OAKLAND — It had been one of the most surreal Sundays of his 14-year career, and when it was over, Eli Manning walked through a tunnel leading out of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and into an uncertain future. His right arm dragging a roller bag, his head held high, the New York Giants’ newly deposed starting quarterback strode into the Northern California twilight and said, essentially, that the sun would come up tomorrow.
“I’m making it,” Manning told me, mustering a faint grin in the wake of a 24-17 defeat to the Oakland Raiders that dropped his team to 2-10 and put second-year head coach Ben McAdoo’s job status onto even shakier ground. “Today was kind of what I expected. The toughest parts were earlier in the week. I think, by now, it had kind of sunk in.
“I wanted to be there for my teammates and for my team and do my best to try to help us win a ballgame.”
On this day, that meant suiting up as the Giants’ second-string quarterback — ending a 210-game consecutive starts streak that ranked second in NFL history, behind only Hall of Famer Brett Favre — and wearing a black headphone in his right ear.
Veteran Geno Smith, who took Manning’s place in the starting lineup, played efficiently but lost a pair of crucial fumbles. Meanwhile, rookie Davis Webb, a third-round pick from Cal who has grown close to Manning during his short time with the team, was inactive for Sunday’s game. As he prepares for a probable opportunity sometime in the season’s remaining weeks, perhaps as soon as next Sunday, Webb spent this day shadowing the two-time Super Bowl MVP on the sideline and getting a first-hand leadership lesson from a Giants legend.
“Eli has been and continues to be the best teammate I’ve ever had,” Webb said Sunday evening after leaving the stadium. “This week, and him not playing today, was tough for all of us. But he helped Geno throughout the week, and Eli and I communicated the entire game trying to help us win the game.
“I’ve learned so much from Eli since I’ve been here … but this week, I’ve learned the most. What a teammate and a role model. E is the man forever.”
In a group interview at his locker, Manning acknowledged the emotion behind last Tuesday’s benching and made supportive comments about McAdoo, who coached the Giants to the playoffs in his first year but has presided over a second-year implosion wrought with key injuries and awkward interactions.
“I don’t want anybody to get fired,” Manning said in response to a question about McAdoo’s dubious job security. “When a coach gets fired, it’s usually because the team and the players, and myself, haven’t performed to our duties. So I don’t want to see that.”
Last Wednesday, when asked whether McAdoo’s job was safe for the remainder of the season, Giants co-owner John Mara ominously responded, “There are no guarantees in life.” On Sunday morning, ESPN reported that McAdoo could be fired “in the 24 hours after” the Raiders game, with general manager Jerry Reese’s job also in apparent jeopardy.
In his postgame press conference, McAdoo responded, “I’m going to coach this team as long as my key card works … until I’m told I’m not coaching this team. I’m going to show up tomorrow morning and get ready to go to work.”
If McAdoo wanted to enhance his chances of staying on the job, a victory Sunday — over a Raiders team with plenty of its own issues — might have helped. Instead, Oakland (6-6) moved into a three-way tie for first place in the woebegone AFC West with the streaking Chargers (6-6) and fading Chiefs (6-6), with a pivotal division showdown in Kansas City looming next Sunday. The Raiders close their season on Sunday, Dec. 31, with a game against the Chargers in Carson, California.
Coming off their first playoff appearance in 14 years, the Raiders had extremely high hopes heading into 2017 but sputtered to a 4-6 start that helped lead to the dismissal of defensive coordinator Ken Norton.
“With great expectations can come bitter resentment,” said one Raiders coach, who — come to think of it — might as well have applied the same statement toward Sunday’s opponents. “It’s not just Kenny; this falls on all of us. And we’ve got to find a way to fight through it.”
Times remain tense in the East Bay, but the Raiders did enough on Sunday to keep hope alive, striking early on a 51-yard scoring burst by halfback Marshawn Lynch (17 carries, 101 yards) and repelling a late Giants charge on the strength of Derek Carr’s 9-yard touchdown pass to receiver Johnny Holton.
“That wasn’t pretty,” embattled first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing said as he jogged off the field. “But then again, I didn’t think it was gonna be.”
The Giants had some unsightly moments of their own, preventing them from potentially pulling off an upset. Smith (21 of 34, 212 yards) didn’t take a ton of chances, but he was reasonably accurate and connected with rookie tight end Evan Engram (seven catches, 99 yards) on a 10-yard touchdown that cut New York’s deficit to 17-14 with 5:16 left in the game. Yet, Smith, the former Jets second-round pick making only his second start since 2014, looked a bit rusty in the pocket, losing a pair of fumbles on Oakland sacks — including one late in the first half that star pass rusher Khalil Mack literally seized from his grasp.
Defensively, the Giants did force a turnover, with cornerback Brandon Dixon dislodging the ball from Holton after a 14-yard reception late in the third quarter, and safety Landon Collins recovering. However, both Dixon and Collins also dropped seemingly easy interceptions that could have changed the game.
After dropping their fifth game out of six, the Giants filed into the cramped visitors’ locker room at the Coliseum wondering what the immediate future might hold, beginning with the question of whether McAdoo — or someone else — will coach them in next Sunday’s home game against the Dallas Cowboys.
“We just tuned it out,” Collins said of the report surrounding McAdoo’s potential firing. “Let’s see what happens, if and when it happens.”
If Mara and co-owner Steve Tisch decide to make a change, McAdoo’s handling of Manning’s benching may prove to have been a factor in the timing of the decision. Mindful of the quarterback’s streak, McAdoo initially offered him a chance to remain as the team’s starter –with the condition that he’d give way to Smith and/or Webb as the game progressed.
Manning declined, and the chain of events triggered a massive wave of backlash from many of his former Giants teammates, and from peers around the league, such as the Chargers’ Philip Rivers.
Manning, too, acknowledged that he was emotionally jolted by the decision. On Thursday, Manning’s father, Archie, told NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport that his youngest son might retire following the 2017 season.
Asked to comment in his group interview following the game, Eli Manning replied, “Yeah. I plan on playing next season.”
He also insisted he wasn’t offended by McAdoo’s offer to remain as the nominal starter, saying, “No, I don’t blame anybody for the way it was handled. I think Coach McAdoo tried to do something right by me, by saying they were going to let me play. But just knowing that I was going to come out of the game, I just couldn’t play that way. You know, I appreciated it. He was trying to do me a favor.”
On Sunday, Manning tried to do Smith — and the rest of his Giants teammates — a solid by swallowing his pride and supporting the cause, offering strategic tips and motivational well-wishes.
“He was helpful all week, and great today,” Engram said of Manning. “He was a prime example of how to handle tough times.”
Now, with four games left in a lost season and the strong likelihood he’ll play elsewhere in 2018, Manning is in uncharted territory. Though the Giants’ plan remains to go with Smith and Webb in the closing weeks — McAdoo said he’d evaluate Sunday’s film and decide which quarterback will start against the Cowboys early this week — that could obviously change if a new coach is in charge.
In that scenario, or in the event of injury or other unforeseen circumstances, it’s possible Manning could once again take the field and represent the NFL franchise near and dear to his heart.
As he headed out of the Coliseum and toward the Giants’ team buses, I asked him how he’d feel about being inserted back into the lineup in the season’s final month.
He stopped and broke into a legitimate smile.
“If they call it, you go,” he said definitively. “If they need you to play, to go out there and try to win the game, then you go play.”
In the meantime, unless and until that happens, he’ll have to settle for being the best teammate he can be.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.