EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — Eli Manning is standing barefoot at his locker, no one within 10 feet of him. He slowly tucks his light blue button-down shirt into his navy blue suit pants. His facial expression is blank. Nearby, a horde of reporters crowd around Odell Beckham’s empty locker, waiting for the mercurial receiver to return and hold court, possibly expecting him to, again, criticize his quarterback, the much-maligned franchise legend, the man with two Super Bowl rings and possibly no believers left outside of this locker room.
The clock has just struck midnight, about half an hour after the Thursday night game mercifully ended. Yes, the Giants had lost to the Eagles 34-13. But the defeat felt more significant than just another notch in the Giants’ ever-expanding loss column.
“Obviously not where we want to be,” Manning says minutes later, standing at the press conference dais. He shrugs his shoulders and shakes his hand. “Not happy about it. Frustrated. Like everybody.”
He shrugs again, seemingly out of explanations.
Coming into the night, the game was billed as two teams, hailing from the worst division in football, fighting to save their respective seasons. The Giants entered at 1-4. The Eagles at 2-3. But, as was constantly pointed out, no team in the NFC East had a record above .500, and all four boasted a negative point differential on the season. So, the thought process went, whichever team won this game was still in position to make a run for the playoffs. Philadelphia, the defending Super Bowl champs, still boasted one of the more complete rosters in the league. New York could still make the argument that it has two of the best offensive playmakers in the league in Beckham and rookie running back Saquon Barkley. Maybe, just maybe, one of the teams would play to its full potential and kick start its season.
Philadelphia did, to an extent. It can come away from the blowout feeling like its season is back on track. The Eagles entered the game without having scored 24 points this season, the longest such drought for the franchise in 20 years. They hit that total before halftime. Before Thursday night, Philadelphia had scored just three touchdowns in its previous nine times in the red zone. It hit paydirt on four of six red-zone trips against New York, who came into the game with the third-best red-zone defense in the league. Through their first five games, the Eagles offense ranked 30th in starting field position; on Thursday, it had drives that started at its own 42 or better on four drives. Quarterback Carson Wentz, in his fourth game back from last season’s ACL tear, looked mobile in and out of the pocket and more than comfortable throwing it deep, a component of the offense that had been missing thus far this year.
“Cleaned up a handful of mistakes,” Wentz said after the game. “Obviously we weren’t perfect … but it’s a big win for us.
“It’s huge. Obviously being 3-3 is a heck of a lot better than being 2-4.”
That is to say, the Eagles got a much-needed victory and looked much better than they have at any point this season. Maybe not Super Bowl good, but certainly playoffs good. Yet it’s hard to really evaluate how good the Eagles are, or could be, because man, did the Giants look bad. Like things are about to get very interesting in New York bad. Like end of an era bad. Like Eli Manning may not make it through this season— or maybe even the next few weeks— as the team’s starting quarterback bad.
New York came into the game teetering on the edge of organizational chaos, if not already dangling halfway over that ledge. Its star wide receiver had called out its once-star quarterback in an ESPN interview, while, for some reason that was never really explained, sitting beside the rapper Lil Wayne. Beckham denigrated the team’s “heart” and “energy.” He questioned if the quarterback could still throw the deep ball, or, why the coaching staff wasn’t calling for it more often—his true intentions weren’t entirely clear there. Then, to make matters worse and more farcical, Wayne called out Manning himself in an Instagram video the next day. The rapper claimed that the quarterback should think of playing some of Wayne’s new album, “Tha Carter V,” before the team’s next game. Maybe that would help improve his play, Lil Wayne surmised.
It was all too ridiculous to not have a galvanizing effect on the team. Right? If there was ever a time that the team would come together, would use all of the outside noise and criticism and schadenfreude to its benefit, it would have to be this week. This team couldn’t be as bad as it has looked, and now, with the sports world laughing at it, it’d finally show it. Right?
Clearly not. Manning ostensibly did not listen to Lil Wayne’s advice, finishing the game 24 of 43 for 281 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. And the stat line doesn’t even capture the full picture of just how impotent the Giants offense was.
Yet, still, after the game, back in the locker room, once Beckham arrives to greet the waiting mass of reporters, the receiver doesn’t pile on his quarterback. Instead, the often brash and unfiltered Beckham regurgitates platitudes.
“Just need to just keep going,” he says. “Keep working harder. Take it day by day.”
It was clearly not the Giants’ day right from the start. The game started out inauspiciously, immediately, for New York. The opening kickoff was fumbled and recovered by the Eagles. Even though the call was overturned, it was not what you’d want from a team coming into a game fighting to save its season. Two plays later, Manning forced a pass over the middle and was intercepted.
Before Thursday, if you really wanted to, it had been somewhat easy to find excuses for this year’s Giants team and for Manning. Even at 1-4, there had been hope that New York could still turn this around, still salvage the season. The offensive line had been abysmal, and Manning has proven his whole career that he needs time in the pocket to be efficient. On the surface, he had been putting up some of the best numbers of his career— a career-best 71.7% completion rate entering the night, for starters. So maybe, as the offensive line grew more comfortable playing together and the protection improved, he’d get better.
And sure, critics could argue that it may have been smarter for the team to have drafted a quarterback with the second pick, but Barkley had more than lived up to the hype so far in the season, repeatedly breaking off long, electric runs despite being hit in the backfield almost every time he touched the ball. The offensive weapons were there, the team just had to get acclimated to a new coach and new offense; it would eventually come together. Right?
Well, no. After the game it was very clear that the Giants are not good. Actually, they are bad. Very bad, even. Possibly, improbably, even worse than last year’s team. And with every screen pass, and every hitch route, and every ball that barely traveled past the line of scrimmage on Thursday night, it became clearer and clearer that Manning’s time in New York is nearing its end.
Manning seems to now be a vestige from a bygone era of the NFL. With Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz and every other young, supremely talented passer in the league, it is becoming clear that to be a great quarterback in the NFL now you must be mobile, must have the ability to get out of the pocket and create plays when everything around him breaks down. Manning has never been that type of QB and, at 37 years old and still jarringly unathletic (by NFL standards), obviously he will not miraculously transform into that type of QB now.
On the podium, Manning is the same Manning that he always has been throughout his career in New York—stoic and professional, not calling out any teammates or any coaches, not giving a glimpse into his personal feelings or psyche or any real true emotions. He doesn’t admit to having any doubt in himself.
“My confidence in myself is good,” he says. “I know I can play.”
Pat Shurmur’s message to the Giants after the game was that they all need to stay together and continue to believe. Barkley—who broke off highlight-reel run after highlight-reel run all game, juking away from defenders, jumping over defenders and throwing defenders off of him like he was brushing lint off his jacket en route to finishing with 229 all-purpose yards and a score—says he still believes in his quarterback. As Barkley exits the locker room, the rookie says he doesn’t care how well he played. The team lost and that’s all that matters. He’s asked if the team has any doubt with Manning remaining as the starting QB.
“Why would we?” he responds. “I believe Eli is a great quarterback. He’s a great leader and captain of this team. We still believe.”
That belief, while seemingly genuine, likely does not extend far past this locker room. Last season, when then-Giants coach Ben McAdoo benched Manning, snapping his consecutive start streak of 210 games, the response to the move was swift; fans were absolutely livid, former players pledged to protest on the team’s sideline and both the coach and general manager were fired before season’s end. That may no longer be the case.
On Thursday, Manning was booed repeatedly. Screen pass. Boo. Hitch route at the line of scrimmage. Louder boo. Overthrown ball. Booed off the field. For the first time, it appeared like Giants fans were more than ready to move on from the quarterback, the long-time fan favorite. Manning has had a legion of supporters in New York for many years—a byproduct of his two postseason runs (and rings), historically clutch plays and overall impeccable off-field conduct—but it was evident Thursday that support is dwindling.
“That’s not something I get caught up in,” Manning says on the podium, when asked about the boos. “I understand that.”
What everyone else now understands, however, is that the end is fast approaching for Manning in New York. And, yes, the end is always sad. But it is also inevitable.