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The Giants Have Taken Their First Step Toward a Rebuild by Benching Eli Manning

Geno Smith will start for New York on Sunday, the first time a quarterback other than Manning has gotten the nod since 2004

Eli Manning hangs his head Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The New York Giants abruptly ended — or at least paused — the Eli Manning era Tuesday, choosing to replace him with a fellow New York quarterback icon, Geno Smith.

Manning, who has the most consecutive starts (210) among any active player and second most of all time, was offered to symbolically start Sunday before leaving the game to cede playing time to the other quarterbacks on the roster. Manning declined.

“My feeling is that if you are going to play the other guys, play them,” Manning said. “Starting just to keep the streak going and knowing you won’t finish the game and have a chance to win it is pointless to me, and it tarnishes the streak. Like I always have, I will be ready to play if and when I am needed. I will help Geno and Davis [Webb] prepare to play as well as they possibly can.”

Head coach Ben McAdoo said that the team will look at both Smith and Webb, the rookie third-round pick out of Cal, in the Giants’ remaining five games. No offense to Geno or Davis Webb, but both are unlikely to become long-term answers.

Benching Manning is both unsurprising and stunning. The 2–9 Giants have quickly become a laughingstock during the worst season in recent franchise history. The offense ranks 31st in points scored and 28th in yards, while Manning is 32nd out of 36 qualified quarterbacks in yards per attempt. But while Manning has declined this year, he is far from the only problem with the offense. Manning’s receiving corps has been decimated. Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, and Dwayne Harris are all out for the season, and Sterling Shepard has missed time with migraines, leaving Eli with the motley crew of Roger Lewis, Tavarres King, and Travis Rudolph to catch passes at wideout in addition to rookie tight end Evan Engram, who was elevated to no. 1 receiving option five games into his career. The Giants’ offensive line, which has already struggled mightily to pass protect in recent years, has faced numerous injuries this season. New York has started eight different line combinations in 11 games, the second-highest number in the league.

It might be the end of the road for Manning, who is the Giants’ all-time leader in passing touchdowns and passing yards, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, and the leading cause of nightmares in New England. As hard as it is to do, benching Manning shows the franchise is separating emotions from team decision-making. Manning is 36 years old and will carry a $22.2 million cap hit in 2018 and a $23.2 million cap hit in 2019. He’s not a part of the team’s future, and it makes sense for the team to evaluate its current options at quarterback.

But at the same time, Smith is 27 years old and a free agent at the end of the season, and he hasn’t demonstrated much improvement at the NFL level. Webb didn’t project to be an NFL starter entering the draft, but it is still worth tossing him the keys and letting him take the offense for a spin. But it will be difficult to make any real evaluation on anyone with so many injured starters, and it’s unlikely that either Webb or Smith will stick long term regardless of how well they play. The 2018 NFL draft, where the Giants will likely have a high pick, seems to be a much more promising route to find Manning’s successor.

The decision to bench Manning may be less about Smith and Webb and more about the Giants looking at their team and realizing that it is time to blow it up. Getting rid of McAdoo and purging the problems that have permeated the locker room during his tenure could be next step. Firing general manager Jerry Reese, who has been with the organization for a decade, could potentially be step three. The franchise has the opportunity to wipe the slate clean at GM, coach, and quarterback for the first time in decades.

Blowing up the team would be the responsible long-term decision. That doesn’t make it easier to watch Eli cry.

“I have said it many times, I want to play, I want to compete, I want to be out there for my teammates to help them prepare to win,” Manning said. “I understand that there are tough decisions that have to be made in the best interest of the organization, especially as a season like this winds down. This is one of those tough, uncomfortable decisions.”

Indeed it is. You’ll always have the Super Bowls, Eli. Both of them.