EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Exactly one year ago on Wednesday the Giants made the stunning announcement that they were benching Eli Manning, snapping his streak of 210 consecutive starts. It seemed to be a signal that the Eli Manning Era in New York was over.
But one year later, it’s still going — and it’s possible it won’t end anytime soon.
There is still a chance that Manning will return to the Giants in 2019 — and even return as their starting quarterback, according to a team source. The decision on his future has “absolutely not” been made, the source said, and management is open to the idea that another year with Manning at the helm might be the best option they have.
Obviously there are a lot of variables to the Manning equation, not the least of which is how he plays over the final five games. Another big one is that Manning is signed through 2019 with a salary of $11.5 million, is due a $5 million roster bonus in March, and has a salary cap number of $23.2 million. That’s a huge amount for the soon-to-be 38-year-old quarterback, who has struggled to move the offense in recent years, even while having one of his finest statistical seasons in 2018.
But the biggest reason a Manning return can’t be ruled out, the source said, is this: “Who’s going to replace him?”
Right now, that’s a complete unknown, and the Giants seem unlikely to cut ties with their quarterback of the last 15 seasons if his replacement is not on board. It’s one reason why they’re still hopeful of getting a look at Kyle Lauletta, their fourth-round pick out of Richmond, at some point over the final month of the season, so that they can gauge his readiness and potential.
At 3-8, the Giants are also likely headed for a Top 10 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft — maybe even a Top 5 pick — that could put them in a position to draft a quarterback of the future, like Oregon’s Justin Herbert, perhaps. But it’s too early to know if the Giants will still be in position to draft one when the season is over, or if they’ll even want to draft any of them in the first round once their scouting is done.
Of course, even if they do draft a quarterback, Manning could still return as at least the Opening Day starter. In that case, he’d also be something of a placeholder until the Giants decide his successor is ready.
It’s unclear if that’s a role Manning would be willing to accept.
There are other variables, too. The Giants will find it difficult to ignore the reality that they could clear $17 million in cap space by cutting Manning in early March. So if they keep him, they’d almost certainly approach him about a pay cut or even a restructuring that involves a short contract extension. It’s not known if that’s something Manning would be willing to do either.
It’s also not clear what Manning wants to do next season. If the Giants aren’t willing to commit to him as a starter for the full season, he could choose to retire, though those who know him best don’t think he will. It’s also possible Manning could have other options if teams like Tom Coughlin’s Jacksonville Jaguars or the Denver Broncos think he could help them make a Super Bowl run.
Most people believe Manning doesn’t want to leave the Giants or the New York area under any circumstances, but if he prefers that to being a placeholder for his replacement, the Giants are likely to take that into consideration. They know Manning is an iconic player, and they want to avoid an ugly ending, if possible.
In the meantime, though, Manning is making it clear that he’s their best current option. He’s completed 69 percent of his passes this season, has a passer rating of 96.2 and has thrown only 10 interceptions, which puts him on pace for career-bests in all those categories. His 3,093 yards put him on pace for his second-best career total. And he’s done all that despite being on pace to be sacked 55 times – which would also be a career high.
The downside, of course, is that he’s only thrown 14 touchdown passes through 11 games, and the Giants’ offense — which ranks 20th overall and averages only 21.5 points per game — has been terrible under his direction for the last two years. The Giants are also 6-21 in that span.
But there has been renewed optimism about Manning’s ability over the last three weeks, as he’s thrived at times behind an offensive line that has played much better. In those games, Manning has completed 62 of 86 passes (72.1 percent) for 716 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. That’s a passer rating of 115.3. Meanwhile, the Giants’ offense in those games has averaged 29 points.
Remember, the Giants’ original plan when GM Dave Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur took over was to try to rebuild the offensive line, draft Saquon Barkley, and attempt to make one last run with Manning over the final two years of his contract. Year 1 of that plan has turned into a disaster. But no one has ruled out taking another shot at it in Year 2.