The Giants. The Jets. Two teams in transition, fighting for one city … despite both playing, practicing, and operating in a different state altogether. In one corner: a roster with Eli Manning, Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, and a noted lack of Odell Beckham Jr. In the other: a squad with Le’Veon Bell, Adam Gase, and a quarterback with the best jawline in football. On Thursday, The Ringer is breaking down the state of the NFL in New York City—and the players, personalities, and memes that define its marquee franchises.
With his impenetrable half-smile and his bland reassurances that everything’s actually fine, the everlasting Eli Manning came across like a mildly embattled politician when he sat down with ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio in an empty gymnasium this summer for a preseason chat. Manning looked both uncomfortable and in command; so practiced at saying so little that Paolantonio all but threw up his hands at one point. Such a cryptic aura came in extra handy, considering that the 38-year-old incumbent is facing a primary challenger for the first time in his career: 22-year-old Duke grad Daniel Jones, whom the Giants controversially selected sixth overall in this spring’s NFL draft so that he could succeed Manning one day.
When exactly that one day shall come was one of several topics that Manning amiably deflected during his interview with Paolantonio. But Manning wasn’t a complete cipher. When Paolantonio brought up the wildest aspect of a remarkably chaotic Giants offseason—trading superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland—Manning’s countenance momentarily shifted, and the guy known as Easy E sounded more like Emo Eli. “Sometimes it’s just not a happy ending,” Manning said. “It rarely ends happily for anybody in this league.” He was talking about his former connection with Beckham, sure, but it also felt like he might have foreseen his near future.
No player in the New York Giants’ 94-year history has been on the team for a longer stretch than Manning, or a weirder one: In his 15 seasons with the Giants, Manning has won the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl MVP twice, yet failed to win even one measly playoff game in each of the other 13 campaigns. He has grown mightily, from kid brother into ironman, while outwardly looking exactly the same; he has played on teams with the now 47-year-old Michael Strahan and with a 22-year-old Saquon Barkley. He has been interviewed, conservatively, thousands of times, yet has said something memorable … never? … once? … twice? … a remarkable feat that scholars will study for decades to come. He has thrown a franchise-best 360 career touchdown passes in the regular season; Phil Simms, who is second on the list, threw 199. Manning leads the league in associations with the word “derp” (this is an unofficial statistic, but one that is unquestionably true). Now, as Manning prepares for his Week 1 start, he faces what could be his most intriguing season since he entered the league in 2004.
The Giants roster is more like a tabula rasa, first of all. Beckham, who told Sports Illustrated that the Giants sent him to Cleveland “to die,” isn’t the only one newly gone: New York also parted with safety Landon Collins and defensive end Olivier Vernon, will be without free-agent receiver Golden Tate for the first four weeks of the season as he serves a four-game suspension for a PED violation, and lost two other receivers for varying lengths of time to preseason injuries. This year’s schedule is friendly, though, thanks to last season’s 5-11 futility. And despite what Jones’s draft position might indicate, Manning has the full-throated confidence of owner John Mara (“I hope Eli has a great year and Daniel never sees the field,” Mara told reporters on August 13) and the ever-so-slightly-more-mumbled support of head coach Pat Shurmur. (“John owns the team, right?” Shurmur said. “And we’re on the same page.”) By all accounts, for the time being, Manning remains Plan A.
But Plan B is right there, omnipresent in a way that is new to both Manning personally and to the Giants organization writ large. Plan B is low-key comedic, with a visually arresting likeness to his would-be predecessor. Plan B lurks behind Manning or stands right there alongside him, forever in freakish sync, a floppy-haired, 6-foot-5 manifestation of the inevitabilities of time in large adult son form. Plan B is about to begin his rookie season, and it’s hard to know whether anyone is truly ready for what’s next.
Ok, the similarities between Eli and Daniel Jones are getting too real pic.twitter.com/ob3B2C5B5u— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) August 17, 2019
The backup quarterback, the old adage goes, is the most popular guy in town, a walking, talking plot of greener grass. But when Jones was drafted, it was the opposite: By using the sixth overall pick to reach for a mediocre-to-decent quarterback with a 17-19 college record, the Giants ensured that their newest guy would become one of the most despised people both in New York City and across the vast Giants diaspora. On the same night as the NFL draft, a minor league ballplayer named Tim Locastro ripped three dingers and later said he, a Giants fan, was fueled by how pissed he was over the Jones pick. Jones told The New York Times that while he was buying ice cream with his sisters this spring in North Carolina, the scoopster ragged on the Giants’ selection right to his face, not knowing he was talking to the selection himself. In June, at a Yankees game, Jones was shown on the big screen and lustily booed. When GQ sat down with Baker Mayfield this summer for an interview, the Cleveland Browns quarterback caught a glimpse of an ESPN segment about Jones and said: “I cannot believe the Giants took Daniel Jones. Blows my mind.” (Mayfield publicly apologized to Jones on Tuesday after the story was published.)
None of this was Jones’s fault; he was a catalyst for fan frustration and a conduit through which snark could easily flow. Many things about the sixth overall pick angered folks. If the Giants really wanted a quarterback to groom to replace Manning, for one, there were several others, like Dwayne Haskins, to choose from who were broadly considered to be better prospects. Also, if the Giants really wanted an heir that badly, why hadn’t they drafted golden boy Sam Darnold second overall a year earlier? And if it really was Jones specifically whom the Giants coveted, went another line of het up thought, why not target him with the 17th pick, when he’d surely still be available?
Still more people were mad about Jones because they were actually mad about Beckham. And others were mad about Jones because they were actually mad that the Giants have appeared in only one playoff game, which they lost 38-13, since winning the Super Bowl in early 2012. In this way, Jones is already being indoctrinated to a time-honored Giants (and football) tradition: blaming the quarterback when everything around him goes wrong.
Eli knows this routine well. One of the defining characteristics of the second half of Manning’s career is that he’s been at the helm of some seriously deficient teams. From 2013 through 2017, the Giants running game never finished better than 18th in the NFL in yards per game and ranked 29th twice. Their highest placement in Pro Football Focus’s annual offensive line rankings during that same stretch was 20th. Even the team that won Super Bowl XLVI ranked dead 29th in rushing offense and 31st in offensive line play. There are plenty of reasons to rag on Manning—the zero mobility, the late-game interceptions, the fact he never vibed with Beckham, his aforementioned derp—but it’s harder to keep the more positive aspects of his contributions in mind. But maybe that’s the kind of conversation that can only be honestly had, and the kind of context that can only be clearly seen, when he’s no longer the starting quarterback on the roster.
New York magazine used to run a little infographic feature called The Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations that revolved around the ups and downs of the hype cycle: first that swell of preemptive buzz about, say, some upcoming Tarantino film; then the high point of its cultural saturation; then the inevitable backlash; and then the backlash to that, a true meta thrill. Jones’s own nascent arc has been an unusual one, with the backlash taking place at the very beginning. This must have been brutal to endure, but the upside is that, at least in the short term, the rookie can bask a bit in the condescending comforts of low expectations.
dAnIeL jOnEs CaN't ThRoW tHe DeEp BaLl pic.twitter.com/3ERPB1ufQb— New York Giants (@Giants) August 17, 2019
When he threw a touchdown pass in a preseason game against Chicago, the Giants Twitter account cockily broke out the sPoNgeBoB syntax to mock people who had mocked Jones. Shurmur’s compliment after the game about Jones’s resilience after a fumble was slightly more backhanded: “He dropped the ball a couple times and didn’t call his parents,” he said. Great … job? In mid-August, Giants fans banded together, in a “don’t you dare make fun of my sibling, only I can do that” sort of way, to antagonize Mayfield for his GQ remark. And even the harsh tabloids praised Jones, to a degree that was borderline creepy, for his own response to Mayfield’s slight: “Daniel Jones’ calm response to Baker Mayfield is a Giants dream,” read the headline in the Post, while the rival Daily News went with: “Daniel Jones’ response to Baker Mayfield shows the edge he’ll bring on Sundays.” We’ve gone past backlash-to-the-backlash and come all the way back around to the hype.
Jones could have used a little bit of that over-the-top praise from his new team on draft night, when the Giants did their top pick no favors in how they sold their decision to the media. When WFAN’s Kim Jones asked Giants GM Dave Gettleman whether taking a quarterback so high signaled the end of the Manning era in New York, he replied: “Absolutely not. Maybe we’re going to be the Green Bay model, Kim. Where [Aaron] Rodgers sat [behind Brett Favre] for three years. Who knows?” Another reporter jumped in to confirm he’d heard Gettleman correctly: “Did you just say you drafted a quarterback at no. 6 and he might sit for three years?” he asked. “Who knows?” Gettleman said again. “I may go out there in my car and get hit.”
Notwithstanding that the answer to “who knows” in this case typically ought to be “the franchise’s general manager,” it actually was illuminating to hear Gettleman point to Green Bay, rather than his own Giants, as a model. As the end of Manning’s career in New York draws near, it’s tempting to compare it to the way it began (and not just because 2004 featured lots of roster turnover and an underwhelming offensive line, same as it ever was). Fifteen years ago, the Giants acquired first overall pick Manning at the 2004 draft after some wheeling and dealing with San Diego, and a few months later, they signed 32-year-old Kurt Warner to be, in the words of ESPN, “their caretaker quarterback.”
When the caretaker and the kid starred in a commercial for the NFL Network that was based on The Newlywed Game, producers told The New York Times that Warner, at that point still the starting quarterback, had “played the mentor through the commercial shoot as well, coaching Manning through the finer points of playing to the camera.” When it came to football, though, Manning didn’t really need much guidance; Warner knew that there were enough qualified advisers within the Manning family alone. When Warner got the hook after Week 10, with a record of 5-4, he was annoyed by the Giants’ decision to pivot so soon. But even if Warner disagreed with the timing, there had never been much ambiguity about the transitional role he had been hired to fill. The Green Bay Packers, on the other hand, were a different story.
Like Manning and unlike Warner, Favre had a long and proud lifetime history with his franchise when it drafted his successor in 2005. And so, far from helping groom Rodgers, he made the rookie’s life difficult with little darkhearted pranks here and a general iciness there. (In fairness, Rodgers maybe deserved some of it: According to the Jeff Pearlman book Gunslinger, Rodgers first greeted the then-35-year-old Favre by chirping: “Good morning, grandpa!”) In a televised interview with ESPN that year, Favre remarked: “My contract doesn’t say I have to get Aaron Rodgers ready to play. … I’m not obligated one bit to help anyone.” He would be Green Bay’s starter for three more seasons, as Gettleman pointed out.
In keeping with their zestless ways, Manning and Jones don’t have a relationship that is outwardly hostile in the same way Favre-Rodgers once was, but their guiding philosophy—one that comes directly from the Giants organization, and even precedes Jones—is pretty much exactly the same. “It’s not your job to mentor somebody,” Manning said in 2018, after he had recently lost and regained the starting job. “I told this to Eli a couple times already,” said Shurmur at the draft, “it’s not his job to teach the next quarterback that comes in here.”
Like Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral, Manning has already witnessed what happens when people think he’s a goner. In 2017, when then-head coach Ben McAdoo decided to give Geno Smith the nod in Week 13, breaking Manning’s streak of starting 210 consecutive games, it felt like the end of an era, with all the attendant nostalgia and appreciation and gloom and shouted “BUT IS HE A HALL OF FAMER?” debates. (Obviously, yes. Do not @ me.)
But while it ultimately was the end of something, that something wasn’t Manning’s career, not quite yet; instead, McAdoo and GM Jerry Reese were fired days later, making the situation both better and worse. The whole drama wound up being a bit of a boon to Manning’s reputation, because it served as a reminder that one of the most common distractions across the NFL—the quarterback controversy—is something that the franchise had managed to sidestep for more than a decade.
In a way, going through this debacle two years ago takes some of the edge off what’s sure to happen next. The pretense of dignity has been stripped away; the realities of football and life have been laid bare. Of all the possible ways Manning’s career might end, we’ve already witnessed, and discarded, one of the most unappealing: that weird time he was randomly benched for a guy who you couldn’t even claim was in the running to represent the team’s future. Say what you will about Jones—Bleacher Report wrote a whole piece based on the premise that he’s “the chicken quesadilla of quarterback prospects”—but at least his eventual ascension is part of some sort of larger plan. For now.
Just how thoughtful and disciplined such a plan will turn out to be remains to be seen. Mara already identified one possible outcome for the 2019 season: Manning plays lights-out in his old age, Jones marinates on the sideline and supplies some good reaction-GIF fare, the Giants re-learn how to thrive. But proclamations from the Giants front office don’t really have a great track record; earlier this year, Gettleman said of Beckham that “we didn’t sign him to trade him,” and three months later, Beckham was gone. To think that the season will unfold so straightforwardly that Manning plays the whole year is almost pointlessly naive; it’s far more likely that the Giants will find themselves zigzagging down a more convoluted path. You cannot, after all, spell Daniel without Eli.
What happens when/if the Giants start the season 0-2 with Manning and the fans start chanting “We want Jones” and actually meaning it? Say New York starts the season 4-1 like it did under Warner in 2004, but then loses three of the next four; what then? If Jones does get a look, and his first few games resemble Manning’s rookie performance back in the day—which is to say, if he wins one of seven starts—how tolerant will the organization and its enthusiasts be? “If it played out like Eli and me in 2004,” Warner told the New York Daily News this summer, referring to the way Manning struggled in his early showings, “I think it would be an ugly situation. Because if the young guy comes in, doesn’t play well ... now it looks awful.” How many weeks into the season will it take before some sort of agent-placed tabloid item about locker room tension emerges? Will the team brass accept reality if it turns out that Manning really has lost his stuff, or if it turns out that Jones has none to begin with?
So far in preseason, both quarterbacks have had fine showings. Manning led a 10-play, 79-yard touchdown drive. Jones has already displayed an ability to execute run-pass option plays in a way that never came naturally to Manning. (And he’s already doing better than Manning did during his first preseason jaunt in 2004, when he went 4-for-14 for 20 yards with two interceptions and a fumble returned for a touchdown.) Fans have begun to latch on to the (rather embarrassing, come on) moniker “Danny Dimes.” For the time being, everyone’s great, which rarely bodes well.
Manning is correct that it doesn’t end happily for everyone, even if his own brother Peyton, who after being forced out of Indianapolis for a younger quarterback wound up winning a second Super Bowl with his new team, the Denver Broncos, in his final NFL game, is a major exception to that rule. On the other hand, sunsets do tend to cast the most flattering light. Whatever happens this season—and, oh, something will happen, whether it’s in Week 2 or Week 12—it will be compelling to see how Manning reacts to having a credible, looming replacement, a situation that is almost wholly unfamiliar to him, despite how well-seasoned an NFL veteran he has become. For his whole career, Manning’s calm has frequently been misinterpreted as indifference. (His viral non-reaction during that last Peyton Super Bowl was a perfect example.) But if he didn’t care he wouldn’t still be playing football at 38; if anything, the past several seasons, and the past few weeks in particular, have revealed that Manning has more of a stubborn streak than he tends to let on.
Even after a decade and a half spent watching Eli Manning on the Giants, or perhaps because of all that time, it can be hard to remember that he actually is one of the world’s elite athletes, dedicated and bullheaded in all the right ways if you don’t let his affable blankness blind you. In his interview with Paolantonio, Manning acknowledged that as he’s gotten older, he’s had to work harder to stay in shape and keep up and maintain his miraculously uninjured body. Paolantonio remarked that, as a father to three young daughters, it must be kind of tough to eat right. “I don’t order the chicken fingers,” Manning said, suddenly animated. “But if they leave a few extra … I don’t want to be wasteful.” This time, when he smiled, it was for real.