PHOENIX — John Mara admits he has a soft spot in his heart for Eli Manning, and not only because of the two newest Lombardi Trophies behind glass at the Giants team facility. Mara, though, grew hot under the collar when it was insinuated he is keeping the 38-year-old quarterback around because of sentiment.
“I’ve read that and I have to tell you that really gets under my skin because that is absolutely nonsense,’’ Mara, his voice rising, said Sunday at the NFL annual league meeting. “Do I feel a certain amount of sentimentality towards Eli? Of course I do. Would I ever let that get in the way of making a football decision? Absolutely not! And I cannot believe some of you write that.’’
Mara, sitting beside co-owner Steve Tisch, has heard plenty of negative reaction to moves made by the Giants this offseason, from trading away Odell Beckham Jr., to keeping Manning and not at least putting the franchise tag on safety Landon Collins.
Mara knows shipping out Beckham is an emotionally charged issue, and seeing Collins leave and sign with the Redskins was not a pleasing sight.
“It killed me to see him go,’’ Mara said.
The accusation that the Giants are too wrapped up in loyalty to Manning, though, burned Mara most of all.
“We would never tell a coach or a general manager we’ve got to keep this guy because we love and him and because he’s done so much for the franchise,’’ Mara said. “Make a football decision based on whether you think he can play or not, and if you think he can and you have a conviction and the coach has a conviction, that’s fine. I’m never going to interfere with that based on my sentiment towards a player.’’
The Giants move ahead in Year 2 with coach Pat Shurmur with Manning returning for a 16th season, entrenched as the starting quarterback. Mara said he is convinced Manning can still help the Giants win “if we surround him with the right people.’’
General manager Dave Gettleman has said he wants to find Manning’s successor in this draft, if possible. Mara said there is no edict to do so but there is a strong desire to do so.
“I think that would be a great scenario if it happened but I don’t want us to force a situation where if the value with the quarterbacks this year is not there then don’t take one,’’ Mara said. “If it’s there yeah, take one. It would be a great situation to have somebody in place to sit behind Eli for some period of time, see how he prepares for each game, see what a professional he is. A young quarterback can only get better doing that.’’
Mara took umbrage with the suggestion the Giants do not have a plan, based on the tangled web of rebuilding, making the roster younger, retaining Manning and dealing away the 26-year old Beckham.
“I love that question, what is the plan?’’ Mara said. “The plan is to build the team and make it better. The plan is to build the team and make it better. I don’t know why that’s such an issue with you guys or with fans, to be honest with you. That’s the plan.’’
The plan did not include Collins, the 25-year old safety. The Giants traded up to get him in the second round of the 2015 draft and he wanted to remain with the team. The Giants did not deem him to be worth a long-term extension and also did not see the value in paying him $11.1 million to keep him via the franchise tag.
“That hurt me, it really did,’’ Mara said. “I like Landon, I had a great deal of respect for him. He was tough, he played hard week in and week out and we had many hours of discussion about that.
“It was a difficult decision but ultimately we decided the numbers we thought he was going to be able to achieve in free agency were not something we would be able to live with. It killed me to see him go. It really did. I know he wanted to be here. I know he wanted to be a Giant. He was a homegrown guy and it meant a lot to him to put that uniform on, but you have to make tough decisions and remove sentiment.’’