The second-longest starting streak by an NFL quarterback in history will end Sunday for no good reason. The 2–9 Giants have benched Eli Manning, who is perfectly healthy, in favor of backup Geno Smith, snapping a 210-game streak (222 including playoffs) that dates back to 2004.
It will be the only time a notable streak like this has ever ended purposefully: The all-time leader, Brett Favre, lost his 297-game streak when he sprained a joint in his shoulder and couldn’t feel his throwing hand; Eli’s older brother, Peyton, lost his 208-game streak after offseason neck and spine surgery; Philip Rivers (196 games) and Matt Ryan (133 games) are fourth and fifth all time with streaks that remain active; Joe Flacco’s streak of 137 games ended with two torn knee ligaments, Ron Jaworski’s streak of 123 games ended with a broken leg; Tom Brady had a 128-game streak end after he tore two knee ligaments and his second ended with his Deflategate suspension; 10th place is 1980s Bills QB Joe Ferguson, whose streak ended due to a sprained ankle. According to Quirky Research, the longest streak ended by choice before Manning’s was Jim Everett’s 15th-place streak, which ended after 91 games in 1993, when the Rams decided they just didn’t like their ineffective quarterback very much, trading him the next season and moving to St. Louis the season after that. The two streaks are hardly comparable: Everett’s is less than half the length of Manning’s streak, and he won two playoff games with the Rams, while Manning has won two Super Bowls.
But just because Manning’s streak was long doesn’t mean ending it was wrong. I believe that teams across all sports have a stronger prerogative to do what’s best for the health of their franchise than they do to cater to aging stars. When a franchise has already given many millions to a player and plans to spend an eternity celebrating their greatest accomplishments, there’s no need to turn potentially meaningful contests into lifetime achievement awards. I groaned at Derek Jeter’s and Kobe Bryant’s epochal farewell tours. Yes, their finale performances (Kobe’s 60-point game, Derek Jeter’s walk-off hit at Yankee Stadium) were neat, but why not just play a farewell game while acting in the best interests of the franchise for the rest of the season? (Note: I am not trying to compare the lifetime accomplishments of Bryant, Jeter, and Manning. Any such debate would be pointless and extremely unappealing to me. But I look forward to several people reading this post right now yelling at me on Twitter about this anyway.)
With a quarterback, there’s an even stronger imperative to do what’s best rather than kowtowing to a rapidly diminishing star. That’s true for a team that needs to compete presently — in baseball and basketball, every position has a roughly equal contribution to a team’s success, whereas in football, the quarterback is vastly more important than his counterparts, so a team can’t afford to waste snaps on a struggling QB just because he had a great past.
And it’s also true for teams that aren’t competing for a title and need to figure out what’s best for the franchise’s future. Bryant’s backups still got about 20 minutes per game, and if the Yankees had an up-and-coming shortstop that needed at-bats, they had the minor leagues. But there are only 16 NFL games, the quarterback is on the field for only half of each one, and there is no substitute for NFL game reps when it comes to developing quarterbacks. There is no NFL Defense Simulator that reasonably replicates what a quarterback experiences during a game, and even preseason reps are a pale comparison. An NFL team needs a good quarterback to succeed, and therefore needs to know whether quarterbacks on its roster have the potential to be good quarterbacks. Even if the quarterback turns out to be bad, those losses are useful for a team with no hope of contention; I believe in tanks.
But the Giants, somehow, are failing on both fronts. Manning isn’t the one holding the Giants back. They have an awful defense, the type that occasionally allows touchdowns on third-and-33. Their running game isn’t impressive, and the team lost three of their top four wide receivers to season-ending injuries within the first month of the season. Manning isn’t having a great season by any means, but I’d argue his 14-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio shows he’s one of the few players doing a reasonably effective job on the 2–9 Giants.
And it’s not like the Giants are focusing on the future with this benching. They’re putting in Geno Smith, a 27-year old in his fifth NFL season. It’s unlikely that Smith is anybody’s quarterback of the future. The Giants will give some reps to rookie Davis Webb, but apparently not the majority of them.
I am the exact person who should be on board with Manning’s benching. I’m against coddling old stars at the expense of their teammates. I’ve long told anybody who will listen that Manning is overrated, a quarterback who finished with a top-10 passer rating once in his career (he was seventh in 2011), whose legacy would be that he led the league in interceptions three times were it not for the fact that the Giants were good enough to win two Super Bowls with less-than-elite quarterback play during his tenure. I consider myself a Geno Smith supporter; I don’t think he’s gotten the fair shake he deserves after two semi-promising, albeit interception-heavy seasons to start his career.
And yet I can’t understand what the hell the Giants are doing. I found myself feeling sad for Manning when watching him fight back tears over his benching.
I don’t believe in doing things for sentimentality sake, but benching an older player in a move that doesn’t do anything for the future of the franchise is about as useless as playing an ex-star because he was good eight years earlier. Giants coach Ben McAdoo has already had a dismal showing this season. The team, per anybody who has witnessed it, has quit on him. By causing sadness for his team’s fans and franchise player spend the remainder of a lost season in sadness, he seems to be actively trying to ensure he never gets a head coaching job again. There is a thin line between doing what’s best for a team and doing what will make a team and its senior players happy. McAdoo tried to straddle it, but he’s tripped all over it instead.