The Giants made a very surprising move Sunday in releasing backup quarterback Davis Webb. In so doing, the team reemphasized what it had made so apparent during the NFL draft: it has complete faith in Eli Manning, not just for this season but apparently for a few years to come.
Webb, after all, was thought to be in the process of being groomed as the team’s potential quarterback of the future, after getting selected in the third round of the 2017 draft. That had provided some seemingly valuable context to the Giants’ decision in April to select running back Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick, rather than Sam Darnold or either of the other highly touted quarterback prospects who could have developed while the 37-year-old Manning entered the twilight of his career.
However, after doing the expected and keeping Webb through Saturday’s league-wide cutdowns to 53-man rosters, the Giants released him Sunday, in a move described by beat reporters as “stunning” and “shocking.” That left the Giants with two candidates to be Manning’s backup: Alex Tanney, a 30-year-old former undrafted free agent out of Monmouth who has been in and out of the NFL with not a start to his name, and Kyle Lauletta, a fourth-round pick this year from FCS-level Richmond.
In other words, not only do the Giants have no plan for a post-Manning future, beyond hoping Lauletta pans out, but the team is making a major gamble on Manning staying healthy this season. It essentially put its eggs into the basket of immediate success when it chose Barkley, given that running backs tend to be at their best over their first few years in the NFL, although elite backs have been known to enjoy lengthy careers.
Adding to the level of second-guessing that decision could generate is the fact that, with the very next pick at No. 3, Darnold was drafted by the Jets. Thus if he plays well, Darnold has the potential to haunt the Giants for many years to come, on the tabloid back pages and elsewhere.
Just after making the Barkley selection in April, Giants General Manager Dave Gettleman addressed the ramifications of that choice, telling reporters (via NJ.com), “What’s the long-term plan with the quarterback? [Manning] is going to play. What do you want me to tell you? He is our quarterback. We believe in him.”
Gettleman added at the time that Manning “threw the hell out of the ball for three days” during the team’s minicamp and asserted that the quarterback “has not lost one bit of arm strength.” Since then, Manning has gone on to play well in preseason games, and with receiving weapons galore, including Barkley and star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — whose massive new contract doubled as another major recent vote of confidence in Manning — he looks set to put up some nice numbers this season.
If so, though, that would be a change of pace from recent seasons, when Manning’s performances had observers concerned he was rapidly deteriorating. From 2015 to 2017, his numbers dropped sharply in major categories such as passing yards (4,432 to 3,468), passing touchdowns (35-19) and yards per attempt (7.2-6.1).
Manning was even benched last year in favor of Geno Smith, no one’s idea of a future franchise savior, breaking his streak of 210 straight starts. Of course, that caused an uproar which quickly led to the firing of then-head coach Ben McAdoo and then-general manager Jerry Reese, as well as to Manning’s immediate reinstatement to the lineup.
Thus the release of Webb could simply reflect a common tactic of new general managers to sweep out players favored by previous regimes. That’s understandable, but less so is Gettleman’s apparent conviction that Manning has several high-quality years left in him.
In his post-draft comments, Gettleman also said of Manning, “You have to stop worrying about age,” noting that “Julius Peppers played last year at 38, Mike [Adams] played at 37.”
“There are some guys that are just freaks. [Tom] Brady is 41,” the general manager continued, before saying of Manning, “I mean, come on — he is our quarterback.”
It’s possible to point out, in terms of a rebuttal, that Peppers, while still an effective pass-rusher in 2017, was a situational player and that Adams, as a safety, doesn’t play a position nearly as crucial to overall team success as a quarterback does. As for Brady, sure, he has managed to maintain an extraordinary level of play into his 40s, but is it fair to compare any contemporary quarterback to him?
Just because certain NFL players are “freaks,” that doesn’t mean Manning is, as well. The term could have applied more reasonably to his brother Peyton, who bounced back from neck surgery to throw for 55 touchdowns as a 37-year-old. Perhaps Gettleman is envisioning something similar from Eli, but again, it doesn’t seem fair to compare the latter to a quarterback who belongs in the greatest-ever discussion.
It might also be instructive to note that, after that season, Peyton Manning threw for 39 touchdowns at age 38, then quickly turned into a shell of his former self. He squeezed out a Super Bowl championship with the Broncos at age 39, but was benched in favor of Brock Osweiler during that season and wisely retired after a triumphant finale.
It’s quite conceivable that Eli Manning, a lesser quarterback at almost every stage of their respective careers, is already on that downslope. You’d never guess that, though, from the moves made by the Giants, who are all-in on their 37-year-old, recently benched signal-caller.
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