CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Five games remained in the 2017 season when then-New York Giants coach Ben McAdoo benched two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning in favor of Geno Smith as losses mounted for a team with championship aspirations.
The decision to end a streak of 210 consecutive starts, at the time the second-longest in NFL history for a quarterback (behind Brett Favre) was described as shocking and awkward, since Manning wasn’t considered the problem. Fan reaction was strong.
There were reports the well-known Manning family was highly upset. Archie Manning told the “New York Daily News” his son was “heartbroken.’’
Then the day after Manning watched from the sideline as the Giants fell to 2-10, with fan backlash growing to massive proportions, McAdoo was fired.
As hard as that time was for Manning, he never complained or spoke poorly of McAdoo. And arguably nobody is more supportive than Manning of the Carolina Panthers hiring of the 44-year-old to be their offensive coordinator.
“It’s a good hire,’’ Manning told ESPN.com. “It’ll be good for Sam [Darnold], or whoever the quarterback is, if they go in and buy in and match the commitment that I know Coach Mac will bring.
“We weren’t playing well [when he benched me], so tough decisions had to be made. We’ve talked through that process. There’s no hard feelings from my end over everything that happened.’’
If anything, there is admiration.
“I know he had a tough decision to make, but it’s a mutual respect over four years together,’’ said Manning, referring to McAdoo spending two years as the Giants’ offensive coordinator (2014-15) before being elevated to head coach for two years.
The strong personality that enabled McAdoo to bench Manning is one reason Carolina coach Matt Rhule didn’t hire him two years ago when he was looking for somebody to work with first-time offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who also has a strong personality.
With Brady gone, fired with five games remaining in the 2021 season, that personality now is considered a good fit for an offense needing to overhaul the line and make tough decisions at the quarterback position. The Panthers have had three starters -- Teddy Bridgewater, Darnold and Cam Newton – not meet expectations since Rhule was hired in 2020.
What that position will look like moving forward remains to be seen. Darnold is under contract through 2022. The Panthers also are expected to consider at potential trade for a starter, such as the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson or the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson.
Free agency and the draft also are options, although the quarterback class in both isn’t considered strong.
“He’s got a good offensive mind, he’s got a good system,’’ Manning said. “He does a good job of teaching the system to the quarterback to where he gives the quarterback some control.
“And he doesn’t second guess the quarterback once he gives you the tools to get into his system. It’s very quarterback-friendly.’’
In many ways, McAdoo helped Manning re-invent himself 11 years into his career. Manning was coming off a 2013 season in which he threw a career-high 27 interceptions to only 18 touchdowns and completed only 57.5% of his passes. The offense ranked 28th in scoring.
After an intense offseason of working on his footwork and getting rid of the ball quicker, he threw 30 touchdowns to 14 interceptions and completed 63.2% of his passes. He followed that with a career-high 35 touchdowns to 14 picks in 2015.
The offense improved to 13th in scoring in 2014 to sixth in 2015.
The next year, after McAdoo was promoted to head coach to replace Tom Coughlin, Manning led the Giants to an 11-5 record with 26 touchdown passes to 16 interceptions.
“Just a lot of footwork stuff, mechanic stuff in the drop,’’ Manning said of how McAdoo improved his performance. “Or how do I put my feet up to get a shotgun snap. It’s all about getting in rhythm with the offense and certain throws with the drop. Hit that third step and the ball’s coming out.
“It’s all based on timing and keeping the quarterback in rhythm and being able to listen to your feet to tell you when to get on to the next progression.’’
Manning improved in many of the areas that have kept Darnold from achieving expectations after the Jets made him the third pick of the 2018 draft.
“It’s just having a plan and just kind of knowing what you have, what you don’t have,’’ Manning said. “[Darnold’s] been in different offenses and had a lot thrown at him.
“With Coach Mac you just have to have a great feel for where the balls go based off what you see and leverage you might see from the defensive back, and also listen to your feet for the timing.’’
McAdoo might not be the “rock star’’ coordinator that some in the media reported Rhule had to make, but Manning considers him solid.
“He’s hard working,’’ Manning said. “He’s committed. He loves football, loves growing the offense and getting concepts that work but making it his system and making fits within his system.
“He’ll dive right in and gain the respect of the offensive players and the quarterback.’’
Knowing Rhule from his 2012 season as an offensive line assistant with the Giants, Manning believes McAdoo’s personality will mesh well.
“People that are passionate and work hard ... usually have a respect for each other, and it works well,’’ he said.
McAdoo has not been made available for interviews since he agreed to terms earlier this week. But based on past stories, he never wavered on his decision to bench Manning.
“Right or wrong, I am at peace with how I handled the decision to play quarterbacks other than Eli Manning down the stretch,’’ McAdoo told Sports Illustrated in 2018. “I was not ending Eli’s career with the Giants; I was making sure we knew what we had behind him with a high draft choice prior to a big quarterback draft.’’
Manning actually went on to start the final four games in 2017 and all 16 games in 2018 before retiring after the 2019 season, when first-round pick Daniel Jones took over as the starter.
He kept in touch with McAdoo the past two seasons when McAdoo was the offensive coordinator with the Jaguars (2020) and a consultant with the Dallas Cowboys (2021).
“We had some good offensive years when he first came in,’’ Manning said. “I felt I was playing some great football during that time. Obviously, things didn’t go well [in 2017], but I have a great relationship with him.’’