EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Eli Manning does not want to talk about how he'll be remembered. That conversation undermines the now. The chase for a ring in the 2018 season. The teammates right here in this Giants locker room.
Of course, when those teammates exit this room, they're suddenly trapped in an Eli funhouse. They're inundated with life-size images of Eli's past greatness everywhere in the team's training facility. Immortalized moments are plastered in the lobby, on a cafeteria window, through the hallways. The team is displaying its opinion of Manning's greatness, of his legacy, right where everyone works every day.
Then, there's the fact that so many players in this building are young enough to be Manning's son. When the quarterback was slaying the 18-0 Patriots in February 2008, his current backup (Kyle Lauletta) was 12 years old and his current tight end (Evan Engram) was 13, at a Super Bowl party, with the adults downstairs and kids upstairs.
Engram remembers watching in awe.
"You see his fight. You see how competitive he is," Engram says. "He's not the guy who's going to shatter. He gets it done. That's the biggest thing I've always known about Eli. He's a gamer who's going to get it done."
And that's the theme here at the Eli Manning Historical Center...er...Quest Diagnostics Training Center: Everyone speaks in the present tense. As if the Eli of then and the Eli of now are one and the same and soon new Eli heroics will cover another wall.
Instead of gracefully nudging Manning out the door and starting anew with, oh, I don't know, Sam Richard Darnold, the Giants' new hierarchy decided to give the 37-year-old Manning a 15th season and handed him a new running back (Saquon Barkley), a new left tackle (Nate Solder) and a new left guard (Will Hernandez), while also re-signing their enigmatic star (Odell Beckham Jr.) in one fell swoop.
It's no exaggeration: The decision to stick with Manning could go down as one of the worst blunders in NFL history. On Monday night, Darnold had Jets fans booking Super Bowl accommodations for the next decade. And we haven't seen how good Josh Allen, Josh Rosen or Lamar Jackson—the other quarterbacks the Giants passed on at No. 2—might be when they eventually take over their teams' starting jobs.
Or the decision could play out the way the Giants envision and lead to one more title run from Manning.
The Giants still believe.
And Eli, to his credit, understands the stakes.
"I want to prove them right," he says. "That they did make the right decision. I think it's still about keeping the focus on my jobs, my assignments, going out there and playing well, getting the game plan and being a good leader for this group."
The Giants' decision—which will go down as either disastrous or genius, no in-between—is absolutely driving him, too. There's no time to think about legacies or the future. Only to justify the belief that the window is still open. That he has one Super Bowl run in him.
"That makes you work harder. That makes you want to do everything right and go out there and give your heart out for this organization."
Will that be enough?
Call the Giants delusional. Call their approach archaic. Everyone here all but bangs the table in explaining why Manning isn't done yet.
Out with the old, in with the new
Start with the head coach who gave Case Keenum the Midas touch in Minnesota a year ago. Pat Shurmur could've said enough already with veterans and handpicked a brand-new quarterback for his brand-new offense. He chose Manning.
When pressed on why he'd do this, he doesn't hesitate.
"Because we still feel like he has years left," Shurmur says. "And he's an outstanding player. That's why."
The 2018 Giants do not believe the Manning who limped through 2017 is the Manning they inherited. What you'll hear here from players, paraphrased, is that last season, his offensive line was a sieve, OBJ was out and Ben McAdoo's system was a mess. At one end of the locker room, Engram raves about Shurmur's offense, calling it "dynamic" with its bevy of route combinations. The offense under McAdoo? "Bland," he says. "This offense is a whole other level of creativity."
Even more damning than the X's and O's is McAdoo tried to fundamentally rewire Manning's footwork. Lauletta, a rookie, wasn't around then, but he's heard Manning talk about it.
Last year, he says the Giants made Manning put his left foot forward in the shotgun when—for years—he kept his left foot back. All the little details that have made up Manning's game, forever, were suddenly being deconstructed and rebuilt.
"He had done certain drops and his stance a certain way for years, and last year they made them all do the same," Lauletta says. "So now, he's back to what he did two years ago and, really, his whole career."
Some quarterbacks, Lauletta adds, prefer to take three long steps out of the shotgun, while others take a quick five. Manning has the innate ability to adjust to the pressure in his face and the coverage he detects. Imitating Manning in the locker room, the fourth-round pick explains that Manning's footwork is freaky efficient. Within a muddy pocket, mid-play, he can get his feet set and pointed exactly where he wants. He's never out of position, never haphazardly chucking balls sidearmed.
"He's sharp. Really sharp," Lauletta says. "And his feet put him in great positions to succeed."
So, of course, having a coaching staff change will affect results.
It's a reality that many quarterbacks lose their powers with age, Lauletta adds, but he's convinced Eli is still Eli...with that newfound jolt of motivation. The rookie could only beat him to the facility once all summer—Manning's been here by 6:30 a.m. every morning. So winning the Super Bowl is the expectation. "Absolutely," Lauletta says. "No doubt." That's what Manning has this team believing.
When the wind chill dropped to minus-24 in one NFC title game and Brett Favre withered, Manning was devastating. When the 49ers battered him like a pinata and his chinstrap jammed up into his nose, Manning lifted New York into the Super Bowl again.
He's the easiest of easy targets to mock on social media, with that blank, looking-lost expression, but behind that facade is one of the toughest players of a generation.
So not only did his spirits never dip last season, but safety Landon Collins never even saw his quarterback receive treatment in the training room.
"Not on his shoulder," Collins says. "Not on his throwing arm. Not on his fingers. Not on his ankles. None of that. ... I haven't seen him wear a knee brace his whole career.
"It says he's a tough individual, and he's from Louisiana. He's built different."
Peyton Manning played to 39; Brett Favre to 41. Drew Brees is 39; Tom Brady 41. Quarterbacks, exponentially, are finding the Fountain of Youth, as the days of career-killing hits (think: Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly) are mostly relics. Annual rule changes are shifting the league closer and closer to flag football, and that helps. But what Eli Manning lacks in Brady's quick release and affinity for avocado ice cream, he makes up for with Favre-level toughness.
The players interviewed for this story insist they've never seen one sign of pain, period, cross their QB's face. Eli might've even threatened Favre's unfathomable record of 297 straight starts, too, if the team didn't give up on him after 210.
Collins hears those words, "the team," and makes one point clear for the history books.
It wasn't the team. No. It was a few individuals at the top of the organization. They were the only ones who wanted to see Geno Smith a year ago.
"We wanted Eli to start," he says. "He's our leader. He's the guy we look up to. He's the guy we want to lead us to the homeland."
He's staying young in other ways, too. Word of warning to all Giants players: If Eli asks for your phone, run. Fast. And keep it locked away with a seven-digit code he'll never decipher. He may be the oldest player on the roster, but Manning's pranks remain as sharp and ruthless as ever. No cringe-worthy dad jokes here.
So what does Eli do with those phones? Teammates won't go there.
"I can't tell you that," says Collins. "It's an in-here prank. It involves phones, and it involves some other stuff, too." A hint? "If you give him your phone...yeah. Just know to not give him your phone."
We do know Manning can change the language on phones from English to Chinese in four seconds. At a Saturday Night Live event once, Kevin Nealon asked Eli to take of picture of Nealon with Peyton, so Eli stuck it to him by changing the language.
And it's not just phones. When Lauletta headed to a golf outing this summer, he discovered that all of the clubs in his bag, and his shoes, were zip-tied. The team's long snapper was the culprit, but Lauletta's sure the idea came from Eli.
He's young at heart and tough in the mind. But of course, none of that is enough to prevent what claims most aging quarterbacks.
Usually, the fastball is what fades first. Passes flutter. Receivers slam the brakes on their go routes. It gets ugly. Peyton became a shell of himself practically overnight, which is the obvious fear with his younger brother.
But just mention fastball to Sterling Shepard, and the wide receiver's eyes and mouth scrunch into a bitter-beer face.
"Fastball? We never said he had a fastball," he says. "But I don't think he really needs one. He throws the most catchable ball I've ever had in my life. The most catchable ball, ever, out of any quarterback that I've had. There's not too much speed on it. You don't want to throw a fastball. I hate fastballs, to be honest."
Shepard would rather Manning place the ball exactly where it needs to be, exactly when it needs to be there. And even last season, Manning was the NFL's fourth-best passer on tight-window throws, per Pro Football Focus. The key will be maintaining juuuust enough juice on those.
Engram assures there's still "mustard" on such threads of a needle.
Week 1 didn't provide much reassurance, though. No, a 20-15 loss to Jacksonville raised more questions than answers. Sure, Manning stared down Yannick Ngakoue and miraculously spun out of a sack with the elusiveness of a quarterback half his age. But then he also had a tipped ball pick-sixed, overthrew an open Beckham on what looked like a sure score, underthrew Shepard on his final throw of the day, checked down to a running back when Beckham had a step on a linebacker deep middle and finished with a grisly 67.8 passer rating.
Ereck Flowers is still employed by the organization, as the Giants simply shifted their human turnstile to the right side. (Hey, at least Eli can see the free rushers now.)
Outside of Barkley's 68-yard touchdown run, Manning only mustered three field-goal drives.
Now, the Giants stare down the barrel of a 0-2 start against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, only 28 of the last 231 teams (12 percent) to lose their first two games have made the playoffs.
Still, wideout Cody Latimer points to the multiple deep balls Manning sailed over his head in practice as a good sign—"I'm fast! I'm like, 'The old man's still got it, huh?'" And veteran safety Michael Thomas, who's spent the last half-decade facing Tom Brady in the AFC East, sees no slippage.
"He looks all the part of a future Hall of Fame quarterback right now," Thomas says.
Manning insists he had no clue which direction management would go. There were no guarantees. So when Barkley was the pick, you bet he was re-energized. As was the entire team.
All of the excitement around New York football would seem to be 30 miles away, at Florham Park, with the Jets and their 21-year-old wunderkind. Oddly enough, there's just as much excitement here around the 37-year-old.
Eli Apple says Manning has been "a little swaggy" all summer, talking trash in practice. Thomas promises Manning is as deceptive as ever—he learned quickly in practices to never go off his first look.
Restarting with a rookie can mean waiting two, three, four years to contend. With Manning, they expect to win. Now. All of them.
From Engram: "I've always said, 'When Eli has time in the pocket, when he's comfortable in the pocket, his arm is still live.' He's still able to pick guys apart and put footballs where you wouldn't think it's possible for us receivers to catch them. I really think the Giants saw that this offseason—the front office saw how much this new opportunity re-energized him. ... Our mindset is to win each and every game that we play."
To Apple: "Nothing fazes him. He's a crazy, master competitor. He has that fire inside of him, that he's not going to let any of that stuff, the media, faze him."
To Latimer: "Numbers and stats don't lie. The man won Super Bowls. He was the MVP. Why does he need to be caring what other people are saying?"
To Thomas: "You have to put him up there. Especially with those Super Bowls. You have to put him up there in those conversations."
That is, with the most clutch quarterbacks of all time.
Still, the past is the past, and skepticism is building already.
Barkley is off and running, but elite running backs typically give teams five or six peak seasons. Elite quarterbacks can last a tick shy of forever in a league that now incubates the position. Even if Barkley runs all the way to Canton, passing on a potentially historically great first-round QB class could set the franchise back for years.
As one NFC scout puts it, bluntly, the Giants took who they believe is a "generational" back but, "I think it's pretty crazy considering they need to develop the future." One NFL personnel executive adds, "I think they will regret not picking Darnold. He's legit. Gonna be fun to watch him grow, because he'll have bumps in the road like they all do, but he's self aware and knows it's not easy but has the makeup, work ethic and physical skill set to be really good."
Anything less than another Super Bowl, with Manning, will be a disappointment in the eyes of many Giants fans. Especially with Darnold playing in the same stadium.
Another Super Bowl must be the goal.
Manning doesn't flinch.
"I think it's always a realistic goal," Manning says. "The years that we made runs, it's not like we were the favorites to win the Super Bowls those years. It's just a matter of this team coming together. Can we come together and be a poised, confident team? There's going to be ups and downs through the course of games and seasons. Can we deal with those things and handle it? And still be better with everything that happens?"
True, the Giants were 10-6 and 9-7 both of those seasons. If they can get into the dance, they're still armed with a QB who threw for 2,073 yards, 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions while conquering Tony Romo and Favre and Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith and Brady once more through two epic Super Bowl runs. He'll captain this ship. Maybe he'll guide it to the promised land. Maybe he'll go right down with it.
Really, there are only two guarantees. One, Eli Manning will need to be dragged off the field.
"It's wanting to be there for your teammates," Manning says. "Your teammates are playing banged-up and hurt. Offensive linemen are hurting all year long. You want to be accountable each and every week to your teammates, your organization, your coaches and do everything possible to play on Sundays."
And two, it's personal in 2018. Manning won't use those words, but it's written across his face for everyone in the building. They see it. Sense it.
Says Lauletta, "He's out to prove people wrong this year."
Lauletta hears his words aloud, repeated back to him, and changes his tune. Manning has faced pressure in this city for 15 years now. It's bigger than that.
"He's trying to prove it to himself," the backup says. "He loves it, and he wants to do it as long as he can."