All the speculation about Eli Manning's future is about whether the Giants want him back next season and whether they can find a better option somewhere else. But what if something else is factoring into this decision?
What if the Giants want Manning back, but with conditions the 38-year-old franchise icon won't find easy to accept?
It was lost a bit in a wide-ranging radio interview that Manning did on Wednesday, hours after GM Dave Gettleman spent 35 minutes mostly avoiding the subject of Manning's future, but the hint was right there in the beginning. It came when Manning talked about what Gettleman called their "no holds barred" conversation from Monday, and what he told the Giants GM.
"Let's just have an open conversation through this process," Manning said on WFAN. "I'll be open and honest with them on what I'm thinking or what I can handle or can't handle."
It's the last phrase that was so intriguing. What is it exactly that Manning might not be able to handle?
He wasn't asked, but there are two obvious possibilities. One has to do with money and what's left on his contract. The other has to do with being saddled with the task of playing with his possible replacement, whom he'd also be expected to groom.
There has long been a feeling that Manning wants no part of being a mentor to a young quarterback -- though he's never actually said that at all. The closest he came was last February when he was asked about the possibility of the Giants taking a quarterback in last year's draft and whether he'd be comfortable mentoring his heir apparent. He said "It's not your job to mentor somebody, but I wouldn't look at it as that role. I would look at it as it's my job to prepare and compete and be ready to play."
Somehow that was interpreted as him not willing to help out a young quarterback. But in that same interview, he also said "It's always about helping the other guys in the room and having great communication, great conversations. That won't be a big deal. You always want to help the younger guys learn as quickly as possible, and when they're in there, plan to play at a high level."
The truth is, by all accounts, he's been great to all the quarterbacks, young and old, who have played with him throughout his 15 NFL seasons. They've all raved about how he's treated them, and what he's taught them. Even Geno Smith said as much after he took over for a benched Manning for one week last year.
Of course, none of the previous backup quarterbacks were a real threat to Manning's status as the Giants' franchise quarterback. That would be different if the Giants were to select a quarterback like, say, Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins with the No. 6 pick in the draft, or even if they signed a young free agent like the 26-year-old Teddy Bridgewater.
Suddenly, Manning would be thrust into an unfamiliar position. Either quarterback would obviously be on board as Manning's heir apparent. The faster Manning helps them get ready, the quicker they can take over. And even if he begins next season as the starter, he'll know that at the first sign of trouble everyone will start calling for him to be replaced - and for the first time since his rookie season, there'll be a legitimate candidate to replace him on the team.
So maybe that's what Manning can "not handle". Or maybe he could only handle it under the right circumstances. It's hard to imagine Manning would be willing to return if he was told he had to compete for his job. But he also is pretty smart and understands the NFL reality that the Giants have to consider what comes next. So maybe he just needs to be told the job is his as long as the Giants have a shot at the playoffs, or something like that.
Or maybe he just wants exactly what he said - an honest conversation. Maybe he told Gettleman he didn't want to be caught off guard the way he was when he was so unceremoniously benched last season. The Giants could frame it to him in a way that's acceptable, where Manning is the starter as long as the team is winning and have a shot at the playoffs. After that, maybe it'll be time to move on.
Money definitely could be a part of this, too. Manning is due $17 million next season, including a $5 million roster bonus that he gets on March 15. His salary cap number is a hefty $23.2 million, and it's not lost on anyone that if the Giants cut him they'd recover $17 million of that space.
The reality is the Giants need to reduce that number. Several NFL sources doubt Manning - or his agent, Tom Condon - would agree to a straight pay cut. But they certainly could do a restructured contract that includes an extension which lowers his cap number and still makes him cuttable at the end of the year.
But those issues - the money and the future - are why this isn't just about Manning's ability and who the Giants want to lead them in 2019. It's about what the situation will look like, financially and otherwise, and what Manning can accept.
Gettleman obviously believes Manning can still play. He said his stats were "not too shabby" and "he can still make the NFL throws … He's still got it." He was particularly impressed that Manning played better in the second half of the season when the offensive line problems settled down.
But time marches on and even as Gettleman insists it would be foolish to "force" a search for the Giants' quarterback of the future, that search has to begin now. Manning remains the quarterback of the present. But what he can "handle" about his short-term future could determine how much longer that present goes on.