Eli Manning turns 38 on Thursday, and all this losing has rocked him but not broken him. He ended his 15th year with the Giants on Sunday the way so many of these seasons have closed up recently, yet the passion remains, as if he is a glutton for punishment.
“This is all I know,’’ Manning said. “I love coming to practice. I love game-planning … winning games, celebrating touchdowns, all of that. All of that is fun.’’
There has not been much fun around the Giants, not for years now. They left 2018 behind with a hard-to-believe and perfectly fitting 36-35 loss to the Cowboys at MetLife Stadium.
There were chants of “Eli … Eli’’ down the stretch, but even louder shouts of “defense … defense’’ from the Cowboys faithful in the final minute, when Manning was on the field with his offense. That is as fitting a goodbye scenario as can be said about this season.
Manning did plenty to send the Giants home winners, but not enough to avoid another numbing, gut-wrenching defeat to send the Giants off with a record of 5-11 after losing their last three games in Pat Shurmur’s first year as the head coach.
“The losses hurt, and they are tough to deal with,’’ Manning said. “They are tougher now than in the past because you know your opportunities are running low to make playoffs and championship runs.’’
This quarterback and this franchise have gotten used to it. Thus ends another sorry season for an organization that has now missed out on the playoffs seven times in the past eight years. The Giants have endured a losing season five times in the past six seasons, and in four of the past five years there have been 10 or more losses.
Manning has been a part of all of it, and soon enough, a determination will be made as to what happens next. He has one year remaining on his contract and will count $23.2 million on the 2019 salary cap, unless something unprecedented takes place and the Giants adjust Manning’s money to make him more affordable.
Shurmur said “absolutely’’ when asked if he believes Manning has good football left in him.
“I think everybody thinks I’m nuts, but I’ve seen the good in Eli and I believe in the good, especially at the quarterback position,’’ Shurmur said. “I believe everybody around him has to do their job as well. I believe in him.’’
It certainly sounds as if, when it comes time to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to Manning, Shurmur will make his feelings known to ownership and general manager Dave Gettleman that he wants to see Manning back for a 16th season.
“I feel strongly about Eli,’’ Shurmur said. “I work for people, there’s a hierarchy and there will be conversations about what we do at all positions.’’
Manning exited the scene doing enough to prove he has plenty left in the tank, yet falling short and displaying some troubling signs that he has slipped.
He threw touchdown passes to Cody Latimer and Evan Engram, and after a slow start and a 14-0 deficit, he put the Giants in position to win. They took their first lead with 3:21 remaining on Saquon Barkley’s magnificent two-yard leap into the end zone and could have sealed the deal after Kerry Wynn forced a fumble by Amari Cooper that B.J. Goodson recovered on the Dallas 18-yard line with 3:09 remaining.
A holding penalty on right tackle Chad Wheeler forced the Giants to settle for an Aldrick Rosas field goal to extend the lead to 35-28 with 2:35 left. It was a familiar failing for a team that does just enough to lose.
The Cowboys (10-6) had nothing tangible to play for, having already clinched the NFC East title, and sat running back Ezekiel Elliott and offensive line starters Zack Martin and Tyron Smith. Yet they breezed through the 70 yards they needed before Cole Beasley leaped and lunged and secured a 32-yard scoring pass from Dak Prescott with only 1:12 to play to pull the Cowboys within 35-34.
Beasley was initially ruled out of bounds, triggering a Giants celebration, but a replay reversal revealed Beasley’s knee touched down inside the end zone before his body carried out of bounds.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett wanted no part of overtime, and didn’t need it when Prescott hit rookie Michael Gallup with a two-point conversion pass for the winning points.
“Just felt it was the right thing to do,’’ Garrett said. “We are going to play a game next week, let’s go win it right now.’’
Still, there was enough time for Manning to finally end the madness — the Giants ended up losing five games by three points or less. An unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty forced the Cowboys to kick off from their 20-yard line, and Latimer’s 34-yard return put the Giants in business on their 48-yard line, with 1:05 to go and two timeouts to work with. Given Rosas’ range, all the Giants needed was 15-17 yards to set up a makeable field goal attempt.
The Giants got zero. Manning threw four passes that failed to connect and that was that.
“I am disappointed with the game,’’ Manning said.
It is a familiar refrain. Barkley ran for 109 yards — he got 68 of them on one chunk — to close the book on a show-stopping rookie year. Whoever gets to hand the ball to him next season, Barkley will be the centerpiece of the attack, even with a healthy Odell Beckham Jr., who missed the last four games with a quad injury.
“The only thing I know,’’ Barkley said of Manning, “is he has a lot of ball left and that this team believes in him.’’
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