PHILADELPHIA—I still remember walking into Giants Stadium back in the late stages of the 1993 season to watch what turned out to be Phil Simms’ final regular season game with the Giants.
I was born in 1980, so for me, Phil Simms was the quarterback of the Giants, as he had been, with only occasional interlopers like Scott Brunner and, famously, Jeff Hostetler, for the duration of my life. Hope ran high that day, the regular season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, the two teams even at 11-4, an NFC East division title on the line.
I remember Simms playing well—not remarkably so, but effective—and the box score reinforces that, 16-for-25, 207 yards, no TDs, but no interceptions, either. Emmitt Smith was transcendent, 168 yards. And late in the game, Simms led the Giants down the field for what could have been a game-winning touchdown. He fell short, the Giants settled for a field goal, and ultimately they lost, 16-13.
All of which meant a wild card game for the Giants, then a trip out to San Francisco—a 44-3 defeat. A few months later, the Giants released Simms, and that was the end of his career.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the arc of Simms’ career over the past few seasons, especially this one, as we’ve been watching Eli Manning play what are, if not the final games of his Giants career, certainly among the last. One of these years, the Giants will move on from Manning, who will turn 38 on January 3, the same age Simms was when he took his final snaps under center.
And on Sunday, remarkably enough, the Giants found themselves offering a similar bit of hope to their fans as they kicked off in Philadelphia, though these two NFC East foes were pale imitators of the 1993 Giants and Cowboys.There were parallels everywhere—Manning, the starter after getting briefly dethroned by a now-discarded head coach (McAdoo for Manning, Ray Handley for Simms). The defending Super Bowl Champs, vulnerable to a Giants’ win that would turn the NFC East into a winnable goal. The chance for a veteran quarterback to briefly hold back the immutable progress of time.
It even looked like it was happening right through most of the first half, the Giants leading 19-3 late in the second quarter. Even after the Eagles scored, Manning and the Giants drove down the field and were poised to put themselves ahead by two scores going into the break.
A pair of Manning moments, one before and one after the half, proved fatal on a team that offers little in the way of margin for error. There was that errant throw that fell into Malcolm Jenkins’ hands late in the first half, a rare decision by Manning to throw downfield in this game.
“Just a bad decision,” Manning said after the game. His head coach, Pat Shurmur, tried to take responsibility, but Manning was having none of it. “One hundred percent bad decision on me. They were playing soft and I just have to throw that away and try for a long field goal.”
But perhaps even more indicative of the current, fragile state of the Giants offense under Manning came in the third quarter. The Eagles, undeniably, had momentum. The Giants, ahead 19-14, faced a third and 18. First, Manning burned a timeout. Then, with benefit of extra time for a play call, the throw went to Wayne Gallman in the flat—amid all the playmakers on the roster, from Saquan Barkley to Odell Beckham Jr., somehow the Giants called on their backup running back to save their drive. The play lost two yards, New York punted, and a few minutes later, the Eagles took the lead.
Was it a lack of confidence from Shurmur in Eli’s ability to throw downfield? Is Eli choosing to go safe too often, and does that speak to where he is in his career arc, or merely the limitations of the offensive line? These are the bigger questions currently haunting the franchise, those that will need answers in the offseason that is now, almost certainly, just a few weeks away.Even so, Eli Manning had one last chance to lead the Giants to a touchdown and the lead in Philly, another comeback in a career filled with them. The drive, like that of Simms’ almost 25 years before, fell just a few yards short, leading to a field goal that wasn’t enough to hold off the opposition, the era of Carson Wentz overtaking Manning just as a young Troy Aikman overtook Simms.
In both cases, there are larger questions at play than just who will win one football game. The Giants, back in Simms’ era, moved on from a Pro Bowl quarterback, electing to cast their lot with Dave Brown, the supplemental first rounder out of Duke, and Kent Graham. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t go well.)
But this is less a criticism of George Young than a reminder that quarterbacks like these come along once a generation. Just as Simms was once the only quarterback I’d ever known with the Giants, Manning has been the Giants’ face since before I met my wife in 2004. He’s spanned the duration of our marriage-to-date, two children, the passage of some many of life’s moments, large and small.
So as I watched Eli Manning trudge off the field for what was likely one of the final times of his career, I couldn’t help but think of how optimistic so many Giants fans are about what comes next. I also couldn’t forget about the years of Dave Brown, and Kent Graham, and Tommy Maddox, Danny Kanell—it could be a while.
It’s no one’s fault that Eli Manning won’t get a storybook ending, really. That’s not how it typically happens in the NFL, or in life. He’s had a Hall of Fame-level career. He’ll be a Giants icon for life, lustily cheered every time he comes to Met Life, besieged for autographs for decades to come.
Even so, it was disappointing to see one last on-field bit of glory within reach, but for Eli Manning not to experience it.
“No, I think disappointment is always about the same,” Manning said of this loss. “When you don’t win – and I felt like we had a good plan and had an opportunity to. We got off to a good start, just weren’t able to finish it. Again, I thought we were close on a number of things, and just didn’t finish it.”
Someone who has given the Giants so much, who has been in every way one could ask the leader of this franchise, deserved a better team around him these last few years, a renaissance campaign like Simms had in 1993. But going out in one final trip atop your teammates’ shoulders, bound for Disney World: that’s just now how it usually happens.