Commentary

Eli Manning era may have bitter end

The Giants' quarterback is still in his prime, but the team around him is falling apart

Updated: September 24, 2013, 10:56 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Eli Manning is going to have his day in the sun, too. Maybe it will not be quite as grand as the day Mariano Rivera had in the Bronx, or the day Derek Jeter will have in a year or two or three.

But when he closes hard on retirement, Manning will be celebrated as the greatest offensive player in New York Giants history, and as a winner who embodied the same professionalism that defined the Jeter/Rivera Yanks.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsEli Manning got beaten up on Sunday, thanks to a brutal performance by his offensive line.
Between now and then, Manning will be expected to make another run at a championship. He's only 32, after all, and quarterbacks last forever these days. His older brother, Peyton, is still tilting scoreboards at 37 after a series of career-threatening neck surgeries.

Only there's no guarantee that Eli Manning will ever qualify for another Super Bowl, never mind win a third Super Bowl MVP. Sports promises nothing, other than occasional heartbreak and wildly unpredictable twists and turns. And here's all you need to know about that:

Three weeks into this NFL season, the 2-1 Jets amount to a more legitimate candidate than the 0-3 Giants to be the home team in the MetLife Stadium Super Bowl. Oh yeah, and Eli Manning has thrown more interceptions (eight) than Geno Smith (six).

So it appears the Giants are wasting another season of Eli's prime. If they fail to become the rare 0-3 team that reaches the playoffs, the Giants will have missed the tournament in four of the past five seasons, and they will have made a mockery of the Super Bowl countdown calendar GM Jerry Reese had posted in the back of his team's locker room.

"What happened yesterday was a total embarrassment," Harry Carson, Hall of Fame linebacker, said by phone of Carolina Panthers 38, New York Giants 0. "That's not being a Giant. There's a certain amount of pride and dignity when you put on that uniform and take the field, and I'm trying to choose my words carefully ... because sometimes, like they said in the movie, you can't handle the truth."

Carson recalled the last time he shredded his former team in public, right after these same Panthers closed down Giants Stadium with a 41-9 victory in 2009. As dignified a Giant as there's ever been, Carson questioned his team's heart the way Carl Banks did on WFAN this time around, and back then Michael Boley all but demanded a bib and pacifier in response.

So no, Carson wasn't a retired linebacker simply piling on after catching some of Sunday's horror show on TV, and some of it on radio.

"I'm not looking to beat anybody down," he said, "and quite frankly I've been there before. I've been on those teams that had talent but didn't have heart, and I've been on those teams that had heart but not a whole lot of talent."

Carson was asked if the 2013 Giants belonged under the lack-of-talent column, or under the lack-of-heart column. He'd watched the Dallas game on TV, and the Denver game in person, and the Hall of Famer measured the question like he would a fullback running a dive. Back in the day, before he helped Bill Parcells and Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms win it all, Carson was stuck on a perennial loser and was once so despondent over some missed tackles that he declined his paycheck and considered retiring before his coach, Ray Perkins, talked him out of it.

So the man cares. At 59, he cares as much as he did in 1986.

"When Tom Coughlin called timeout with a minute and something left," Carson said, "I was thinking that was a good time to call the team over and say, 'I want you to feel what you're feeling right now, and understand if you don't get your ass in gear you're going to be feeling this way for the next 13 weeks.' They should be embarrassed over their performance, and they should be angry at themselves."

But again, are these Giants gutless or just short on skill?

"I'm sort of shocked," Carson said, "because if you'd asked me to predict, I would've said the Giants would've beaten Dallas and Carolina and maybe lost to Denver. But against the Panthers, the running backs didn't do anything, the receivers did very little, the defensive line didn't do anything, and the offensive line let Eli get bruised and battered. It was a total team effort. ... It was like a trip to Charlotte and somebody forgot to tell these guys they had a game to play.

"But call me back in six or eight weeks and I'll tell you if it's a lack of heart or talent. Or both."

The Giants might not like the answer in six or eight weeks, when their dream of playing in the biggest sporting event ever in their market -- the Super Bowl -- could end up in the same trash bin with Rex Ryan's bygone guarantees.

For now, Coughlin is asking for his team to stay clear of the blame game, to rediscover its pride, and to find a way to protect the star quarterback who was sacked seven times Sunday (six in the first half), and who absorbed (by the coach's count) 15 hits.

Coughlin isn't one to rip individual players in public, but he indirectly reminded everyone of Manning's standing inside the franchise walls when he rebuked Hakeem Nicks for channeling his inner Gisele Bundchen and declaring he couldn't throw himself the ball. ("Not a smart thing to say," Coughlin said in his Monday news conference.)

Eli is everything to the Giants. He requires a little help to get to the postseason, but you don't need to be Tom Brady or Bill Belichick to remember that he's capable of magical things once there, from the escape on the David Tyree play to -- four years later -- the you-gotta-be-kidding-me throw to Mario Manningham.

Funny how it's all worked out, too, since young Eli was roasted by credentialed observers (including this one, guilty as charged) and was nearly abandoned by the executive who drafted him, Ernie Accorsi, who once fled Giants Stadium at halftime because he couldn't bear to watch his blue-chipper throw interceptions anymore.

"There were times, gosh, I remember during that 2007 year," Eli's father, Archie, told me on the radio earlier this month, "at one point that season before they went on and won a Super Bowl, I didn't know if they were going to run Eli or Coach Coughlin out of town first."

Both men survived, as it turned out, at the Patriots' expense. The quarterback who said he'd tried to model his quiet, low-maintenance approach after Derek Jeter's became a Jeter-like winner when it mattered most.

But nothing in the young man's world of professional sports lasts forever, as 40-somethings Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte reminded everyone Sunday in the Bronx. Jeter, who turns 40 in June, will be the next to say goodbye, and given the deteriorating state of the Yankees, he'll likely do so with the same five championship rings he now owns.

Eli Manning? The guy on deck after Jeter?

He's still only 32, and he's still a favorite of the vast crossover fan base that supports the Giants and Yankees, long the biggest sports brands in town. Manning was busy Monday calling for more energy and enthusiasm, and conceding that his Giants deserve every nasty word being said and written about them.

And yes, the critiques cut to the bone. But in the end, the worst thing you could tell any of those crossover Giants-Yanks fans, after what went down in the Bronx over the weekend, went like this:

Eli's glory days might already be behind him.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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