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Clock’s running out on Eli Manning and it’s ticking down for Philip Rivers

Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants and Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers come together

(Jeff Gross via Getty Images)

Time appears to be running out on Eli Manning’s tenure with the New York Giants, whether it’s during this season or after.  

Out on the West Coast, Philip Rivers might have some more time with the Los Angeles Chargers, although the clock is winding down on his chances to win an elusive Super Bowl ring.

The two star quarterbacks, forever linked by the 2004 NFL Draft, are heading into interesting seasons, for different reasons.

Manning’s tenuous hold on the Giants’ starting job could best be summed up by a photo that went viral after the Giants’ exhibition game against the Cincinnati Bengals. As the media scrummed around heir apparent Daniel Jones, Manning sat in the adjoining locker with somewhat of a bewildered look on his face as he pulled on his shoes.

Granted, “Manning Face” has been a thing for years, with photographs catching Peyton’s famous little brother with his face in various contortions. But this picture clearly was worth 1,000 words. At first glance, the transition appears to be well under way.

Manning is entering a team-record 16th season with the Giants and the final year of his contract.

The Giants took Jones with the sixth pick overall in the draft. While the pick raised eyebrows, considering that Jones wasn’t one of the top draft prospects, it was clearly a signal that it’s almost over for Manning.

The 38-year-old Manning, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, said he’s not stressing with Jones waiting in the wings.

In this job, the pressure is to go out there and perform at a high level to win football games,” he told reporters during training camp. “That’s the point. You can’t worry about what other guys are doing behind you and what’s going on there. My mindset is to prepare each and every week to get better, to make the guys around me better, to try to make good decisions, play at a high level, and put the team in a situation to win.”

Manning took over for Kurt Warner nine games into his rookie season of 2004. Fans are now wondering when the Jones Era will begin, and they’re already looking forward to him joining forces with running back Saquon Barkley, who set team rookie records with 1,307 yards rushing, 15 total touchdowns, and 91 catches.

Coach Pat Shurmur said Manning remains the top guy, but it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, especially since Jones has played well in the exhibition season.

“I’ve said it all along, Eli’s our starter and we’re getting Daniel ready to play,” the coach told the media. “I think he’s done a good job in the preseason, as I’ve mentioned all along. He’s getting better, and he’s going to continue to do that so that at whatever time we need him to play, he’ll be ready.”

Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants in action against the Dallas Cowboys

(Jim McIsaac via Getty Images)

Granted, he hasn’t always been protected by great lines — he was sacked a career-high 47 times last year — but Manning’s play has been inconsistent in recent seasons. He was even benched by then-coach Ben McAdoo in Week 13 of the 2017 season, ending his string of 210 straight games. Many people felt it was the ultimate sign of disrespect toward the franchise quarterback, and McAdoo was fired the next week. Manning got his job back, but the Giants finished an embarrassing 3-13.

Manning was pragmatic that offseason, telling media during Super Bowl week: “It was a great reminder that nothing is guaranteed. No matter what you did the year before — win your division, make the playoffs, whatever — it has no effect on the next year.”

So he knows how the NFL rolls when it comes time for players to move on. People can hardly say he’s stuck around too long, considering he’s still under contract. But the Giants clearly have a replacement plan in place in Jones, who in three seasons at Duke threw for 8,201 yards and 52 touchdowns, with 29 interceptions. His 19-19 record as the starter included two bowl victories.

The Giants have been a mess since Manning led them to their second Super Bowl victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots following the 2011 season. They’ve had only two winning seasons since then, and only one playoff appearance, when they lost in the wild-card round to the Green Bay Packers. They were 5-11 last year after going 3-13 the previous season.

It’s not just Giants fans who are talking about the Manning-Jones dynamic.

Outspoken Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield took an odd jab at Jones, telling GQ that he was stunned the Giants drafted Jones.

“Blows my mind,” Mayfield told the magazine. “Some people overthink it. That’s where people go wrong. They forget you’ve gotta win.”

Jones said he’d never met Mayfield.

“I try not to listen to much that’s said,” Jones said. “I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that. I heard that before. I kind of have the same mindset, I certainly have a lot to focus on here, I have a lot to worry about here and I’m focused on that.”

Jones added, “I have never spoken to him. He has an opinion. A lot of people have opinions.”

Manning ended up with the Giants because his famous father, Archie, the patriarch of the First Family of Quarterbacks, informed the San Diego Chargers that he didn’t want them to take his son with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft. That didn’t sit well with then-general manager A.J. Smith, who took Manning anyway, forcing Eli to stand with commissioner Paul Tagliabue and hold up a No. 1 Chargers jersey. About 45 minutes later, after the Giants had taken Rivers with the fourth pick, the teams swapped QBs.

The Chargers also received three draft picks. They used one to take kicker Nate Kaeding later in the ’04 draft and one to take linebacker Shawne Merriman in the 2005 draft. That helped launch them on their way to five division titles in six seasons.

In terms of Super Bowl rings and endorsement deals, Manning clearly got the better end of that deal.

The remarkably durable Rivers is still driven to be the first quarterback to get that elusive first Super Bowl title for the franchise. Dan Fouts fell short of even getting to a Super Bowl during his Hall of Fame career, and Stan Humphries couldn’t deliver when the Bolts made their only title game appearance before getting overwhelmed by Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers in the 1995 Super Bowl.

Rivers is heading into the final year of a four-year, $83.2 million contract. He’s in no rush to sign a new deal, and it’s generally believed that the Chargers wouldn’t be so callous as to treat their franchise quarterback with the same disdain they showed other stars, such as Junior Seau, LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, and Rodney Harrison.

Rivers will turn 38 on Dec. 8, so he might not get another long-term deal. The Chargers almost certainly would want Rivers as their starter when they move into Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s gleaming new stadium in Inglewood next year, so a shorter deal seems doable. Plus, they need Rivers as the face of the franchise because they continue to struggle to build a fan base heading into their third season in Los Angeles. Once Rivers is gone, they’re probably going to lose those fans in San Diego who continue to cheer for the quarterback while loathing owner Dean Spanos for moving the team.

“I feel fine playing this thing out,” Rivers told reporters recently. “The expectation and hope is to be here again next year, but it doesn’t need to be done right now. If it were to sometime soon, great. If not, let’s play it out and worry about it in the winter. If it does, awesome. You want our team to have the best chance to win.”

Rivers has started 208 straight games since the 2006 season opener. When he settles under center at home against Indianapolis on Sept. 8, he’ll break out of a tie for third-place all-time with Peyton Manning.

Philip Rivers #17 of the Los Angeles Chargers in action during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers

(Joe Sargent via Getty Images)

The Chargers haven’t known another starter since Brees injured his throwing shoulder in the 2005 season finale and was sent packing as a free agent. That was a good deal for Brees, who four seasons later led the New Orleans Saints to their first Super Bowl title. It was also good for Rivers, who largely sat behind Brees for two seasons. Brees’ struggles in the 2003 season, when the Chargers were an NFL-worst 4-12, led the Chargers to make the move for Rivers, but then Brees bounced back and held onto the job for two years.

Rivers has made it through four head coaches, two general managers, and a franchise relocation. He continues to live with his family in northern San Diego, commuting to Orange County for practices and to Carson for games.

People have speculated for years about who will be Rivers’ heir apparent. His backups are Tyrod Taylor and Cardale Jones, and the Chargers drafted North Dakota State’s Easton Stick in the fifth round. Are any of them the heir apparent? It’s anybody’s guess, because Rivers is still playing at a high level.

Rivers has started 11 playoff games, including two last season as the Chargers returned to the postseason for just the second time since 2009. They won at Baltimore in the wild-card round before running into nemesis Tom Brady, who led the New England Patriots to an easy divisional win against the Bolts on his way to another Super Bowl title.

Rivers said the Chargers’ talent reminds him of what the team had when it won four straight AFC West titles from 2006 to 2009. But there are serious challenges to making a run at the defending division champion Kansas City Chiefs, including running back Melvin Gordon’s holdout and tackle Russell Okung’s absence as he recovers from blood clots.

I feel like we’re in that window. That doesn’t mean that it’s going to just happen, but I do feel like we’re in that window capability-wise,” Rivers said. “Where it starts for us is finding a way to win the division.”

Time will tell, and time is running out.

And then there’s Ben Roethlisberger, the third member of the QB Class of 2004, who fell to 11th overall in that draft but was the first to win a Super Bowl ring, in his second season. He played in three Super Bowls in his first seven seasons, winning the first two.

At 37, Roethlisberger is coming off his second NFL passing title and signed a contract extension that runs through 2021.

And he’s as competitive as ever.

I want to win Super Bowls. Truthfully, that should be all of our motivation because that’s what’s driving me right now,” he said during camp.