MINNEAPOLIS — Ladies and gentleman, your attention please: Playing the part of Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner in today’s performance of Big Blue Babysitter will be two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning.
Now that John Mara, Dave Gettleman and Pat Shurmur have signed off on Manning rebounding from the McAdoo Mess to be the starter for the 2018 season opener, the issue becomes: Okay … sounds good … but for how long?
If the Giants select either USC quarterback Sam Darnold or UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen with the second pick in the April draft, or even trade down a few spots if they like Wyoming’s Josh Allen the best of a strong group, then the sand starts running out of the hourglass a lot quicker on Manning’s tenure as the Giants starter.
Can Manning perform the babysitter role for Darnold, Rosen or Allen and do it as well and as willingly as Warner did for him in his rookie year in 2004? Will Eli be Brett Favre ignoring Aaron Rodgers or will he embrace the young guy like he has with non-threats Ryan Nassib and Davis Webb, even though his job will be on the line for the first time in his career?
“For me in 2004, I knew I wasn’t done yet,” Warner told the Daily News. “So, as far as going through that situation with Eli, I understood going in what I was getting into. I knew my mindset wasn’t, ‘I am going to be the Giants starter for the long term,’ and then all of a sudden a young kid gets thrown in there and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, is this my future?’”
Manning is 37, has missed the playoffs five of the last six years, hasn’t won a playoff game since Super Bowl XLVI following the 2011 season and was 3-12 last year. Warner was 33 when he signed with the Giants to be the veteran bridge to Manning after Ernie Accorsi traded for Eli during the draft. Kerry Collins, who had taken the Giants to Super Bowl XXXV, was the QB incumbent, but rejected Accorsi’s offer to be Manning’s mentor. He still wanted to play. He forced the Giants to cut him and he signed with the Raiders.
Warner had lost his job in St. Louis to Marc Bulger and was looking for a way to re-establish himself. Accorsi and Tom Coughlin needed a veteran to open the 2004 season until Manning was ready and the offensive line could develop.
So, Warner and the Giants used each other. It was a perfect marriage.
“The part about mentoring someone, that part is easy,” said Warner, now an NFL Network analyst. “It’s easy to take a young kid and share with him whatever you possibly can and to make him the best player possible. The hard part is when you feel like you’re the better quarterback and you’re not on the field. You don’t take that out on the other guy, but that’s a tough sell.”
It was supposedly an open competition in 2004 training camp, but the Giants wanted Warner to win. He would keep the job as long as he was playing well and the Giants were winning. He was on his way to Comeback Player of the Year when the Giants were a surprising 5-2, but they lost their next two games to the Bears and Cardinals, and Coughlin made the switch to Manning. Warner had six TDs and four INTs but was sacked an astounding 39 times as he was hesitant to throw it away or risk an interception. Manning lost his first six starts before a last-minute victory in the final game of his rookie year against the Cowboys.
Even though he was disappointed when he was benched, Warner never complained. Why? It was mission accomplished. He played well enough to earn a one-year, $4 million free agent contract with the Cardinals, and after playing well again, he signed a three-year, $18 million deal in 2006. He led the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl appearance in 2009.
Manning now has a track record to show how he reacts to getting benched. Although McAdoo completely screwed it up by telling Manning he would start against Oakland and Geno Smith would play the second half — he should have told Manning he would start but game circumstances would dictate when he would take a look at Smith — Eli still did not react well.
He told McAdoo he wanted no part of the plan and to just start Smith, which he did. He stood by his locker and cried when talking to the media about the demotion. That perhaps gives a glimpse into how Manning will behave when it happens again if Gettleman and Shurmur invest the second overall pick in a quarterback.
Then it just becomes a matter of time before Manning loses his job.
“The other part is how much longer does Eli think he can play?” Warner said. “How does he look at this situation? Okay, this is my last hurrah, and now I’m finding myself on the bench and I just want to get through this year and retire? Or does he see himself as a guy who can still play? What does Eli see for the future? I have to believe he wants to be a Giant for life. But what’s he willing to do to be a Giant for life? You want to be a Giant for life, but you know if you do that, there is a possibility of the other guy getting out there. Now what do you do?”
Warner admires how Mark Brunell and Matt Hasselbeck were able to transition from being successful starters to being happy to accept a second career as backups. “I could never grasp that,” Warner said. “When I was kind of relegated to the scout team, it drove me crazy. I thought about retiring when it happened in Arizona with Matt Leinart. I can’t do this. Mentally it just doesn’t work for me. I’m too much of a competitor.”
He found peace with the Giants, knowing all along he was one-and-done in New York unless he played lights out and kept the job the entire season and took the Giants to the playoffs. Instead, he never made himself the story when Manning was given his job. I remember him sitting quietly by his locker reading the Bible during the week.
Shurmur at his press conference Friday said that he thinks Manning has a couple of years left. His opinion could change once he watches film of every play of every game from last season, and it could change if the Giants draft a QB at the top of the first round.
Although Manning will likely still be the opening day starter even with Darnold or Rosen on the roster, his job security will be tenuous. This will not be Drew Brees holding off Philip Rivers for two years and then moving on to the Saints only because he busted his shoulder. Manning is not playing at the kind of level to hold off a potential franchise quarterback.
Does Warner think Manning can still play?
“Eli is good in critical moments and when the players around him are good,” Warner said. “I don’t think he’s a guy, especially at this stage in his career, where he can necessarily carry a team week in and week out. So you need good pieces around him. This year, he had nothing around him. Everything fell apart and they really struggled. It’s so hard to assess where Eli is.”
Warner said if Manning was to play for the Jaguars he believes they have enough talent to put around him that they could win the Super Bowl. “I definitely think he can play better than this year if he’s got the right supporting cast,” Warner said. “Throughout his career, I don’t know if you would call him a great quarterback week in and week out. He had great stretches.”
Manning has made the playoffs six times and won playoff games only in the Super Bowl years.
“You look at his career stats and take out those two Super Bowl runs, you would say he’s been very average at best” Warner said. “But he’s got those runs, epic runs. He played unbelievable in both of those runs. It’s such a unique career.”
It was easier for Warner to accept the one-year babysitting job with the Giants knowing he would be moving on than it would be for Manning, who has been with the team for the last 14 years and won two titles.
Who knows? It’s a fascinating situation. Maybe Manning will be able to add babysitter to his Hall of Fame resume.