Kurt Warner was there, 15 years ago, in the most unenviable spot for a starting quarterback. He knew he could still play. He knew he could still win.
And he knew his replacement was standing right behind him.
That was Warner's job when he was the quarterback of the Giants back in 2004, right after they had traded up in the first round of the draft to select a young Eli Manning. His primary job was still to win. He was still the starting quarterback of the Giants. But he knew at least one of his responsibilities was to help Manning learn enough to eventually take his job way.
"The biggest challenge is that your leash is always short," Warner said last month at the NFL Draft in Nashville. "The biggest challenge is performing every single week, and anytime you slip up, no matter how good you've been, it's an opportunity for everybody to sit back and go 'Is it time? Is he hitting the wall?' Two (bad) games in a row and it's 'Oh my gosh!' "
No one knows yet how short the leash will be on the 38-year-old Manning now that the Giants drafted his successor, Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, with the sixth overall pick. The Giants have spoken about the "Kansas City model" where Jones would sit for almost a full year, like Chiefs quarterback Pat Mahomes did. GM Dave Gettleman has even mentioned the "Green Bay model" where Aaron Rodgers sat for three years behind Brett Favre.
The truth, as Warner knows, is it's impossible to tell when the switch will be made. After all, the Giants were 5-4 and in the playoff race in 2004 when Tom Coughlin benched Warner and the Manning Era began. Knowing the end can come at any moment can make for a difficult dynamic in the meeting room -- one Manning, who for 15 years has been one of the most entrenched starters in the league, has never faced before.
How Manning will handle that has been an open question for years. Some have believed he'd resist such a scenario, but that's mostly based on something he said back in Feb. 2018. He was asked if he'd be comfortable "mentoring" a young quarterback, and he said "It's not your job to mentor somebody … I would look at it as it's my job to be ready to play."
By all accounts, Manning has always been great to the young quarterbacks behind him, from Ryan Nassib to Davis Webb to Kyle Lauletta. Even in 2018 when he was benched for Geno Smith, he spent hours helping his replacement get ready to play, and even Smith praised Manning for handling the difficult situation with class.
Jones, though, is the biggest threat Manning has faced in his career. Not only that, when Jones takes over, Manning will know the switch will be permanent.
The more he teaches Jones, the more he gets him ready, the more he could be hastening the end of his own NFL career.
"That's the hardest part -- managing your emotions," Warner said. "We're all human. It's hard to do."
What are Manning's emotions right now? It's hard to say, since he hasn't spoken publicly since the Giants drafted Jones. Both Gettleman and Giants coach Pat Shurmur told Manning they might take a quarterback high in this draft, and they called him as they were taking Jones at No. 6. Shurmur insisted "It doesn't bother Eli." Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said that when he told Manning they were about to pick Jones, Manning said "Oh yeah, coach. Great. See you tomorrow" and he went back to changing his baby son's diaper.
That non-reaction was not a surprise to anyone who has known Manning during his career.
"He's fine. I've already talked to Eli," said David Cutcliffe, who coached Jones at Duke and was previously Manning's head coach at Ole Miss. "Whatever's good for the squad. Competition's good. But Eli is doing really well right now. Feels good. I'm excited for him. I'd love for them to be there together, and both of them would grow."
Jones and Manning do have a small history. Jones has attended the Manning Passing Academy - the quarterback camp the Manning family holds every year in Thibodaux, La.. And Manning has been holding a semi-annual retreat for his offensive teammates at Duke for years, and Jones has made sure to go, watch, and learn.
"Daniel's eyes got real big, and he watched and begged to come into film studies," Cutcliffe said. "So they've been around each other, and are real comfortable with each other."
The dynamic is just different now, though, especially with Manning entering the final year of his contract. And it's not just a problem for next year, either. The Giants haven't exactly guaranteed Manning all 16 starts this year. On draft night, Gettleman said "The goal is for Eli to be our quarterback." Shurmur said he told Manning "It's your job to win games and keep this guy off the field."
In other words, the pressure is on.
"I think that's always the hardest part," Warner said. "It's not being able to deal with that guy, being able to show him all your tricks or show him to be a pro. It's hard to perform extremely well at this business at the quarterback position every single week, and when you've got a guy behind you and you know any slip up, there's going to be people clamoring or looking around, you start wondering if that's the moment."
Warner was blindsided when he was benched for Manning on Nov. 15, 2004, even though he wasn't playing particularly well and the Giants had lost three of their last four games. But he at least knew what he was getting into when he signed with the Giants. They had just drafted Manning. Veteran starter Kerry Collins asked for and was granted his release. And Warner was told, right from the beginning, that "My job was to make sure that young guy is ready to play every single day for his opportunity, when it arises."
"I always took the approach that I was going to make that guy as good as he can be and then I want to beat him out," Warner said. "And show everybody that I can be the starter. If he was better and deserved to be on the field, he should be on the field, and I had to welcome that as part of what helped make our team the best. I believe that's the role that you play."
And that is Manning's role now - to get the young guy ready while he's trying to hold him off. To do what's in the best interests of the Giants organization, even if that won't be what's best for him.
"I certainly believe that Eli does everything the right way behind the scenes," Shurmur said before Jones was drafted. "That is part of Eli's charm -- how well he works and how well he prepares, how professional he is with doing his job. Any professional from any profession would value from seeing that. If we add a new player, it is not Eli's job to train him. It is Eli's job to be the best Eli he can be."
"I think Eli will be a great mentor to whoever is in that room," Warner said. "He will treat them with class and he will share his secrets and prepare them as best he can. He'll be a great pro at that.
"Even if nobody ever wants to do it - and nobody ever wants to do that. Nobody ever wants to like the guy who is going to take your job, standing next to you. But I have no doubt in my mind that that is exactly who and what Eli Manning is going to be."