants skidding downhill into helplessness on offense and regularly scheduled mini-rebellions on defense. They were terrible, and Manning could do little to elevate the meager talent left surrounding him, but at least Manning’s presence gave the Giants a shred of dignity.
Manning had to choke back tears when talking to reporters Tuesday. Giants legends like Justin Tuck lined up on Twitter to take batting practice at McAdoo and the organization after the benching was announced. So much for the Giants’ dignity.
— Pat Leonard (@PLeonardNYDN) November 28, 2017
Despite ever-growing evidence that McAdoo had lost control of his locker room, the Giants opted to wait until the end of this season to decide the coach’s fate. He awarded their patience and sense of propriety by doing what the worst bosses do when they know they are about to be fired: causing some extra damage on his way out the door.
There are good reasons for keeping Manning in the lineup for the rest of the season. A quarterback of Manning’s stature who is clearly not the culprit for his team’s woes deserves a symbolic gesture of respect for his accomplishments, his contribution to the franchise and his unique iron man streak. Letting him finish the season on his own terms sends a message to veterans around the league, coaches, agents and others. Professionalism does not go unnoticed in the NFL.
Keeping Manning in the huddle would also guarantee competence at quarterback, if not excellence. Manning would make evaluating newcomers on the line or at the skill positions easier by operating quickly in the pocket and making proper reads, two things Smith and Webb probably cannot be counted upon to do. There is more to preparing for a roster overhaul, after all, than just swapping out quarterbacks.
There are also good reasons to give Webb an extended look. The Giants face the porous Raiders and Cowboys defenses over the next two weeks; that’s the kind of soft launch that gives a rookie quarterback a chance to show what he can do, even if the receiving corps is depleted, the coach is out of ideas and the whole organization is demoralized.
Yet McAdoo managed to make a decision that combines the worst of both worlds. On Tuesday, he claimed it’s his “responsibility” to evaluate both young quarterbacks, but why start with the reclamation project who is unlikely to suddenly re-emerge as a potential starter in a system completely ill-suited to his best attributes?
McAdoo may be hiding an unprepared Webb: He has already lost this job, but a pratfall by the rookie he was supposed to develop could lose him his next job as a quarterback coach or coordinator. Maybe the Giants are using McAdoo’s apparent incompetence as cover for tanking, although the coach does not appear to be going rogue from the front office on this decision. Maybe McAdoo thinks he still has a chance to save his job if Smith scrambles his way to a few fluke victories.
No matter the reasoning, it is an ugly situation that is going to produce uglier football than we even witnessed on Thanksgiving night. And it’s a terrible way to treat a quarterback whose class and determination in the face of the daily chaos of playing football in New York was a credit to the Giants organization.
The defining characteristic of the Manning era was never dominance, because Manning’s Giants never dominated, not even in their championship seasons. It wasn’t statistical excellence, because Manning’s numbers have always drifted between decent and terrible. The defining element was the sense that the Giants did things a certain way, and they always had a chance.
Manning’s Giants could start the season 0-2 and win a Super Bowl. They could be 6-6 in early December but end up winning the Super Bowl. Whether Tom Coughlin or McAdoo was the head coach, the Giants never panicked, because they were always capable of making a run, thanks in large part to a quarterback who was always available, always professional and often a better coach on the field than whichever coach was calling the plays.
Manning may be back, perhaps before we know it. But that feeling that the Giants are always contenders with him under center will never return.
That feeling died months ago. All McAdoo and the Giants did Tuesday was bury it.