A year later, Eli Manning has no interest in looking back at an anniversary he’d rather forget.
“No, not now,” Manning said Wednesday.
It was a day for Manning to answer questions about the Bears’ rugged defense, how to avoid interceptions against the league’s most larcenous secondary and escape the clutches of menacing Khalil Mack. He did this, dutifully, but with no gusto. The Giants are 3-8 and must play out the final five games. Manning is at the helm of a staggering offense and a losing team.
Exactly one year ago, Manning, after a night to sleep on it, informed then-coach Ben McAdoo that he preferred not to play — rather than start that week in Oakland then, in accordance with McAdoo’s plan, sit the second half while Geno Smith took over at quarterback. Thus set in motion one of the most turbulent six-day spans in franchise history, ending with McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese getting fired on the same day and Manning reinstated as the starter.
In some ways, it feels like yesterday and also like forever ago.
“It seems about a year ago,” said Manning, in no mood to reflect on the most unpleasant episode of his 15-year NFL career.
The Giants, 365 days after Manning essentially benched himself, show a one-game improvement — they were 2-9 after 11 games in 2017 — which is a depressing state of affairs for an outfit that endured a regime change and, despite the realization this is a rebuilding mode, expected far better than this. Manning now sports a close-cropped beard and will make his 16th straight start Sunday, with only one team on the field at MetLife Stadium looking ahead to the playoffs.
At some point in the final month, new head coach Pat Shurmur will try to get rookie Kyle Lauletta, and possibly journeyman Alex Tanney, into the games, but for now, Manning keeps the job he temporarily lost, and then found — in the process learning just how passionate the fan base and many of his former teammates were in lining up to decry the way it all went down last year.
As a refresher: The ineptitude of Manning and the entire offense in a 20-10, Thanksgiving night loss in Washington — the “attack” totaled 170 yards, seven first downs and one penetration into the red zone in 13 possessions — convinced McAdoo that, at 2-9, something drastic had to be done. Already, he was given the blessing of ownership and Reese to start getting the backup quarterbacks onto the field, which would help in the evaluation of the position for 2018, knowing there would be a high draft pick as reward for the lousy record.
Sensitive to Manning’s starting streak of 210 games, McAdoo concocted a plan for it to continue. He would start the final five games.
Smith, the former Jets lightning rod, would replace Manning in the second half in Oakland and against the Cowboys. Davis Webb, the rookie third-round pick, would get in the next three games. McAdoo had it all detailed, targeting the Dec. 17 game against the Eagles as the best time for Webb to debut, given the Eagles’ lack of complexity with their defensive-line concepts.
“I remember they just announced it and it was a little weird around here,” receiver Sterling Shepard told The Post. “Eli did a little scout team, which was weird.”
It was all so very weird. Manning had no desire to keep his streak alive in this manner and could not sign off on starting games but not finishing them. This rebuffing surprised ownership. Those inside the locker room understood Manning’s motives.
“Eli was very supportive of Geno,” Shepard recalled. “He was always there, helping him out, staying and watching film with him. He handled it the best way a pro could handle it. Seems like a while ago.”
The plan lasted one game. Smith played reasonably well but lost two fumbles, and the Giants lost 24-17 to the Raiders. The Giants took the long cross-country flight home and that Monday, McAdoo and Reese were fired, with co-owner John Mara saying, “We’ve kind of been spiraling out of control. I just felt like we needed a complete overhaul.”
Manning was reinserted as the starter — as interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo was looking to win games, not play developmental babysitter to the rookie Webb, who never did get an NFL snap. Ownership never stepped in to do what needed to be done.
“I want to forget about that, so stop bringing it up,” Mara said last offseason. “It was something that was mishandled. I took responsibility for that. It falls on my shoulders.”
One year later, here the Giants are, again: a bad team with a now-37-year old quarterback who down the stretch might be told he has to take a seat.