No one gets out alive. Not even Steve Young.
There’s no way to prepare for it, but the end eventually comes for everyone. Even the game’s greatest. And individual accolades and Super Bowl trophies are of little comfort when NFL teams choose to move on.
“No one ever leaves happy,” Young, an ESPN analyst and three-time Super Bowl champion, said with a laugh by phone last month. “There’s always this feeling that you gave your whole life, your body, your soul, your spirit and then they say goodbye.
“The whole thing is fraught with terror. There’s going to be a couple guys that just kind of roll out perfectly. But it’s a bloodbath, generally.”
The end rarely is ever easy. Even for a quarterback with multiple Super Bowl rings. Even for a quarterback like Eli Manning.
As the veteran quarterback prepares for what could be his final game in a New York Giants uniform, Hall of Famers Young, Troy Aikman and Curtis Martin opened up to Yahoo Sports about their transitions from the playing field and offered advice to Manning and other players approaching the end of their careers.
“Unfortunately, not everybody gets to go out like Joe Montana or Peyton Manning. And the way Tom Brady likely will go out,” said Aikman, a current Fox Sports broadcaster. “Even [Brett] Favre, as great as his career was, [his final season with Minnesota] was a really tough year for him. And so the end happens rather quickly.”
Although their respective journeys were different, the circumstances that necessitated their retirements from the game are all too familiar: Once-great players forced to walk away due to injury or because their teams no longer think they’re worth the investment.
And soon, Manning probably will be no different.
“Someone like Eli, he should be able to finish his career with his head held high,” said Martin, the former New England Patriots and New York Jets running back-turned-entrepreneur and philanthropist. “Yeah, the last couple of years haven’t been so great, but he’s accomplished a lot as an NFL quarterback.”
Manning’s future with the Giants has been a hotly debated topic since last season. So, too, was the organization’s decision not to draft his successor and instead select a running back — albeit a generational talent such as Saquon Barkley — with the No. 2 overall pick in April.
But with Manning, who turns 38 on Jan. 3, set to start the season finale Sunday against Dallas, the question of who will lead this offense in the years to come looms even larger.
Always polite and forever the professional, Manning fielded questions this week with clipped answers and forced smiles.
There were so many questions about his future, yet he had no definitive answers.
“I don’t know,” he said, when asked if he expected to be the starter in 2019.
Manning has no clarity on his situation, but the writing has been on the wall for some time. The end is all but here.
Even if the Giants hold on to him for one more season — especially now that Oregon’s Justin Herbert, the projected top quarterback pick in the 2019 draft, is no longer an option — the Manning era is nearing its inevitable conclusion. Whether the 15-year veteran wants to accept it or not.
The Giants can certainly win games with Manning. But can they win another championship? Not with this roster and the offensive line configured as it stands now.
Even if he is declared the outright starter in 2019, the window is closing on Manning’s career. And the sooner he and the organization begin preparing for the end, the better it’ll be for everyone involved, including the fan base.
So how do you say goodbye to a franchise great who isn’t ready to leave?
With an open dialogue and complete transparency, Young said.
“The right way to do it is to be super upfront and communicative. Don’t hide. No passive-aggressiveness,” said the longtime San Francisco 49er. “People can handle it. It’s tough. ‘I don’t want to be replaced. I’ve been the centerpiece of this whole organization for 15 years. I might get super mad. But I can never say you lied, or hid behind my back or played games.’ That’s where you get into trouble.”
For Martin, the most important thing is how a team shows its appreciation when careers are over. “The most impactful thing the Jets did when I was retiring was just the acknowledgement of how much I meant to the franchise as a whole,” said the former third-round pick of the Patriots, who played the majority of his 11-year career in New York.
“To me, that was probably one of the most gratifying moments of my career — the fact that they wanted to retire my jersey. That’s saying to me: You thought I did so well that you don’t want anyone else to ever wear this number.
“… The Rings of Honor are pretty significant. I think for players, especially people who played a long time, for us to come back to the games and seeing our names in the rafters or around the stadium, it’s those things that make you feel appreciated.”
The Giants did Manning a disservice late last season with the haphazard handling of his short-lived benching — a move that was later blamed on former head coach Ben McAdoo. “It was so weird, so strangely concocted that it sent a message that ‘we don’t have a plan,’” Young said.
Aikman, a three-time Super Bowl winner with the Cowboys, agreed that the benching seemed “strange,” adding: “I don’t think there’s any way a coach, with a guy like Eli, can bench a quarterback and not get it approved from the owners. So when he did get benched, I said, ‘Well, McAdoo is not going anywhere.
“‘There’s no way they’d allow him to do this and then fire him.’ So I don’t know if there was a miscalculation as to how people would react. I don’t know if McAdoo was the fall guy. I don’t know what happened.”
This season, Manning has started every game for the Giants (5-10). But as the early losses mounted and New York sputtered to a 1-7 record, the questions about his future — and the possibility of fourth-round pick Kyle Lauletta being a suitable replacement — only intensified.
Manning’s two Super Bowl wins (2008 and 2012) are distant memories now. All that’s left for fans to fixate on are the unfulfilled expectations of one promising season after another. New York has made the playoffs only once since Manning was named the MVP of Super Bowl XLVI, and despite the hype surrounding the offseason addition of Barkley, this season has offered little hope for 2019.
The Giants are on their fourth head coach since 2015, have provided no public clarity on their quarterback situation, and can only hope to finish this season with six wins — a disastrous mark for a franchise once applauded for doing things the right way.
Years of losing eventually take their toll, on a franchise, on a fan base and the player at the center of that futility. And that can severely affect a player’s legacy.
“At the end of my career, all people see is what you put out there on Sunday,” said Aikman, stressing that his run with the Cowboys ended after the 2000 season due to significant back pain and his unhappiness with the Cowboys’ front office. “So my advice to him, and really any player, would be: Don’t stay in the game so long to where you risk losing what you’ve built and what you’ve earned. I don’t know if that applies to Eli right now or not, but that would be my advice. Because that’s the advice I gave myself.”
The end of Young’s career is crystallized in one indelible image: Him lying motionless on the field after absorbing a crushing blow from blitzing Cardinals safety Aeneas Williams. Plagued by concussions throughout his career, the 49ers quarterback would never suit up again after that crucial hit.
Young, the impressive stud who supplanted the great Montana in San Francisco, was now forced to face his football mortality. And he, too, was unprepared.
“For every player it’s like falling off a cliff,” said Young, who later earned his law degree and co-founded a private equity firm. “One day, you’re one of the best in the world at something, and then the next day you wake up and you’re not good at anything else. And that is super-shocking. I cannot tell you how painful that realization is for everybody.
“Why do players want to keep playing no matter what? Because it’s the only thing they’re great at. Let alone, good at. … My situation was a little bit different too. But just know that a very, very, very, very, very, very, very few leave the game exactly like they want.”
Martin was 34 when a knee injury forced him to retire in 2007, but his transition from football was far from debilitating. In fact, it was somewhat freeing. Football was a means to an end, “the stage and the vehicle that would set me on a course to do what I really wanted to do with my life. To impact people’s lives in a positive way,” he said.
“I was very prepared for when that end time would come,” added Martin. “It was almost as though I was happy more so. The injury, to me, was just the sign of the inevitable. Once the doctor said to me, ‘Curtis, if you go back and play with this, you’ll need a cane by the time you’re 38,’ it was a very easy decision for me. … He seemed sadder than I was.”
Martin stressed that it’s just as important for NFL rookies “to understand that this day will come” and to finish their careers “with a name that was worth more than while I was in the NFL.
“If you allow football to define you, you’ll be lost,” said Martin, who recently was honored by the Coalition Against Trafficking Women. “So I always encourage guys who are nearing their careers to start thinking about different meaningful things in life.”
There is no easy way to part with a fixture of a franchise. But in the case of Manning, the sooner the Giants put together a succession plan, the sooner the fan base can begin appreciating what Manning has meant to the organization while rooting for him on Sundays.
Manning, however, said he’s focused only on the present, not the uncertainty that awaits him this offseason.
“Have not gotten into that or thought much about that,” the Giants quarterback said Wednesday, forcing another smile. “So, just worrying about doing my job and finishing the season. I didn’t know [my status] last year either, so we’ll just figure out. … Hey, whenever you get to Year 15, these things come up.”
Turning the page will always be easier for the organization. And only time will tell how well Manning handles the unavoidable truth.
“I would have told myself that it’s never smooth,” Young said with a chuckle. “They’re invested in 50 guys, not one. And they’re invested in their own jobs of the future.
“… I mean, you’re mid- or late 30s — or in Tom’s case, now early 40s — and you’ve dominated. And you know that you’ve made such a difference in the whole organization. And you’re not ready. ‘I’ve got more years.’ ‘I can play longer, c’mon!’ ‘How can you disrespect me like that?’ ‘You won’t give me an extra year to prove that I can do it?’ It’s never, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I can’t play anymore.’ It’s never that way.”
Young laughed again.
“If it was brutal for me,” he said, “it’s brutal for everyone, right?”
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