If a few more draft picks had worked out, if a few more free-agent signings had hit, if a few more winning plays had been made in crunch time over the past decade, maybe Eli Manning would be quarterbacking the Giants against the Falcons this Sunday.
Instead Manning’s career will be celebrated at halftime with the retirement of his No. 10 jersey and his induction into the franchise’s Ring of Honor — a rare joyous moment at MetLife Stadium during a slog of a losing decade. Manning retired after the 2019 season, spent a year out of the public eye and returned in 2021 as a member of the Giants’ front office and an ESPN analyst, but he never considered unretiring after a one-year layoff, like fellow future Hall of Famers Rob Gronkowski and Jason Witten.
“I enjoy the preparation — I could’ve gotten back into that part — but just the losing, the grind of it all, I don’t know if I could have totally gotten back into all that,” Manning said. “The losses just hurt more. They affect your sleep. They affect your week. They affect family life with my wife and kids. It just got too much.”
Now Manning is just like you.
“I root for the Giants and I feel for them after a loss,” he said. “But I go to bed very easily on Sunday nights and wake up and feel good about the upcoming week — and it’s not something that lingers for three or four days like it used to.”
Manning was 69-50 in the regular season with two Super Bowl wins after the first eight seasons of his career. He was 48-67 with an 0-1 record in the playoffs and two benchings in the final eight seasons.
“[My] contract was up and it was time to be done,” Manning said. “I wasn’t playing at the level I used to be playing and so it was just time to hang it up and I said, ‘I had a good run.’”
Wrong. Manning had a great run. And it really began during Manning’s fourth season, in 2007.
The Giants were coming off two criticized one-and-done exits in the playoffs — the franchise longs for one of those now — but won three straight road playoff games and culminated the unthinkable hot streak by upsetting the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
“That whole playoff stretch was probably very important in my career and Coach [Tom] Coughlin’s,” Manning said. “We were probably both on that line of, ‘Hey, do these guys have what it takes or not?’ … There had been some glimpses of good and some bad, some ups and downs. I think that kind of just proved, ‘Hey, he can play well in the biggest moments.’ That’s something we were able to do quite a few times.”
If “clutch” was Manning’s primary defining characteristic, “durable” was a close second. Manning is most proud of making 210 consecutive starts and never missing one due to injury.
“That was always important to me,” Manning said. “I think the players responded to that. They took great pride in that as it went. An offensive lineman didn’t want to be part of the group that got Eli hit or injured to miss a game.”
The Falcons make an appropriate opponent Sunday, because they were on the other side for Manning’s first career start, on Nov. 21, 2004, and for his only home playoff win, on Jan. 8, 2012. His other postseason wins were on the road or in the Super Bowl.
“I don’t know why we always seemed to try to make it more difficult on ourselves than it had to be, but that was kind of our style,” Manning quipped. “We liked two-minute drives at the end of games to win, and I guess we just enjoyed creating the drama of football. And I think that’s what the fans wanted.”
The fans will remind Manning he was what they wanted — and that’s a feeling he will gladly let linger for three or four days this week.