It was not long after Saquon Barkley cut left, darted right and sped 52 yards to again leave the Redskins defense in tatters that the invitation was accepted and Eli Manning joined the party.
Barkley, it seems, makes everyone feel a little frisky.
He mercifully ran out of bounds at the Washington 6-yard line. Two plays later, Manning rolled to his right and, with the greatest of ease, fired the ball into the gut of Bennie Fowler for the touchdown that put the Giants ahead 31-0.
One of those staged end-zone celebrations ensued, a first for the Giants offense — their defense had been posing after turnovers all season. There was Fowler in the center, clutching the ball. There was receiver Russell Shepard, crouching, arms spread. Sterling Shepard with a broad smile, winking. Right tackle Chad Wheeler giving a thumbs-up and big left tackle Nate Solder at the end, flexing his sleeveless left arm to display his rather chiseled biceps and a wholly different side of his personality.
“Nope, wasn’t me,’’ Solder said when the flex was broached to him. “Someone photo-shopped my arm in there.’’
This was not the truth.
“Yeah,’’ Solder said, laughing and admitting to celebration-pose naiveté. “I didn’t know what to do.’’
Off on the left of the frame, joining in the festivities, was Manning, standing, sort of smiling, looking, well, a bit uncomfortable, as if he just walked into a toga party wearing khakis and a button-down. But he was there, and longtime Eli-watchers cannot recall when, if ever, he took part in such hijinks before this.
Maybe the short distance Manning had to traverse made it more convenient than huffing and puffing to reach the scene than after Barkley’s 78-yard run. Or maybe this was Manning as we’ve never seen him before; his first 14 years revealed a steady parade of fist-pumps as he trotted to the sideline after tossing touchdown passes.
“How about that?’’ Manning said coyly, seemingly pleased someone noticed. “I was photo-bombing.’’
He must have enjoyed himself. In the third quarter, after his 11-yard pass to Russell Shepard made it 40-0, the gang reconvened in the end zone, this time with Solder giving a double-arm flex, Barkley diving in and pointing and good ol’ Eli, this time with a wide smile, again standing in the back, his hand on Corey Coleman’s shoulder.
“That was great,’’ Solder said of Manning’s participation. “So fun. It’s cool.’’
It is just a smidgen of hyperbole to suggest Barkley’s presence and greatness have brought fun back into the way the Giants do business on offense. It is not overstating anything to point out Manning looks happier than he has in quite some time as he rides out this second-half resurgence.
The Giants are 5-8, and there is not much to write sonnets about, but if this scoring spree is real and if this franchise is now committed to building around Barkley, this is a fascinating development and could bode well for Manning’s return as a 38-year old quarterback at the helm of a throwback — some would say archaic — run-based attack.
“I really don’t care about trends in the league,’’ coach Pat Shurmur said. “I think we as coaches have to do what’s best for our team based on the players that we have, but from the beginning of time, a team that can run the football has a better chance to play good team offense.’’
There are moments when Manning lauds Barkley and the veteran almost sounds wistful, as if he suspects he is breaking in the rookie sensation only to see another, younger quarterback reap the benefits of Barkley’s production. This is probably looking too deeply into the psyche of a guy who knows he is nearing the end of the line but rarely engages in such reflection during the grind of a season.
Shurmur and general manager Dave Gettleman after all this will have brutally honest discussions regarding Manning’s future, and affection and appreciation will not determine the verdict. If he is deemed worthy of a 16th year, perhaps viewed more as a savvy but somewhat limited game manager operating a run-first, play-fake offense, Manning can return as the franchise searches for a long-term successor.
What is certain is this: Manning is not through extracting joy from his career, and he still has the wheels to lumber into the end zone to pose with his boys.
“I thought it was funny, knowing Eli has never been too much of a hype and celebration guy,’’ rookie guard Will Hernandez said. “I thought that was cool he got in there. I think mainly he did it more for his teammates and this team. I thought it was awesome.’’