EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — There was a glaze of ice over everything, a cold slippery sheen that made it hard to get a purchase and invited benumbed feet to quit trying. Only a few durable souls tailgated in the parking lot, hunched over grills that poured out smoke along with breath vapor, and a gusting wind blew it around and seemed to suggest everyone should just go home. Inside MetLife Stadium, two hopeless teams played a pointless game. Yet that was what made it so unexpectedly interesting because there is an integrity in what players do when it counts the least, and so Eli Manning was worth watching on this worthless day.
"It was cold, and we were not playing for much," Manning said later.
For his entire 14-year career, Manning's easy, undemonstrative demeanor has been mistaken for complacency. It has subtly undermined him, made it harder for his critics to value him on his best days despite two Super Bowl victories and made it easy to denigrate him on his bad ones, of which this was one. But respect had to be paid as he fought through this day, fought the wind chill, fought the injuries that decimated the New York Giants, fought all the uncertainty over his future and fought for an 18-10 victory over the Washington Redskins that lifted the Giants' record to 3-13. When it was over and he was jogging off the field, after completing just 10 of his 28 passes for 132 yards, a faint noise came from that thin shivering crowd. They were chanting his name.
"It's probably been my toughest year of football," he said.
The final tally for this season: the Giants started 0-5; lost 21 players to injured reserve, including their three top receivers; briefly benched Manning in favor of Geno Smith; and fired their head coach and general manager. They began the day tied for third in the NFL in dropped passes, 31st in scoring offense and 32nd in total defense. Manning absorbed it all, as he usually does, with those slouching shoulders and that falling, self-effacing voice and kept coming back for more with that easy temperament of his. Which was why after it was all over, interim coach Steve Spagnuolo waited on the field to catch him as he jogged off and hugged him for a long moment.
"We've both been through a lot and none more so than him with this season, but he never changed," Spagnuolo said. "He's had the highest of highs, and this was certainly very, very low, but he's a tremendous competitor, and I appreciate him greatly."
If there is a silver lining for Manning, it may be that he finally gets some credit for his grit, which is continually underestimated but allowed him to start 210 straight games. Over the years his shambling, nonchalant-seeming body language has made it easy to misread him; he can seem passive or easily defeated.
"I always heard them say Eli doesn't care," his father, Archie, said once. "Eli cares. But Eli doesn't worry."
This season, though, there was worry. The injuries mounted around him: He lost every member of the starting offensive line, and when Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Dwayne Harris all had to undergo surgery, there went 1,342 catches and 128 touchdowns. He was left with some talented but unrehearsed young strangers at the receiver positions. "Hard to be on rhythm and on time," he said. It made everyone look bad — and Manning picked up the tab for it.
Manning will turn 37 years old this week, and the sand is running out. But he insists there still is enough in him to compete. "I think I still have good football in me," he said earlier in the week. "I don't want to stop playing football. This is all I want to do. I don't have a backup plan, I don't have something I'm looking forward to doing when this is done."
Whether the new Giants management believes that remains to be seen. The Giants have the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft and may well look for their future quarterback in it. Though newly appointed General Manager Dave Gettleman has suggested publicly the Giants want to keep Manning, nothing is promised, as Manning noted. "I think we've just got to see what happens," he said. "I always think the talks in person are more important than what's said in the media."
It would be a mistake for the Giants to let him out of the building.
Even in one of his worst seasons as a pro, Manning defined professionalism and resilience. He never wavered in the face of criticism, still exercised his devotion to craft, still found a way to throw for more touchdowns than interceptions. He regained the starting job after the indignity of his benching. And after all that, he managed to win an unlikely game. A meaningless one that somehow meant everything to him.
"I believe he's got some football left — a lot of football in him," Spagnuolo said. "He's a competitor. Competitors — they last in this league. And you need them."
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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