Ian O’Connor | ESPNNewYork.com
CHICAGO — His voice quivering, his face a ghostly shade of pale, Eli Manning stood before a live microphone looking and sounding like he was ready to cry.
The quarterback of the New York Giants has always been Y.A. Tittle tough, stubborn enough to never, ever miss a start. But when he was asked Thursday night about his starring role in the Giants’ 27-21 loss to the Chicago Bears and the franchise’s first 0-6 start since 1976, Manning appeared to be scrambling in vain from the emotions hitting him from the blind side.
“It’s difficult, not on me,” he responded, and suddenly it sounded as if he was trying to talk through his mouth guard.
“I feel bad for my teammates. I feel bad for my coaches, and everybody fighting every day. And I’m fighting too. I’m trying to get a win for these guys. But it’s tough. It’s definitely tough at times when you don’t feel like you’re playing your best.”
If you were sitting there in Manning’s news conference and watching him bleed in public, it would’ve been easy to feel sorry for him. Eli has fame and fortune and two Super Bowl MVP trophies at Tom Brady’s expense, and yet here he was reduced to a lost and desperate soul, a guy with absolutely no clue how to win a football game.
“It’s frustrating,” said the only 0-6 quarterback in the NFL. “I feel like I’m not doing my part to give this team some wins, and some chances, and so that’s the frustrating part. I feel like our guys our fighting hard, and guys are doing their parts, and I need to start doing mine.”
Eli Manning was blaming Eli Manning for a staggering meltdown that nobody saw coming. The Giants were confident enough of making a run at a Super Bowl to be played in their building, Met Life Stadium, that GM Jerry Reese had a countdown calendar posted in the back of his locker room.
And why not? Eli had won title No. 2 in big brother Peyton’s place in Indianapolis, where his 10-month-old daughter chewed on the MVP keys to his new black Corvette, and where Giants owner John Mara called him the best offensive player in team history. Manning won that Super Bowl 20 months ago, even if he now seems about a quarter century removed from the scene.
“I know he wants to come out here and be the Eli of old and lead us to victory,” Justin Tuck said.
But even in his prime at age 32, the Eli of old has been replaced by an old-looking Eli. He threw three more interceptions against the Bears, Nos. 13, 14 and 15 on the year for No. 10, and his second of the night — a pick-six in the first quarter — didn’t qualify as the most damaging, not by a country mile.
The Giants were driving in the final minutes, ready to do what the Eli of old always did in these frantic situations. Manning knew how to keep his cool while everyone around him was losing theirs, and on this night he was actually getting some help.
The offensive line was granting him the requisite time, and Brandon Jacobs was running like he did five and six years ago. The Giants put Eli, a winner, in position to win, and the quarterback responded by blowing their last chance to save the season.
On that final drive, Manning got away with a dreadful pass that had interception written all over it, a floater off his back foot in the direction of Larry Donnell. But three plays later, with Brandon Myers wide open in the heart of the field and waiting to put the Giants near the end zone, Manning didn’t hit him between the numbers.
In fact, Manning barely hit him at all.
“You throw a ball six inches too high,” he said, “and that’s the difference between possibly winning the game and a loss.”
The ball bounced off Myers’ extended fingertips and into the hands of Tim Jennings, and it was game, set, mismatch. Manning doubled over and dangled his arms toward the field.
“I feel like we’re about to drive and win a game,” he said, “and, you know, I make a mistake.”
A fatal mistake. Could Myers have caught the ball? Yeah, he could’ve caught it, just like Wes Welker could’ve caught that ball from Brady the last time Eli won it all.
But Manning has to make a much better throw there. He has to make a play that his longtime teammates have seen him make in his sleep in years gone by.
“We’ve been together for a long time,” Tuck said, “and I’ve seen him do some remarkable things on the football field when all odds have been against him.
“So you just always believe and feel like he’s going to turn that corner. … All we can do as his teammates is continue to support him, and continue to encourage him. I still truly believe that he’s going to get out of this rut and start leading us to some wins.”
It’s too late for it to matter anymore. With a full 10 games to play, the meaningful portion of the Giants’ schedule is now complete.
Tom Coughlin spoke of an improved effort Thursday night before conceding, “We’re all sick of the losing.” Who knows when and where this losing might end. Every team remaining on the schedule has something the Giants don’t have: a win. These Giants could end up with a record of 3-13, 4-12, or 5-11, and even Ray Handley never posted one of those.
Lose, lose, or draw, Coughlin said he will continue to stand by his franchise player, a quarterback who needs all the help he can get.
“They’ve been supportive,” Manning said of his teammates, “and I think they know and hope I’m going to bounce out of it, or I’m going to make the plays. I’m going to do the things I need to do.
“I told them I’m going to get better these last weeks. I’m going to start making the plays I need to make, and obviously I need to start doing that.”
But before he tried to restore himself as a competent NFL quarterback, never mind a potential Hall of Famer, Manning looked and sounded like he was ready to cry. His charmed football life has crumbled around him, and it’s been painful to watch.