EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - New York has fallen out of love with Eli Manning over the last few years, through all the losing and the pounding he's taken from his critics. The only thing that's saved him from a full-blown Quarterback Controversy is the lack of a viable alternative on the Giants' roster.
But that's all changed now.
That was clear on Thursday night, during the Giants' 31-22, preseason-opening win over the Jets. Manning was booed off the field after his lone, three-play drive, that included a pass that left far more questions than answers. And then he gave way to rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, who was spectacular by comparison. Jones was cheered, more and more with every throw, even by many who booed when the Giants made him the sixth overall pick in the NFL draft back in April.
He even got a standing ovation when he ended his perfect night with a perfect touchdown pass.
And just like that, Manning vs. Jones was officially on.
"Slow your roll," Giants coach Pat Shurmur said, when asked about fans who might want to see more Jones and less Manning. "This is just his first go-around, and I think he did a good job. As I mentioned all along, he's done nothing to disappoint us. And certainly when you take the team down the field and score a touchdown, it's a good start. It's something good to build on."
It's definitely a good start. A promising start. A tantalizing start for a win-starved fan base. Of course, the Giants aren't stupid. They don't cater to the whims of fans. Manning is still the starter, will be the starter, and one preseason game -- just two series, really - isn't enough to change their plans. They believe Manning has enough in his right arm for one more run.
But they know they can't control the mood swings of fans or critics, and they can't stop the tidal wave that's coming their way. Quarterback controversies aren't just about the team. They are about a restless fan base. And Giants fans are as restless as they've been, maybe since the 1970s, after one playoff berth in the last seven years and four seasons of double-digit loss seasons in the last five.
They are particularly restless when it comes to the 37-year-old Manning. He's what's old. Jones is what's new.
And new always seems better.
"I don't know," Jones said about the idea that he opened the eyes of some skeptical fans. "I'm just trying to go out and play the best I can for these guys in the locker room. I'm just trying to do my job. I don't know how that's seen outside of the locker room. But it felt good tonight."
It felt good to his teammates, too. And judging by the smile on GM Dave Gettleman's face in the locker room, it must have felt good to him, too. It clearly was a feel-good moment for the fans, who had been decidedly unsold on the idea of Jones as their Quarterback of the Future. All it took was five passes to get them to move from undecided to all-in.
The fans don't get a vote, of course. And the Giants' plan, according to multiple team sources, is the same as it's always been: To ride Manning as long as they can, hopefully all the way to a playoff berth and beyond. They'd be fine with Jones sitting out the entire season. The best-case scenario is that things go so well that they're forced to consider bringing Manning back next year, too.
But right now, understandably, fans can't see the best-case scenario because they've experienced the worst case far too often in recent years. What they see is Manning rolling out to his right on his first play of the game, with all the time in the world and no defender within 10 yards. He had tight end Rhett Ellison open way down the field.
Yet for some reason he dumped off to tight end Scott Simonson instead.
That 3-yard gain, when there was so much more to be had, is the worst of Manning, according to his critics. And then, on the next series, in came Jones to go 5 for 5 for 67 yards with a gorgeous, 12-yard touchdown pass to Bennie Fowler. Never mind that he got better protection - with the Giants' first team offensive line going against mostly the Jets' second-team defense. Never mind that it was one series in one preseason game with little-to-no game-planning against him.
What the eyes in the house saw was Bad Eli and Good Daniel Jones.
And Jones was really, really good.
"He was poised, calm confident," said Fowler. "It's the way he's been since he first got here for OTAs. And it's just the start."
Now, it wasn't perfect, of course. On his first play, he made what was nearly a disastrous mistake. He forgot to put his tight end in motion to line up against a tight end. He was only saved because running back Wayne Gallman caught the mistake and picked up the blocking.
"I definitely owe him for that," Jones said.
He won't get away with mistakes like that every time. Jones will struggle at some point this summer. But until he does this is not going away. And even if he does hit a speed bump, fans will surely give him a pass, especially if Manning and the Giants struggle anywhere close to how they did early last year.
So get used to it. Every interception by Manning. Every errant pass. Every failure by the offense. Every loss. It will all be measured against everything Jones does this summer. That's what fans will remember when they start demanding his presence during any regular-season slump. That's what they will picture when they start chanting his name.
And it will happen. Only a disaster of a preseason by Jones could have put the brakes on a Quarterback Controversy that will hover over the Giants all season long. And it's pretty clear he's not a disaster.
So yes, Thursday night was just the start of what could be a long, loud season with Giants fans divided and taking sides. Shurmur can say "Slow your roll" all he wants, but he can't actually slow that roll down.
The future is coming, it's only a matter of how fast it gets here. And from now on, even if Manning isn't looking over his shoulder, it's pretty clear that everyone else is.