By Jason Keidel
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You didn’t need to be a Giants fan to find a few spiked hairs scale your arms Sunday at around 4 p.m. while the cold shadows slid across MetLife Stadium.
It was the final moments of the final drive in perhaps his final game in a Giants uniform, when a few frigid supporters summoned enough feeling in their frozen limbs to pound their seats, slap the facade below them, or stomp the ground, in touching percussion. All chanting his name.
“ELI MANNING! … ELI MANNING!” in that rhythmic way in which New York fans are famous.
It didn’t have the same loud rhythm or booming acoustics we heard back in 2001 when Yankees fans gave a similar salute to Paul O’Neil. That was so loud, pronounced, and profound, you could see the ornery outfielder swallow a few cries and choke back a few tears. Not to mention it was during an epic World Series.
But considering the backdrop — a meaningless game in offensively frigid weather, a dwindling, freckling of fans in attendance, the last chapter in a solemn 3-13 season which had seen the head coach canned the general manager booted moments later, and the iconic QB inexplicably benched — it was a wholly touching, tear-draining tribute to a man who has been every bit the Big Apple exemplar as Derek Jeter or any athlete in our history.
Maybe Manning wasn’t quite the ballplayer Jeter was relative to his sport, or his peers, but he was at least as much a man. No 10-year grudges over silly magazine quotes, or freezing out teammates based on them. No duplicate gift baskets. Not ostentatious mansion that bears his last name (like St. Jetersburg). Manning was also recently named NFL Man of the Year.
And while the ’90s Yanks could have won one World Series without Jeter, the Giants wouldn’t have won one ring this century sans Manning, who was QB and MVP of both Super Bowls he played in.
You can decide whether it’s time — it says here it’s sound to draft a QB in a couple months and let him learn at the altar of the best in franchise history — to let Eli walk, to hitch his wagon to a club that’s a QB short of a Super Bowl, much the way his brother gave the Broncos a boost. There isn’t a right answer since the Giants have so many issues it’s not as if keeping or booting Eli will be the difference between winning or missing out on a Lombardi Trophy.
It just feels like keeping him will make the Giants way more relevant in 2018, especially if Odell Beckham Jr. returns to his eclectic and electric form, if Brandon Marshall has one more solid season in him, and if Evan Engram keeps exploding. It would also give Eli a chance to write a way more elegant and appropriate epitaph to his time in Gotham.
Manning deserves better than leaving under the ignominy of Ben McAdoo. But just as Tom Coughlin had to prove his tank was far from empty while he now builds the Jaguars into a juggernaut, maybe Manning needs to go elsewhere to prove he still has a little gridiron tread left on is tires.
Sunday wasn’t filled with aesthetic splendor. But it was refreshing to see Manning in brutally cold weather, in full command of his team, fighting for every first down, while outscoring an eternal divisional foe, the Washington Redskins.
Considering the frosty wind and marrow-chilling temps, Manning outplayed Kirk Cousins. He passed for a paltry 132 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. It was hardly glittering, but a typically gutty, blue-collar effort from the QB who’s never made any demands, had any posse, or problems since he joined the G-men in 2004. It was an old-school, old-world Giants-Skins affair, back from the black-and-blue days of the ’80s NFC East. Four Giants plowed the ground for 260 yards. Then they relied on Big Blue’s defense, which posted three sacks, six tackles for losses, and three interceptions.
And a quick kudos to Giants fans. As with every Sunday this NFL season, I took my weekly cruise across the Meadowlands, snaking past MetLife and the frozen racetrack. Even in the Arctic air, there were hundreds of Big Blue devotees in team sweaters and fluffy hats, huddled around their SUVs and makeshift BBQ pits, tossing a pigskin to each other. Pretending, perhaps for the final time, to be like Eli Manning.
If this was his last game with the only team he has ever known, he ended his career the way he spent it and the way he lived it.
As a winner.
Please follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel