“They absolutely are this bad,” Barry Petchesky wrote about the New York Giants exactly 365 days ago. The team had just lost to the Dallas Cowboys in a supremely listless Monday Night Football appearance. I watched it with a friend who was visiting from out of town amid a rapidly thinning crowd in a rustling Manhattan sports bar and remember that the game seemed oddly stuck, or to have somehow lapped itself. Eli Manning and Saquon Barkley combined to set a record that no team will ever try to break. Barkley caught the ball 14 times, almost all of them flummoxed Manning checkdowns thrown within a yard or two of scrimmage, and the NFL’s most explosive back gained just 80 yards on those receptions. In NFL history, no player had ever caught that many passes and gained fewer than 90 yards as a result. It was the 34th straight game in which the team failed to score 30 points, a streak that would continue for another two weeks, until the Giants scored 31 at Carolina. They lost that one, too.
The Giants started this season with both Manning and Barkley still in place, and while some other things on the roster had changed in ways more violent and intentional than those dictated by the league’s usual personnel churning, the organization mostly seemed as intent upon running things back as ever. For at least the last five years, the team has done this: charged headlong and a little smugly at a window of contention that some prankster had drawn onto a cliff face, got up seeing stars, and then did it again. This sounds more exciting than it is—game-by-game, the decline phase of Eli’s career has played out with the same bleary and faintly queasy slowness generally associated with mixing benzos and alcohol. It has been a long time since any of this felt anything but futile, but futility is something that Giants ownership has shown itself willing to accept, provided the alternative is something more undignified like changing basically anything.
It was clear, there in that bar and for years before that and as you read this now, that things should and could change, and there were signs that the team was perhaps warming to the idea at its usual glacial pace. The team reached high in the draft for the quarterback it believed would eventually take over for Eli; this came after years of polite feints in that direction on the third day of the draft. Management was high on Duke’s Daniel Jones in ways that suggested they might also have been high on other things, and while Jones showed some promise in the preseason—he still looks like a dang Lego Man with his helmet off, but he also looked much more fluid and creative and capable than fans feared—there was still the question of when and how any change would come. There is a way these things generally go, which happened to be the way that Manning got the job at the start of his career, when he took over from a not-yet-actually-finished Kurt Warner early in another starchy write-off of a season. But the Giants have for years appeared either unwilling or unable to move on from Manning. And so they just didn’t move at all, on or up or anywhere else.
In 2017, Manning looked as bad as he has for the last four or five seasons, but he survived a mostly deserved but deeply useless and profoundly botched benching from lame-duck cosplayer/coach Ben McAdoo. That benching didn’t go well or last long. Backup Geno Smith got the nod over the latest in the team’s long line of anonymous preppily named ostensible quarterbacks-in-waiting, Mike Francesa nearly erupted into a geyser of Diet Coke and Jos. A. Bank sweater fragments, Eli got his job back and McAdoo swiftly lost his. The lesson that the team appeared to take from this was not that the team’s quarterback for the better part of the generation shouldn’t be replaced with Literally Geno Smith, but that he couldn’t be replaced at all. The Giants spent money between that season and the last rebuilding the O-line and retooling the offensive weapons, left Eli in place, and took aim at that painted-on window of contention again. Manning spent another bleak season looking diminished and doomed, but he made all 16 starts.
There was no replacement waiting, then, because the team’s decision-makers had seemingly convinced themselves either that none was needed or that it would be insulting to Manning to look any further past him than spending a sixth-round pick on a tall, wan quarterback with a name like a white-shoe law firm’s. After going 3-13 in 2017, the Giants recommitted to building around the 37-year-old Eli Manning and went 5-11. The team’s most recent offseason moves were even harder to parse—drafting Jones was clear enough, but swapping out Odell Beckham Jr. for Golden Tate and then crowing triumphantly about it was something different—but it went without saying that Manning was the holdover again. The line from the team was that he would remain under center for as long as the team had a chance to compete, and after two more weeks of near-identical mediocrity on offense—Barkley is brilliant, everything else is righteously constipated—the team at last seems ready to do ... something. They may or may not be better from one game to the next with Jones under center, but the move suggests that the people in charge have belatedly recognized that it doesn’t really matter that much.
During his half-decade or so of decline, Manning has become a strange type of quarterback. The changes in the game have both inflated his numbers in strange ways—three of the four most prolific passing seasons of his career have come since 2014, during which time he presided over just one season in which his team won more than six games—and amplified the ways in which he was always strange. Manning could and did make many excellent throws, and even some legendary ones, but he was always equally capable of appalling and confounding picks. These were not the sort of mistakes that quarterbacks normally make as they decline, which amount to one heat-check after another being declined for insufficient funds. They were authentically weird mistakes, and Manning made them even when he was at his peak. He was never much of a mover, even then, but managed to be clever with his feet when it mattered most. Manning beat two of the best teams that the Patriots have yet put together during their dynasty in two thrilling Super Bowls, but was even at his peak eminently capable of getting his team blown out by some sinus headache of a NFC East opponent. It seems telling that the answer to the question Was Eli Manning actually any good? and Is Eli Manning a Hall of Famer? is the same, but only because the answer is “probably, yeah, I guess.” I can’t really think of another quarterback like him.
It has been increasingly clear in recent years that it was time for him to stop being the starting quarterback for the Giants, but because it was always kind of unclear how Manning made all this work even when it worked, it was hard to know why it had stopped working. His coaches and (many) supporters in the football media never stopped maintaining that he could Make All The Throws, but it’s been some time since he last Made One. He lasted these last few years as the starter primarily because of the organizational and cultural defects that define the Giants, a team that reveres good and bad traditions equally and holds a grim patrician stodginess as its central ideological tenet. They didn’t want to change because they never really want to change, and the Giants made this mistake for the same reason they make basically every other one.
But because of how peculiar and indefinable he was as a player, and how rapidly he could toggle from glum goofiness to mercurial genius and back, there was always a more generous explanation. If no one ever really knew how Eli did it in the first place, there was always the chance that he might somehow do it again. He didn’t and he couldn’t and this might well be it, but few quarterbacks and even fewer mysteries last this long.