I wasn’t shocked when I heard that Eli Manning had been benched. Manning’s Giants are 2-9 and look nothing like the Super Bowl contender many of us pegged them to be in the preseason. There’s nothing to be gained by fighting for pride—in fact, prior to Manning’s benching, the worst thing that could’ve happened is a Manning-led late-season rally that pulled the Giants to 6-10 or something and out of the running for one of the prospective franchise quarterbacks slated to enter the 2018 NFL Draft. The Giants will take 2-14 if it permits them to evaluate the current crop of players on the roster and land a potential superstar quarterback.
If this all sounds awfully familiar, it’s because Eli’s older brother, the incomparable Peyton Manning, endured a similar, career-defining saga with the Indianapolis Colts. A preseason neck injury kept the elder Manning on the sidelines for the entire 2011 season. There, Peyton watched his Colts go 2-14, secure the top pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and draft his heir, Andrew Luck from Stanford.
But Peyton’s exit from the Colts felt. . .dignified. Peyton was injured, after all, and Luck was widely-considered to be the most pro-ready quarterback prospect this millennium; Indianapolis would’ve been fools to pass Luck over for a 35-year-old who was still recovering from major surgery.
Shortly before the draft, the Colts released Peyton Manning. The expected tear-filled press conference and de facto jersey retirement ceremony followed, and Manning ultimately signed a $96 million dollar contract with Denver. Over the next four seasons, Manning set the single-season records for passing touchdowns and passing yards, won his fifth MVP award, appeared in two Super Bowls (winning one of them), and became the NFL’s all-time leader in yards and touchdowns.
For Eli, however, his relegation to the bench feels like this might be it. He turns 37 this January, and the list of Super Bowl-contending teams willing to pay top dollar for a high-profile rental might be decidedly short. Nonetheless, Manning deserved better, and the handling of his benching has been almost universally panned. Naturally, it has also drawn the attention of other veteran quarterbacks, particularly those also drafted in 2004 whose futures beyond 2017 are in doubt.
“It sparks the reality that that could be me,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
There is veracity to this statement. Prior to Ben’s back-to-back four touchdown games in prime-time against Tennessee and Green Bay, he had been trudging reluctantly through arguably the worst season of his career, and doing so with a generally healthy offensive line and two of the best offensive players in the NFL. Eli, on the other hand, stood behind an offensive line composed of toilet paper and sugar glass and had lost his best two receivers to season-ending injuries early in the year. The lack of an effective running game and (soon-to-be ex-) head coach Bob McAdoo’s mysterious and byzantine offensive play calling didn’t help, either.
For much of the season, Roethlisberger’s struggles have been masked by Pittsburgh’s continuously unquestioned status as a Super Bowl contender. For Eli, every bad throw and questionable decision was amplified by New York’s general ineptitude.
In other words, if the Steelers were 2-9 and Ben was obviously struggling, I don’t think he would be immune from suffering the same fate as his lifelong counterpart.
I mean, let’s take this further and look at Ben and Eli’s statistics. Win-loss records notwithstanding—and as a brief aside, the win-loss record is a relatively meaningless indicator of a quarterback’s individual success—Eli had been debatably better than Big Ben over the first half of the 2017 season. Eli had certainly been more careful with the football, throwing interceptions on just 1.8 percent of his passes, which is the best mark of his career. Ben’s recent string of success has dragged his season interception percentage back to his career baseline, but over the first half of the season he actually led the NFL in interceptions.
But that’s only what they can control. Eli has been sacked on twice as many dropbacks as Roethlisberger has this season. The backfield platoon of Paul Perkins, Orleans Darkwa, Wayne Gallman, Skeet Ulrich and Brandon Routh is nothing compared to the one-man wrecking crew that is Le’Veon Bell. Pittsburgh’s defense, despite its recent struggles, has been among the most formidable in the NFL this season. The Giants, who have a tendency to regress in even years, are currently ranked 31st in total defense. And again—and I cannot stress this enough—McAdoo is a terrible head coach with a middle school haircut. It is strikingly evident that New York’s success under McAdoo in his first season was an anomaly, and now he’s grasping at straws to save his own job (like denying culpability in New York’s loss to the Lions by blaming Eli’s clock management skills).
It’s a shame what happened to Eli, and I remain convinced that Roethlisberger would’ve been subjected to an equally tumultuous ousting had he been selected with the top overall pick back in 2004. Even now, with the cards having already been dealt, I’m also certain that if the Steelers were as grossly mismanaged as the Giants, it would be Landry Jones starting against the Bengals this Monday.
But that’s apples to oranges, I suppose. As it stands, Ben will be in the hunt for his third Lombardi, and Eli will be left deciding if he wants to do this all again next year.