Great players sometimes see their career come to an inglorious conclusion. Peyton Manning was fortunate, able to win a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos despite severely diminished skills. Kobe Bryant wasn't so lucky, averaging a pedestrian 17. points per game for a miserable 17-65 Los Angeles Lakers team.
Eli Manning isn't a superstar on the level of Bryant, his brother, or Michael Jordan. He is, however, a two-time Super Bowl MVP who, at the midpoint of his career, seemed certain to be headed for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Now, it's fair to ask how the end of Manning's career will go. Will he go out as a Super Bowl winner like John Elway or his brother? Will he, at least, go out like Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs -- diminished, but playing for a contender? Will he go out like Bryant, playing below his standards for a bad team?
Why is this question even being asked in early June, during an offseason likely several years ahead of when it will be time for Manning to say goodbye to the Giants and to the NFL?
Well, our good friends at SB Nation have put Manning on a list of active top-tier quarterbacks whose careers could be headed toward dismal endings. That's why.
After Tom Coughlin's goodbye press conference back in January, Pat Traina and I were fortunate to get Giants play-by-play voice Bob Papa to join us on our "Big Blue Chat" podcast. Adam Stites' post at SB Nation reminded me of Papa's warning.
Papa pointed out that the Giants are on a list of teams with no more than one playoff appearance in the past seven years. That list, per Papa, includes the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St. Louis [now Los Angeles] Rams and the Giants
"The Giants don't belong in that group. The Giants are the team that's got a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, a two-time Super Bowl MVP. You shouldn't be in that group. You shouldn't be associated with those franchises that don't make the playoffs," Papa said.
"What they've done personnel-wise starting with the 2009 draft and moving forward with all of the picks that have been missed in the second, third fourth and fifth rounds, they're jeopardizing Eli Manning's chances of going to the Hall of Fame, because his window, you're right, he's got three, four years left to play at a high level. When you look at this roster it doesn't look like it's really that close to getting turned around where they can compete for a championship."
Keep in mind that Papa's comments were made just days after Coughlin stepped down, before Ben McAdoo was hired and before both free agency and the draft. So, the roster is not what it was when his comments were made.
Still, I have to agree with Papa that the Giants don't belong lumped in with the league's down-trodden franchises and that they have wasted too much of Manning's prime. Franchise quarterbacks don't grow on trees, and even with two titles it's easy to make the argument that the Giants to this point have not maximized Manning's prime. Plain and simple, there are too many years on his resume without playoff appearances.
I also have to agree with Stites that the Giants are in danger of wasting the remaining productive years of Manning's career. That's why the hiring of McAdoo has to be the right move. That's why there's no more margin for error in the draft. That's why the free-agent spending splurge has to yield results.
There is no guarantee the Giants will immediately find another franchise quarterback to replace Manning when the time comes. They have him under contract for four more years, and had better make the playoffs in at least a couple of those seasons.
If they don't, if in the worst-case scenario Manning's legacy ends up as one playoff berth -- albeit a Super Bowl-winning one -- over the last 11 years of his Giants career, his case for Hall of Fame enshrinement will be damaged.
That's why it is so critical that when we look back at it a year or two from now we can say that the Giants got this incredibly important offseason right.