EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - When Eli Manning raised his last Super Bowl trophy on Feb. 5, 2012, he was at the top of his game. He had carried the Giants that season. He insisted he was "elite" and backed it up.
He had also just turned 31, right in a quarterback's prime, poised for some of the best years of his career.
Then the Giants went out and wasted it all.
What happened over the next seven seasons was not only a shame, it was a crime. And it's a mistake they absolutely can't repeat with Daniel Jones. They saddled Manning for years with bad offensive lines, porous defenses, and a weak surrounding cast overall. Through terrible mismanagement, ignoring the advice of coaches, poor drafting and questionable free agent contracts, they stole what could have been the best years of Manning's career. What could have been the greatest Giants era, what could have been a Hall of Fame coronation for their greatest quarterback, instead turned into a trainwreck of losing that cost two coaches, a general manager, and now a quarterback their jobs.
For Jones, they simply have to do better than that.
Jones, of course, is starting from rock bottom when he officially takes the reins from Manning on Sunday in Tampa. He is surrounded by a bad team, a decrepit defense, and a receiving corps filled with fourth and fifth stringers. The receiving corps will get better if Sterling Shepard returns and when Golden Tate's suspension is over. The defense likely will not.
But for Jones, this is about 2020 and beyond, and the good news for him is the Giants are projected to have $65 million in salary cap space to use in free agency next March (according to OverTheCap.com). Plus, it sure does look like they'll have a high draft pick again. What GM Dave Gettleman has to do is use that ammunition wisely and not do what he and his predecessor, Jerry Reese, did to Manning over the previous six years.
That starts with committing to building an offensive line - something Reese failed to do for Manning. For years Reese passed on linemen in free agency and the draft, sometimes loud objection of his offensive coaches under Tom Coughlin. When he did draft linemen he often missed (see: Ereck Flowers).
The result was that Manning was sacked an average of 32 times a season from 2013-18, including 78 over the last two years. It left him to run a passing attack that resulted in too many checkdowns, too many throw-aways, and too often being forced to throw off his back foot just before taking a hit.
Meanwhile, the drafting on defense was so bad for so long that Reese was forced to go on an un-Giant-like spending spree in 2016, tossing out $200 million in contracts on Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins, Damon Harrison and more. It worked, at first, as the Giants made the playoffs that season. But those contracts proved to be an albatross over the next few years.
And then Gettleman, in an apparent effort to tear down the mess that Reese rebuilt, didn't make things better. He made some terrible free agent signings (see running back Jonathan Stewart and guard Patrick Omameh), added some expensive players on which the jury is still out (like linebacker Alec Ogletree).
Then, of course, he traded away the Giants best receiver (Odell Beckham) and pass rusher (Vernon) and declined to re-sign their best defensive player (Landon Collins) and then gave Manning all of two games to succeed with that mess before replacing him with a rookie?
That's not just a startling lack of support. That's organizational malpractice. Manning deserved far, far better.
And so does Jones, which is why Gettleman can't repeat the mistakes of the past - especially when he has his quarterback on a cheap, rookie deal through 2022 (not to mention a reasonable fifth-year option in 2023). He needs to load up on defense this offseason, especially with legitimate pass rushers. He could use cornerback too, especially if Jenkins is a cap casualty after this season
And he has to do it now, because there is no greater financial advantage in the NFL than having a quarterback on a rookie deal. Jones' cap number is only $4.6 million. It'll only reach $8.1 million. Next year it's $5.8 million -- less than 3 percent of a cap that is expected to reach $200 million, in a year when Manning's huge number comes off the books.
If all works out with Jones, by the time he's ready for his first big contract in 2022 or 2023, quarterback deals will likely be approaching $200 million, which means the Giants will then have less cash and cap room to spend. Right around that same time they'll be talking about a mega-contract for Saquon Barkley, too, which means their cap room really could be thin.
So the time for them to act is now. Maybe this season is lost. Maybe the next 14 games are all about Jones' development. But they must spend and draft and build a team around him wisely with the idea of being in position to contend in 2020. They can't afford the same mistakes that kept them out of contention the last seven (and now eight) years. They can't afford to be afraid of bold moves. And they can't afford to be wrong.
They can't waste the early years of Jones and Barkley the way they wasted what could have been a dynamic duo of Manning and Beckham. The Giants failed Manning badly by failing to support him.
For the good of the franchise and the future, that oversight has to end right now.