This is not the first time around for Eli Manning, but it remains an uncomfortable conversation, one he was forced to engage in at this time last year.
That was the first time, Manning acknowledged, he ever felt he might not return to quarterback the Giants. The franchise had fallen into disrepair, he had his starting streak unceremoniously ended, the general manager and head coach had already been fired and Manning headed into the 2017 regular-season finale against the Redskins unsure if he was staring at his last game for the Giants.
“Last year I didn’t know,” Manning said Wednesday. “Hey, when you get to Year 15 these things come up.”
Yes, these things come up. Year No. 15 for Manning comes to an end Sunday against the Cowboys, the Giants sitting at 5-10 and knowing there will be plenty of Dallas fans at MetLife Stadium, cheering on their playoff-bound team. The Giants are 8-23 the past two years — 8-22 with Manning as the starter — and once again, the soon-to-be 38-year-old franchise icon admits he cannot be sure he will return for a 16th season.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Have not got into that or thought much about that. Just worried about doing my job and finishing the season. I didn’t know last year either. We’ll figure it out.”
It is the decision that will shape the direction of an organization that has never before lost this many games in back-to-back seasons. The 2019 draft, already considered extremely weak as far as quarterback talent, lost one of the top prospects when Justin Herbert announced Wednesday he will return to Oregon.
One of the reasons Manning has lasted this long in the glare of the New York market and limelight is that he does not stress the small stuff during the season. His expression and cadence changes in his media sessions whenever the topic shifts to his future or his contract. It did so again on what could have been his final Wednesday locker-room media briefing.
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He said he has not had any discussions with the team about his contract, which, as it stands, will count $23.2 million against the 2019 salary cap. Asked if he would consider accepting a pay cut, Manning said, “We’ll handle all that after the season.”
Pat Shurmur is nearing the end of his first season as the Giants’ head coach and will start Manning for the 16th time, saying he is not thinking about this game as any sort of seminal moment for Manning.
“No, not really,” Shurmur said. “Eli’s our starter, Eli gives us the best chance to win and he’s gonna play on Sunday. That’s where we’re at. I think when the game is over and we start talking in depth about what’s gonna happen moving forward, that’s when you worry about it. I’m not worried about that. Again, you’re talking to the coach. I’m worried about the game.”
The game takes precedence, as Shurmur continues to insist he believes one season is connected to the next, and winning now can help down the road. There will be no prearranged moment for fans to salute Manning.
“I think that’s an in-game thing that happens when it happens,” Shurmur said. “We’re trying to win a game, and Eli’s our quarterback.”
And so Manning will start the game, and the plan is for him to finish it.
“Of course,” Shurmur said. “What I expect him to do is lead us to victory. Nothing would be better than for him to assume the victory formation and take a knee and beating the Cowboys. That’s what we’re looking to do.”
The offense Manning directs was mostly terrible in the first half of the season, as the Giants went 1-7. Manning has 11 touchdown passes and four interceptions in the last seven games, corresponding with an uptick in winning (4-3) and scoring.
“He still has it in him, in my eyes,” receiver Sterling Shepard said. “He’s the smartest guy I’ve ever played with. He’s still making the throws. You can see last week, he made a lot of great throws, made great decisions with the ball.”
In the 28-27 loss to the Colts, Manning had to escape pressure in the pocket late in the first quarter before firing a 55-yard strike to Shepard — a throw not all NFL quarterbacks can make.
“He can still make the throws,” Shepard said. “I don’t see where a lot of people come from when they say [otherwise].”
Shepard wants to see Manning back in 2019.
“You never know what you’re getting in the draft or whatever,” Shepard said. “He’s proven he can play in this league, he’s been in this league a long time doing his thing, so I’d love for him to be my QB.”
Manning, of course, wants that as well. The end of the line could be close, but he is not looking at it that way as he approaches the season finale.
“I view it,” Manning said, “as the last game of this season.”