The Giants’ Complex Decision to Bench Eli Manning

When it all starts to go south, there are so many different ways a team can distract itself from believing there’s a quarterback problem.

You can fire the quarterbacks coach, and then the coordinator, and then the head coach. You let the receivers walk and sign new ones. You can blame the offensive line and shake the unit out like a dirty rug. You can point to the porous defense and fire some people over there, too. You can spend draft capital on new, trendy between-size tight ends and receiving backs because that’s what everyone else has, and surely, that’s the only thing you need to get it all back to normal again. Anything, it seems, to keep from facing the fact that the battery of your franchise is starting to wear out, and that it’s time to think about a replacement.

Giants’ 16-year veteran Eli Manning was benched on Tuesday in favor of rookie Daniel Jones. Manning will end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even if his candidacy deserves more of a thorough, statistical debate than it will inevitably get. In the coming days and weeks, a band of noteworthy Eli loyalists will continue to insist that the Giants are somehow mistreating their legendary quarterback, when in reality, they may have been part of the problem all along. Manning’s coolness amid two improbable Super Bowl victories will be baked into franchise lore, as will two of the greatest passes in title game history that came from Manning’s right arm. They were halcyon days for the franchise, and elevated Manning to his deserved place in the upper-middle tier of all-time great quarterbacks. Unfortunately, the franchise became obsessed with recreating those days.

The Giants, from 2013 to ’19, went through all the familiar machinations. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was replaced by Ben McAdoo, who was steeped in the then-trendy Packer offense. After two years of improved statistics (but a pair of 6-10 seasons), Tom Coughlin was let go and replaced by McAdoo as head coach. Jerry Reese was replaced by Dave Gettleman as general manager. In that window of time, Manning had five different offensive coordinators (Sean Ryan, Danny Langsdorf, Mike Sullivan, Frank Cignetti, Jr., Mike Shula) and four offensive coordinators.

Yet, it rarely seemed like he was leveling back out. While there is no perfect statistic to gauge a quarterback’s effectiveness, Total Quarterback Rating takes into account things like meaningless sacks taken, the context (time, score, distance) of every pass and the devastating effects of certain turnovers. Here were Manning’s numbers since the end of the 2013 season:

62.5
60.5
49.3
45.4
48.7
30

Don’t believe that number? How about net yards per attempt, which also dipped from 6.71 yards to 6.63 yards to 6.28 yards to 5.45 yards. Through two games in 2019, the Giants were netting 5.97 yards per passing play, which is less than half the number netted by Dak Prescott through two games this season. Don’t believe that number? How about Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, which “gives the value of the quarterback’s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage.”

642
404
188
117
337

All the while, the Giants contorted their reality to repair the numbers instead of letting the numbers help determine their reality. They went on spending sprees, drafted, developed and scapegoated a generational talent at wide receiver. They vacillated between a rocket-fueled pursuit of contention to a strategic tear down to an accelerated rebuild with all the economic deftness of a reality-show president. In the end, the franchise arrived here, two losses into the 2019 season, preparing a rookie quarterback to start on the road in Week 3.

Manning deserves credit for this: His best days were good enough, and his demeanor was enduring enough that his bosses perpetually made decisions aimed at conjuring the past, instead of the kind of heartless decisions that could ultimately pull the franchise forward.

In that way, his on-field legacy will always be complex. He declined, but then again, all players do at some point. How do you separate that from a franchise’s struggle to recognize and accept it?  

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