After years of discussing whether Eli Manning is an elite quarterback and worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, none of it matters at this juncture.
Either way, his time with the New York Giants is drawing to an end.
More importantly, it should.
After benching Manning for Geno Smith this past week, the Giants are already well on their way toward transitioning to their next franchise quarterback.
The Giants haven't handled that messy situation well, but they'll only compound those mistakes by going back to Manning as their starter. The organization made a decision, and it's time to own it.
Interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo plans to move the 36-year-old signal-caller back into the starting lineup against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, per ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan, after his streak of 210 consecutive regular-season starts was snapped this past weekend. Doing so would be counterproductive to the organization's long-term goals, however.
Manning provided some fantastic highs during his New York tenure, including a pair of Super Bowl victories, after the Giants traded for the No. 1 overall pick during the 2004 NFL draft. But the NFL doesn't operate based on what a player already accomplished. It's all about what he can provide during the coming days, weeks and years.
Manning isn't the same quarterback today as he once was, and the decision to move on from him didn't hastily materialize after one or two poor performances. The plan to move past Manning has been in the works for some time, per former NFL scouting director Greg Gabriel:
Manning hasn't been among the NFL's upper echelon of quarterbacks since the 2012 campaign, as Pro Football Focus demonstrated:
Yards per attempt is one of the best indicators of a quarterback's success. Houston Texans rookie Deshaun Watson, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, Jared Goff of the Los Angeles Rams, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs currently have the highest marks in that category, respectively. A possible NFL Rookie of the Year winner (prior to his season-ending injury), a pair of MVP candidates, a former MVP candidate and one of the game's best ever are counted among the group.
|Eli Manning's Average Yards Per Attempt (2014-27)|
Manning, meanwhile, ranks 31st out of 35 qualifiers at 6.10 yards per attempt.
The Giants roster is beset with injuries, and they've notably been without their two top wideouts, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall, since mid-October. New York lacks steady offensive line play and a consistent rushing attack, too. All of those holes placed far more pressure on Manning.
That only further exposed his warts as a passer.
First, his average yards per attempt has decreased in each of the past three seasons. Second, his accuracy continues to become more erratic. Manning's completion percentage has never been at an elite level—he's never finished top 10 overall—but his willingness to force passes often places his team in difficult situations.
"For all the great plays Manning made, there were plenty of turnover-worthy plays Giants fans know all too well about (plays that should have been intercepted, fumbles recovered by the offense, PFF penalizes the QB regardless of the outcome)," Pro Football Focus' Ryan Smith wrote. "In 2014, 4.17 percent of his snaps resulted in such plays (28th in the NFL), in 2015 he ranked 32nd, and in 2016 that dropped to 34th."
Manning's lack of mobility only exacerbates the issues within the rest of the offense. The Giants can't consistently block anyone, and the 27th-ranked run game averages just 89.1 rushing yards per game.
Do the Giants have a better option at this point? No. But that's far from the issue.
Geno Smith isn't the answer, either, after his 212-yard performance against an Oakland Raiders team that fired its defensive coordinator two weeks ago.
If the Giants truly want to evaluate their options at quarterback moving forward, they should thrust rookie Davis Webb into the starting lineup during the final four games, regardless of whether he's ready. After all, former general manager Jerry Reese used a third-round pick to acquire the big-armed pocket passer this past spring.
Webb threw for 4,295 yards and 37 touchdowns during his final season at Cal. Playing in wide-open offenses placed him further behind on the learning curve, though.
"Couple years to be the caddie and learn the pro game and all the nuances of playing quarterback in this league," Reese said of Webb after drafting him, per Raanan. "But he has all the tools. Hopefully he can sit on the sideline with a clipboard and learn the game."
Are 12 games enough to learn the pro game? No. But no rookie quarterback is ever fully ready. The transition is steep, and a player's performance depends on his mental and physical makeup. Some will never make it regardless of whether they start right off the bat or take a few years before getting onto the field.
"I get up here pretty early and I stay here pretty dang late and I always prepare like if my opportunity came tomorrow, I'd be ready and I approached it that way since the day I got here," Webb said last week, per Pro Football Talk's Curtis Crabtree.
The Giants need to discover the value of their investment. A new general manager won't have any attachment to Manning, Smith or Webb while staring at the possibility of taking a quarterback with a top-five pick in April's draft. New York is currently in position to land the second overall pick, according to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein.
Any discussion of the Giants needs to involve names like USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Louisville's Lamar Jackson. These are the top eligible quarterback prospects for the upcoming draft, and each has displayed the potential to be a franchise signal-caller.
Darnold is a naturally gifted playmaker who excels in adverse situations. Rosen is the best pure passer of the bunch, with immense arm talent. Mayfield is a sniper with his accuracy, and his competitive drive is second to none. Jackson is an elite athlete and an improving passer.
All four of them present their share of strengths and weaknesses, but the opportunity to land a quarterback of this caliber doesn't come around often.
The Giants haven't owned a top-five pick since they selected Philip Rivers fourth overall 13 years ago and traded him to the San Diego Chargers for Manning's draft rights. The Cleveland Browns, who have a two-game lead over the Giants for the No. 1 overall pick, are likewise expected to take a quarterback. But even if they do, they'd only take away one of four potential options.
Manning still has a future in the league, too. Multiple franchises are desperate to upgrade their quarterback situations, including the Browns, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Manning name still holds some juice, and some organization will be desperate to capitalize on his experience and presence.
"I plan on playing next season," Manning said Sunday, per Raanan.
The 14-year veteran won't be worth the same price tag he once was, so his contract will be the biggest sticking point for teams. Manning carries a $22.2 million cap hit in 2018, per Spotrac. The Giants can release him before the start of the new league year and save $9.8 million.
The Giants' next general manager may attempt to trade Manning, but two obstacles could prevent this from happening: Manning's contract contains a no-trade clause, and he's owed a $5 million roster bonus on March 18.
A fresh start for both sides appears to be the best route.
Every professional athlete faces his or her own mortality, and few get to leave the game on their terms. Manning isn't any different.
He should follow the path of his brother, Peyton, who didn't get to end his career as originally planned. Instead of retiring as a member of the Indianapolis Colts, the elder Manning experienced a successful second chapter with the Broncos.
The Giants, meanwhile, will move on and begin a different direction. Next season, the team should have a new franchise quarterback after selecting one in April's draft. The goal from that point will be to build around the young signal-caller.
The future doesn't wait for anyone, especially declining NFL players. Manning is the latest to experience the sting of being discarded, while the Giants waited too long to make it happen.
At this point, whether the organization treated the franchise's all-time leading passer unfairly is moot. There's no better time to play for its future than now.