Trying to understand Eli’s greatness

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It was a strange scenario.

The main figure with all the cameras from across the country facing him just three feet away, the one with the Super Bowl trophy patch on the right shoulder of his jersey, didn’t seem to own the room like a person in this situation usually would.

It’s not that he was nervous, but rather had a boyish “I can’t wait to get home to play the new Sonic the Hedgehog” anxiousness look on his face. He spoke clearly, but more the way a good friend would, not the way a natural born leader that inspires you deep down inside. And though all of the words that came out of his mouth were perfect, the type of language you would want your quarterback to speak, none of it seemed to make you think he was the type of guy that could one day have a bust in Canton.

“What would a second Super Bowl mean to your legacy,” a random reporter shouted out.

Nobody can blame Kurt Warner for being a little bit surprised that a question like that would be asked to his former pupil.

“I couldn’t foreshadow or see it at that time,” said Warner.

After all, the two-time Most Valuable Player award-winner had a front-row seat to the kid. Every day in practice, Warner would help groom the number-one draft pick of 2004 out of Mississippi, a man the Giants had practically given a king’s ransom for, and his unbelievable raw talents into the necessary skills a quarterback must have to succeed in the National Football League.

At the same time, Warner was fending the highly-touted rookie off for starting quarterback job as long as possible. Following two injury-shortened seasons ruined by a broken thumb with the St. Louis Rams in 2002 and 2003, Warner was released from the team he felt he would end his Walt Disney’esque storied career at. Instead, he was now fighting for a job.

Warner’s stats through nine games weren’t bad, but they weren’t spectacular. Six touchdowns, four interceptions, a QB Rating of 86.5, and the stand-alone positive stat of a 5-4 record with a team that had finished 4-12 the previous season. But with no numbers that would jump off the page to impress the masses, Warner was at that point of his career viewed as a quarterback that potentially could have been past his prime.

Enter the kid, the savior, the former GQ cover-boy (sharing it with Tom Brady nonetheless), and known most to all, the younger brother. How great was Eli Manning that rookie season when he took over for the future hall-of-famer?

A 48.2 completion percentage, six touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a 1-6 finish to the season that Warner had a winning record with. Even worse, Manning had played so poorly with a zero-percent QB Rating against the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 12th 2004, that he was pulled in the second half for Warner to close out the game.

“I remember a lot of things,” Warner said.

“As far on the field, I remember that Eli struggled. A lot. I often tell people, it is amazing to see him now in his second Super Bowl. Some of those games were some of the ugliest games I’ve ever seen quarterbacking, in my life.”

But despite the poor rookie season, the Giants had planned to stick with their young quarterback through the worst of times, and Warner could see the clear painting on the wall. Manning was the future, and Warner had taken the chance to earn a new job with the Arizona Cardinals where his dream-story of shopping marts to Super Bowl was continued. And though Warner couldn’t clearly see or predict the type of elite quarterback Manning would potentially become, he did see the main characteristic that is considered the key to Manning’s ability to play under the hardest of times.

“What I did see was a guy who stayed consistent,” said Warner. “Which is exactly what we see now. He had this resolve, and he didn’t allow things to bother him. And I truly think that this has been his greatest attribute up to this point in his career.”

As for Manning, his career would blossom to an extent. Two consecutive playoff appearances in 2005 and 2006 were over-shadowed from poor completion percentages (a 57.7% was the highest of the short span) and two one-and-done finishes in the NFC playoffs. Than in 2007, despite having a near-identical season to the previous two, the questions had started to arise.

“The only thing we evaluate is ‘Can we win with this guy?’ That’s the one thing,” said Mara. “When we talk about any player at the end of the season, the No.1 question is ‘Will he help us win?’ And to take it one step further, ‘Can we win a championship with this guy?”

At that time Manning was doubted for losing 31-20 to the Dallas Cowboys in week nine, a contest that saw the fourth-year starter throw for more interceptions (2) than touchdowns (1), and with Tony Romo stealing the show with four scores, Manning was now facing the ugliness of not only the New York media scene all week long, but the national sources had begun to knock him as well. This was taken from a 2007 article from Mike Sando of following a four-interception loss to Minnesota:

“I think he’s got good skills,” said the secondary coach, speaking before the Minnesota game, “but all the other stuff, the intangible stuff, I don’t think he has it. He gets scared when you get after him in the pocket. All the things you hate a quarterback to have, he has. And he’s not accurate.”

The evaluation was near-correct.

Manning, after all, continued to have another poor season as far as completion percentage was concerned with 56.1%, and finished with 20 interceptions to 23 touchdowns. And even more importantly, there seemed to be a lack of fire. Where Drew Brees is in the huddle of every pre-game celebration to pump up his team, Eli would stand in the far back as the Giants jumped up in unison, banging their heels on the ground as they proclaimed to “stomp you out”. If Manning threw a touchdown, he’d celebrate under the radar, never the one to run down the field and pick his receiver up like Brett Favre. And if he threw one of his many interceptions, his shoulders would just slouch as if he was a sad third-grader who dropped his Hostess cupcake, but knew in a half-hour he could have another when he got back home.

Michael Strahan described this lack of emotion best in the 2007 documentary of America’s Game:

“Usually when you look a quarterback in the eye, you get a feeling that oh he’s feeling good today. He’s going to have a good one today, he’s feeling confident. Where Eli just gives you this look like,” where Strahan stared straight into the camera with a dumb-founded look on his face.

But there was that resolve that Warner had hinted at. Literally nothing got Eli too excited, nothing got him too down. It’s just a, meh, move on to the next one type of attitude. In almost every aspect, it’s very similar to what America loves about Tim Tebow’s game. Where Eli is bad in the first three quarters, he can put every awful spiral behind him and come through in the fourth. Manning just does it with the look of a shy sixth-grader on his first date, not the Suzie cheerleader rah-rah personality that Tebow carries.

Maybe that’s what the Giants needed.

And than with the backs against the wall, Manning led the Giants to the playoffs with a 10-6 record, won three straight road games including the second coming of the “Ice Bowl” in a 13-6 overtime victory at Lambeau Field, and knocked off the greatest team in regular season history of football in the undefeated Patriots in a 17-14 Super Bowl championship. Six touchdowns, Super Bowl XLIII MVP, one ring, and the clutch-ability that Warner had alluded too early.

At this point, Manning should have been accepted on the level of New York sports-hierarchy to never be questioned again. Outside of the Yankees, New York City truly is a sub-par sports town in terms of success. The Knicks haven’t won a championship in 28 years. The New York Rangers have one title in the past 71 years. The Mets just hit the 25-year mark. Joe Namath’s guarantee was 34 years ago. And even the Giants had hit the 17-year mark. In a city where Derek Jeter, Mark Messier, Lawrence Taylor, and Willis Reed are considered untouchable for their greatness, Eli was still open for criticism.

“Eli Manning was Peyton’s little brother,” said Justin Timberlake at the 2007 Espy’s. “And now, ELI MANNING. What a year this guy has had. I mean, he has won the Super Bowl and finally got to see a woman naaaaakkkkeeeeed!”

Sure, it was a joke. But would anybody have the gull to say this to Aaron Rodgers? Tom Brady? Drew Brees? Even Peyton?

And than it seemed as if that light had switched on during the 2007 postseason was flickering for good. In 2008 Manning led the Giants to a 12-4 record, threw above a sixty-percent completion percentage for the first time in his career, and the Giants seemed destined to make another deep run in the playoffs until Plaxico Burress shot down the team’s chances (literally). With Burress in the lineup, the Giants were 9-1, but skidded towards a 3-3 finish and a first-round exit in a 23-11 home loss to Philadelphia where Manning threw for 167 yards and two interceptions.

Just as embarrassing as the home loss? We learned from Karen Crouse of the New York Times that Eli enjoys the hobby of antique shopping with his mother, something he has done his entire life. With a new $97.6 million dollar extension to his contract after the season, he was now able to buy a lot of old fashioned knickknacks.

The following year Manning threw for 27 touchdowns and for 4,021 yards, a feat accomplished with a sub-par receiving core with Mario Manningham as the leading receiver (7 TD’s, 58 yards per game) and a up and coming rookie in Hakeem Nicks. It was the type of season that made you wonder once again, what would Eli Manning do if his best receiver hadn’t shot himself in the leg, a move that eventually became Lebron James flag-football touchdown dance?

In 2010, something funny happened. Good Eli blended into bad Eli, as Manning threw for a career-high 31 touchdowns and league-leading 25 interceptions. The Giants missed out on the playoff chase for a second year in a row (despite a 10-6 record), the Jets got hot, and all of a sudden Broadway belonged to Mark Sanchez. You know, the second-year hot-shot quarterback with the southern California looks and curly hair who threw for a 54.8% completion percentage, and nearly as many touchdowns (17) as interceptions (13).

How did this happen to a quarterback with clearly inferior numbers? Somewhat in Sanchez’ defense, he did lead the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship appearances, but they were a run-heavy offense that relied mostly on it’s defense (though the Giants did in 2007 as well). The Jets were still the runner-up to the losing conference though, and Sanchez was slowly becoming accepted as the king as he long as he continued to improve. Once again, how did this happen?

The answer was easy. One guy personified the type of quarterback that New York City USED to believe in. The glitzy, glamourish, large-than-life Joe Namath type figure that was gorgeous. Namath had beautiful ladies, he enjoyed a young lifestyle he guaranteed. He was a symbol of cool, something that with just a ball in his hands, Mark Sanchez looks like he could accomplish on and off the field.

Eli? He married his high school girlfriend. His hair is moppy. And as stated earlier, one of his favorite hobbies is antique shopping. Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal said it best:

“By now it’s assumed Eli is not going to develop into a colorful eccentric; the glare of Broadway makes him squint.”

That was from the article “Back in Fashion This Fall: Eli Manning”, and the title couldn’t have been more than true. Until this happened.

“I consider myself in that class.” In the month of August leading into the season, Eli had the gull to consider himself as an elite quarterback among the likes of Tom Brady despite leading the league in interceptions. We all shrugged it off, sort of collectively saying “Awe Eli, that was cute”. You know, despite these points:

A. Their numbers are comparable. Brady’s average per season: 3,851 yards passing, 29 passing touchdowns, 11.4 interceptions, career 63.6 completion percentage in nine seasons as a starter.

Eli’s average per season: 3,600 yards passing, 25 passing touchdowns, 17.3 interceptions, career 58 completion percentage in six seasons as a starter.

B. Eli Manning has a Super Bowl ring, and the majority of quarterbacks who have one are ultimately considered amazing.

C. Shouldn’t every professional athlete have this vote of confidence in himself? Especially the quarterback for the number-one media market in our country?

Now surrounded with two extremely talented receivers in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, along with the best number-three receiver in the league Mario Manningham, in 2011 Manning threw for 29 touchdowns (a record 15 in the 4th quarter), squeezed his interceptions back down to 16, and tossed for an unfathomable for Eli 4,933 yards.

Even more importantly, that undeniable resolve from 2007 had returned. Must-win game against Dallas to end the season? 346 yards and three touchdowns. A second-round game on the road at Lambeau Field against the 15-1 Green Bay Packers? 330 yards and three touchdowns. NFC Championship game with flu-like symptoms in a wet, damp San Francisco? 316 yards and two touchdowns.

For some reason, despite the three one-and-done postseason trips he has endured in the playoffs, Manning finds himself in a Joe Montana-like, never makes a mistake mold that can’t be broken once again. All of a sudden on Sunday night in Super Bowl XLVI, he is in position to defeat arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks in all-time, a three-time Super Bowl champion, a two-time MVP (only unanimous), and a holder of the first or second greatest regular season in the history of the position. And he may beat Brady in the big game for a second-time, in the building his brother Peyton has built, the one by all measurements is a better regular-season quarterback, but may have less jewelry on his rings in the end than Eli.

How does this happen?

Kurt Warner couldn’t see it. If you looked at Eli’s pro football reference page, you won’t see it among the numbers. The New York media never seemed to push him into iconic legend status, despite the fact he potentially could be the greatest quarterback in New York City history.

So, what would a second Super Bowl mean to Manning’s legacy?

“I’m not worried about my legacy,” said Manning.

“I’m worried about winning a championship for the New York Giants. For my teammates, my coaches, we have all worked hard. This is a team game. You play for the teammates, your coaches, and the organization that get you here. I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to get to play on Sunday.”

And then he moved onto the next question, as if the one before never happened.