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Eli Manning benched: Giants right to make painful transition

The end of the era came quietly, on a day off, with an emailed statement that Eli Manning -- hero of two Super Bowl runs, possessor of one of the greatest and longest Giants careers -- was going to the bench.

But really, the end began two seasons ago, when then-coach Ben McAdoo fumbled the Giants' first attempt at a transition, benching Manning so clumsily -- for Geno Smith, not the next franchise quarterback -- that the ensuing uproar borne Manning right back to the field. Everything that came after spelled Manning's eventual doom: a new coach and general manager, a rebuild in everything but name, but no new results. The Giants' record since Manning resumed his job in 2017 is 6-16. And as much promise as first-round pick Daniel Jones flashed during the preseason, it was the teamwide inertia -- and the lifelessness that accompanied it -- that brought Manning down.

The defense is terrible, the receiving corps threadbare, and it is arguable whether Jones even gives the Giants a better chance to win this week against the Buccaneers than Manning, who has not been the only reason the Giants are 0-2. But with all the signs that this season would be lost without a major change, putting sentiment -- and the $17 million the Giants paid to bring Manning back this season -- aside to get Jones experience feels like the right decision.

It was always going to be painful for the Giants to sit Manning, who holds just about every team career passing record. His 116-116 regular-season record does not fully reflect his impact on the Giants. He is beloved within the organization and by most of the fan base for that escape-and-heave to David Tyree, for the pass of a lifetime to Mario Manningham, for those dazzling runs toward two Lombardi Trophies and for the way he represented the franchise since he arrived in 2004. To put an even finer point on Manning's career: Without him, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady would have eight rings and a perfect season, and the victory in the Super Bowl that ended the Patriots' run at an undefeated 2007 season was, owner John Mara said, the greatest game in the team's history. Those victories alone, against the tandem that is the greatest of its era, will provide plenty of fodder for a long conversation when Manning is eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I've been through the passing of the torch before, early in my career with Johnny Unitas," said Ernie Accorsi, the former general manager who orchestrated the draft-day trade that brought Manning to the Giants. "This is a very difficult time for me, although I knew sooner or later this day would come. Eli Manning gave me the two greatest moments of my time in the National Football League. He will always be very special to me, as will his two Super Bowl Championships."

Accorsi, of course, could afford to be sentimental about Manning. But it had increasingly felt as if the Giants' current decision-makers had anchored themselves with their heartstrings to Manning and the warm memories he provided -- and in the process had tied the team in place, convinced that Manning had enough left that if everything else was upgraded around him, the results would follow. But the first two games made it clear that even if the losses were not Manning's fault, he can no longer carry a team that lacks many playmakers on both sides of the ball. There was, simply, no longer a reason not to try something different.

So finally the cloak of familiarity has been torn away and the Giants walked into their future. There is plenty of uncertainty about what it will look like -- they are far from mathematically eliminated, but they also don't look anywhere close to a playoff team right now. But one thing the G-Men have counted on since they made Jones the sixth overall pick in this past spring's draft: He has the legs to get them out of trouble and scramble toward something that looks like progress.

"This move is more about Daniel moving forward than about Eli," said coach Pat Shurmur in a statement on Tuesday.

Manning will be the backup and, in his 16th season here, it is hard to know if Manning will want his career to end like this or if he will hope to find a suitor elsewhere to extend it. But this move by the Giants saves him from hearing more of the boos that have become the Giants' soundtrack and allows him to bathe in the embrace the franchise afforded some of its alumni last Sunday.

There would certainly be more favorable ways for Jones to begin his career. Top receiver Sterling Shepard has not yet been cleared to return from a concussion. Golden Tateis suspended. And the Giants' defense ranks 30th in the league in points allowed. When he met with reporters Monday, Manning uttered a small truth -- he was not missing receivers. That means the receivers have simply not been open. The hope is that the insertion of Jones gives the team energy, but it needs more than that -- it needs better, headier play. And more talent, too.

Jones looked superb in camp and the preseason, to the delight of the Giants' braintrust that took a beating for drafting him so high. He was 29 of 34 for 416 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in August. Jones does not have the biggest arm, but it looked stronger during the summer than expected. Most importantly, he opens a new dimension to the offense that was not available with Manning because he can make plays with his legs. That has to delight Shurmur. It will at least give opponents something besides Saquon Barkley to think about. The move to Jones also allows the Giants to fully take advantage of the time they have with Barkley while he is on his relatively inexpensive rookie contract. Wasting another one of those years by continuing to tread water was pointless.

After Sunday's game, some Bills players said their game plan was to put the game in the hands of Manning, to force him to beat them with his passes. It was a quietly-startling insult about a player who had authored at least two of the most memorable throws in NFL history. But it was also the reality of the Giants' situation, and Manning accepted it with the equanimity that marked his entire career.

"We have a stud running back in Saquon, teams are going to try to stop the run," Manning said. "We have some beat-up wide receivers and so make us throw the ball. We have to throw it better than what we are throwing it."

At the most critical moments in the biggest Giants games of his career, nobody threw it better than Manning. It is easy to forget those moments now in the rush to move on. But the trophies are in the case, and the Giants can only hope Jones can match those throws now that his time has arrived.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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