When the New York Giants benched two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Eli Manning last November, the clumsy handiwork of then-coach Ben McAdoo, the franchise’s on-field course seemed clear: Manning’s days in New York were all but done.
The Giants surely would move on and start a rebuilding project with a prized rookie quarterback taken early in the NFL draft. Whether that retooling would include wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., at that point shelved by the broken ankle that cut short his 2017 season, was anyone’s guess.
Not so fast, as it has turned out.
Instead of a fresh start with a young quarterback, the Giants have gone all-in on giving Manning a last, best chance for success late in his NFL career.
McAdoo is gone, having been ousted by co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch in a housecleaning that also included the dismissal of the team’s longtime general manager, Jerry Reese. Manning is still around, and there is no successor-in-waiting to be seen. The new general manager, Dave Gettleman, chose to use the second overall pick in the draft on running back Saquon Barkley to help Manning rather than on a quarterback to replace him sooner or later.
And when the Giants handed a five-year contract extension worth as much as $95 million to Beckham on Monday, the doubling-down on Manning was complete. The 37-year-old quarterback now has a dynamic rookie runner and a presumably contented, otherworldly pass catcher at his disposal. It’s up to him to make it all work and make these moves by the Giants appear wise.
“We got him until he’s 108,” Gettleman told the team’s website Monday after Beckham’s new deal was announced.
The task for Manning is not to play like he’s something approaching such an age.
Manning did not deserve to be benched last season by McAdoo, not after 210 consecutive regular season starts and all that he’d done for the Giants. He wasn’t the entirety of the problem as the Giants unraveled from being a playoff team and a top NFC contender in 2016 to being a three-win mess last season. The offensive line couldn’t protect him, and the receiving corps without Beckham was underwhelming. The Giants didn’t run the ball well and their defense fell apart.
But Manning was far from blameless. He didn’t play well. He threw 13 interceptions and he fumbled the ball 11 times, five of which resulted in turnovers. He too often looked like a quarterback nearing the end of his career, with his best NFL days far behind him.
The Giants may be justified in believing that there is some good football left in Manning. But that remains to be seen, and the decisions they made were not clear-cut.
Few doubt that Barkley will be a standout NFL tailback. And using a lofty draft pick on a running back is back in fashion with the success of Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette.
But the first rule of NFL roster construction is that if you don’t have a franchise quarterback, you’d better get one. With the end of Manning’s career nearing, Gettleman and the Giants had a golden opportunity to use the No. 2 pick on Sam Darnold, Josh Allen or Josh Rosen and hope for a seamless transition, at some point in the not-too-distant future, from one championship-winning quarterback to possibly another. They passed.
Few question that Beckham is among the league’s most gifted and, when healthy, productive players. He has made one highlight-reel catch after another, and he had three straight 1,300-yard receiving seasons to begin his NFL career.
But his football-catching brilliance has been accompanied by bouts of immaturity, on and off the field. In March, Mara stood before reporters at an Orlando resort during the annual league meeting and said he was “tired of answering questions” about Beckham’s off-the-field behavior. The issue that day was a video that had surfaced on social media showing Beckham alongside a woman who had a credit card and what appeared to be a white powdery substance.
Then, Mara did not rule out considering trade offers for Beckham, saying: “I think when you’re 3-13, nobody is untouchable.”
But things changed through the offseason and training camp. And by Monday, the tenor was much different.
“As I have said, I think Odell personally is moving in the right direction,” Mara said, according to the Giants’ website. “He came to camp with a tremendous attitude, with a smile on his face and worked hard and reminded us of his unique abilities. He’s ready to have a great season and we’re ready for him to have a great season.”
Said Gettleman: “I’m pleased, because the litmus test for a contract is that neither side is ticked off before the ink can dry, and neither side should be ticked off. It’s a very fair deal.”
All of this will look great if Manning has something left, if Barkley piles up rushing yards and Beckham is a solid citizen and a dazzling receiver, if the rebuilt offensive line does its job and the defense returns to its 2016 stinginess.
But if those things don’t happen and if, in particular, Manning continues to resemble an old quarterback rather than the Super Bowl quarterback of old, the approach taken by Gettleman won’t appear so brilliant. It would be even more galling if things don’t work out for the Giants while Darnold becomes a star for the New York Jets, who selected him with the No. 3 overall choice in April.
It’s just about time to begin finding out.
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