Nov. 21, 2004. The New York Giants had a 5-4 record with quarterback Kurt Warner under center. Head coach Tom Coughlin defied some forms of conventional wisdom and told the future Hall of Famer he was installing No. 1 overall pick Eli Manning as the starter.
Warner was a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player. As field general of the Greatest Show on Turf, he led the then-St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV and an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVI. Warner, who was 33 at the time, signed a two-year deal with the Giants to rejuvenate his career. After all, Warner was a better player than Manning on Nov. 21, 2004. However, it was made abundantly clear that Manning was going to be the franchise quarterback of the future…and No. 10 was going to get thrown into the fire sooner rather than later.
“Even Tom Coughlin told me as much: ‘It’s not because Eli’s better right now. It has nothing to do with you. It’s about how do I prepare for the future;” Warner said in an interview with the New York Daily News. “’You’ve helped us win and change the perception,’ but reading between the lines…I got the sense we didn’t think we were a contender, so it made more sense to make a move now. We can get there, but it’s not gonna be with Kurt Warner. It’s gonna be with Eli Manning. That’s our future. We’ve got to ride with him at some point.”
Manning started the first of his 210 consecutive regular season games on Nov. 21, 2004: a 14-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The Giants lost six of their final seven games of ’04 to finish 6-10. Manning looked like a rookie for the most part.
“You saw that the last seven games, (Manning) really struggled,” Warner said. “He wasn’t ready to step in and play and wasn’t where I was as a player. But they weren’t playing for those last seven games. They were playing for years later. And getting hit and dealing with that frustration, without a question, made Eli better and sped up his process.”
Fast forward 15 years. Manning owns virtually every significant Giants passing record and is one of only five players with multiple Super Bowl MVP honors. He is now the veteran quarterback with a rookie-in-wait to be the next franchise quarterback. The Giants selected Daniel Jones with the sixth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Jones is not the first quarterback drafted by the Giants during Manning’s tenure. However, he is the first taken in the first round since Philip Rivers was drafted fourth overall and sent to the West Coast for Manning.
Naturally, Warner’s situation was different than that of Manning’s. Warner arrived in East Rutherford on his second NFL stop. The Giants are the only team Manning ever suited up for and an integral part of the franchise’s two most recent Lombardi Trophies.
“The difference is Eli’s solidified as one of the great Giants,” Warner said. “So, this isn’t like, ‘He’s not gonna be here, so let’s move to the young kid’. Like I was…a stop-gap guy.”
The move to Manning didn’t go over well with some of the Giants’ players, particularly wide receiver Amani Toomer. Toomer thought Warner was a “scapegoat” and expressed that the Giants’ issues were “…not all Kurt”.
Warner knows from personal experience that the Giants should exercise caution when it comes to Jones getting thrown into the fire…but recognizes ability should trump everything else.
“If Daniel Jones is better, Daniel Jones should play,” Warner, who now works as an analyst for the NFL Network, said. “No disrespect to Eli, but if you feel that’s the case, you have to pass the torch. Now that’s I feel, though. I feel Eli can be successful: he just needs help around him. Daniel Jones is your future, no doubt about that. But you have to be sensitive to who the guy he’s replacing is.”
Another Giants quarterback knows exactly how it feels to go from franchise quarterback to out-the-door. Phil Simms, whose franchise passing records Manning broke, was released before the start of the 1994 season despite being the MVP of Super Bowl XXI, the Giants’ first league championship in three decades.
The decision to release Simms was a controversial one as the Giants were coming off an 11-5 season and a Divisional Playoff berth. Owner Wellington Mara disagreed with his general manager, George Young. Mara called the day of the announcement of Simms’ release “a day of overwhelming sadness”. Young said the new salary cap was the reason they couldn’t keep Simms. In the end, the Giants placed their franchise in the hands of 24-year-old Dave Brown, their first-round pick in the 1992 Supplemental Draft. Like Jones, Brown played collegiately at Duke.
Simms was 38 years old at the time and never saw it coming. The now 63-year-old CBS analyst believes the writing was on the walls and he just didn’t read it.
“I never thought about how we have this No. 1 draft QB and we need to make a transition and he needed to play,” Simms told the Daily News. “Even with the age difference, I didn’t realize it until…I never looked at it like he’s here to take my job.”
Simms never had to be on the team with Brown after Brown was named the starter. Warner was on the Giants’ roster for seven more games after his demotion.
Naturally, Manning did pick up some pointers from the Hall of Fame quarterback he replaced. Jones will likely do the same with the future Hall of Fame quarterback who may be shown the exit. However, head coach Pat Shurmur has said it is not Manning’s job to groom Jones into an NFL quarterback.
“I told this to Eli a couple times already: it’s not his job to teach the next quarterback that comes in here,” Shurmur said after the team drafted Jones. “It’s his job to be the very best player he can be, and the quarterback that we bring in, it’s his job to be smart enough to learn from Eli.”
Warner doesn’t agree. In 2004, he accepted the role of showing Manning the ropes. In fact, he doesn’t understand why teams with young quarterbacks wouldn’t ask their veterans to take on the role of mentor.
“I wish more teams would go, yeah, I expect Eli and (the Denver Broncos’) Joe Flacco, my veteran QB, to help everyone get better,” Warner said. “If it’s something they can help everyone on our team get better, I expect that. When I signed on the dotted line, there wasn’t any fine print to do anything to make us better only when you’re the starter. It’s stupid.
“I’m part of a team and, to make the team better: that’s your role, your job, that’s what a leader does. (If he were on the Giants roster this upcoming season) I want to make Daniel Jones better. Let’s say he doesn’t beat me out but I get hurt and Jones goes in the next four games. I want him to win those four games so I can come back in and we can go win a championship. Sometimes, you lead well enough and get guys prepared well enough that you lose your job.”
Simms held no ill will towards Brown. He said he “used to stand on the field after some practices and watch (Brown) throw and work with him. Brown, in turn, would ask Simms questions after games.
“Dave and I didn’t have a good relationship; we had a great relationship,” Simms said. “We played golf; we talked all the time. It was fun being 38 years old and having young kids around playing music in the locker room and saying to you, ‘Come on, what’s this song, Phil?’ Ya know? And, even for Eli, it will be this way. As an older quarterback, you want to see if young QBs can hang with you—when you’re working out, when you’re throwing, when you’re learning the playbook. All of it.”
Despite what Shurmur says, Manning has embraced the role of mentor.
“I think I’ve been doing that for the last 11 years, 12 years,” Manning said in May. “I don’t know when you become a mentor, ya know, when that’s official. I think when you’ve been in the league longer than any other guy in the quarterback room, you should be a mentor in that sense where you know a little bit more and can be helpful.”
Manning did offer a caveat when he said “it’s not necessarily your job to do it (mentor a rookie). It’s a little bit on Daniel being in there listening and asking questions”.
After leaving the Giants, Warner played five more seasons for the Arizona Cardinals with the highlight being a trip to Super Bowl XLIII. Simms, on the other hand, retired from the NFL. Manning says he wants to play past 2019, the final year of his current deal. He turns 39 a few days after the end of the regular season. Regardless of how well he plays or doesn’t play, the Giants didn’t draft Daniel Jones to hold a clipboard and listen through an earpiece.
Manning is very guarded with his emotions and you never know what he is thinking. He’s going to say and do the right things as he has since arriving with the team. The competitor in him wants to continue to be the Giants’ starting quarterback. However, he should know he’s closer to the end than he ever was before.