On the day nearly two years ago when Tom Coughlin bade farewell to the New York Giants, Eli Manning sat in the auditorium in tears. Manning is famous and oft-criticized for his even-keeled, even laconic, public disposition. But Coughlin's words that day -- saying Manning is what you would want your son to be made of, that Manning thought it was his fault Coughlin had lost his job, that Coughlin knew Manning would be back at work the next day starting to work on the next season -- overwhelmed Manning as he watched the only coach he had known in his professional life leave.
Coughlin had given voice to what people around the Giants felt about Manning, from the very top down to the last man on the roster. He had been so steadfast, so reliable, that his consecutive starts streak was not even talked much about until it reached 209 a few weeks ago, topping his brother Peyton. It was taken for granted that Manning would be there on Sundays, from the moment he took over during his rookie year from Kurt Warner in 2004 until last week.
Manning was not great as often as some Giants fans might have wished or as often as others of his generation -- even at his best, Peyton or Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers overshadowed him. But he was great often enough and at the biggest moments -- during the breathtaking runs to the Super Bowl victories over the Patriots in 2007 and 2011, after both of which he was named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. His escape from a sure sack to stick a pass onto David Tyree's helmet is the stuff of legend. His rainbow-into-a-bucket pass to Mario Manningham on the sideline was even better. The fondness and respect for Manning was unquestioned, from Warner, to the teammates who had been on those championship teams to the players who heard him deliver an emotional beseeching just last week, before the Giants upset the Kansas City Chiefs.
That the victory over the Chiefs was so unexpected, that this Giants season has devolved into disaster, is why Manning was benched Tuesday in one of the most shocking and sad moments in recent Giants history.
In football terms, devoid of any semblance of loyalty or history, the move makes some sense. At 2-9, the Giants -- and a decision of this magnitude goes all the way up the organizational chart through general manager Jerry Reese to the office of owner John Mara -- want to see what they have in Geno Smith and Davis Webb going into next year. That it makes no sense to not turn directly to Webb is a topic for another day.
In human terms, it is excruciating. Coaches, even two-time Super Bowl winners like Coughlin, live on borrowed time, even at one of the most stable franchises in all of sports. But for a player of Manning's caliber, for one who wanted to play his entire career for one team, for one who delivered two trophies, an unraveling is upsetting to watch. We are often reminded that football is a business, but when it strikes at those who best represented their franchises, this treatment is crushing. That the Giants could have handled this ending -- and it is hard to read this as anything but the end for Manning with the Giants -- more deftly should be obvious. Manning did not have a face-to-face conversation with Mara, who was out of town Monday and at owners' meetings on Tuesday, before the decision was announced. They communicated by text and are expected to speak directly Wednesday. That Mara allowed McAdoo to bench Manning is shocking enough. That he allowed it to go forward without sitting down in person with Manning should not have happened.
Peyton Manning's departure from Indianapolis -- again, excruciating to watch -- was precipitated by his own injury and by a super talent awaiting the Colts in Andrew Luck. This, somehow, is even worse. Manning was undone by failure, only a small sliver of it his, much more of it the failure of the people around him, from the front office that failed to bolster an underperforming offensive line to the field where, in recent weeks, it appeared some players gave less than full effort.
That Manning will not finish the season -- that he will back up Smith, of all confounding things -- while many of those who failed him will continue on at least until Dec. 31 makes this sting a little more. Whatever opportunities are afforded the others should certainly have been extended to the best quarterback in franchise history.
Manning was in tears again Tuesday at his locker, when he said that this day was up there as the hardest of his career. His future, at age 36, is still to be determined, by Mara, certainly, and by whoever is residing in the general manager's and head coach's office after this brutal season ends. It is delicious to imagine a Manning-Coughlin reunion in Jacksonville, where a powerhouse defense and a top-shelf running back await only a competent quarterback to be serious contenders.
Manning's remarks in the Giants' announcement were gracious, but it is easy to figure that under certain circumstances -- if the Giants are preparing to draft a quarterback with a high pick next spring, for example -- he will want to be elsewhere next season. Ben McAdoo gave him the option of continuing to start, with the understanding that he would not finish the games so that Smith and Webb could get snaps. Manning told McAdoo, essentially, to take a hike.
"My feeling is that if you are going to play the other guys, play them," Manning said in a statement. "Starting just to keep the streak going and knowing you won't finish the game and have a chance to win it is pointless to me, and it tarnishes the streak. Like I always have, I will be ready to play if and when I am needed. I will help Geno and Davis prepare to play as well as they possibly can."
Maybe, in the long run, that is the right way to approach the future, to break completely with a past that has included no playoff appearances in five of the last six years.
But it's worth a reminder this week that the recent past also included two championships, one of them coming in a game Mara called the greatest victory in Giants history. He said that moments after the Giants completed what is arguably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, over the previously undefeated Patriots. He said it while standing beside Manning.