By Jason Keidel
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With parity at the vortex of pro football, there is shrinking chasm between powers and paupers. But unless you have a bone-crunching defense, your fate flies on the arm of your quarterback.
And when Eli Manning said in the summer of 2011 that he belonged in the small circle of superstar quarterbacks – specifically next to Tom Brady – I was among millions who laughed, if not scoffed, at the idea.
We’re not laughing anymore.
Is Manning the best quarterback in the NFL? If you were drafting a quarterback not named Griffin or Luck, whom would you pluck?
Manning has that, well, what do we call it? Intangibles, toughness, meanness, or mettle that hardens his arteries in big games, that fuels his drive on the biggest drive. Some of it is backed by hardware, what with two Lombardi trophies and useless cars he can buy with his spare change for winning MVP of both games. The rest doesn’t rest inside a box score.
The eternal joke was that Eli wasn’t even the best QB in his family, and perhaps he was third behind Papa Archie, who had the solemn duty of playing for the Saints during their heyday, er, mayday epoch of paper bags wrapped around fans’ faces in the 1970s and ‘80s.
But with Peyton several neck surgeries into his twilight, Eli already has the Super Bowl bling big bro covets. Peyton’s legacy is secured, but his trip up the rungs of immortals may be truncated by limited success in the playoffs. Most QBs would kill for a Super Bowl ring, but with four MVP awards comes stratospheric expectations. And, fairly or not, the elder Manning won’t go down as a big, big game quarterback unless he wins another.
And no matter how celebrated he becomes, Eli still has that charm, a calm countenance that disarms us after the first butchered vowel. Despite his fame, he still comes off as some hayseed from Ole Miss, toothpick jammed between his teeth, while he thumbs his overalls, overwhelmed by the media sophisticants peppering him with highbrow bombs.
It’s almost universally agreed that Eli Manning is the Man in the fourth quarter in general and the last two minutes in particular. But you wonder if you can be the best overall when your overall game doesn’t break the scoreboard.
And with each week, and each nonchalant, surgical dissection of defenses in the fourth quarter, Eli’s name creeps up the list of top quarterbacks. And you could make an argument that Eli is the best in the world right now…
…if it weren’t for one guy.
Boomer Esiason made some bold assertions about a particular quarterback not named Manning. This morning, Boomer said he’d pay double the price of admission to ogle over Aaron Rodgers. In fact, he stopped just short of saying Rodgers is playing the position better than anyone ever has. And, frankly, I agree. “There’s something special about him,” Boomer reveled. He compared Rodgers to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, using a street adjective “He’s pure,” Esiason concluded, which pretty much means flawless.
If you’re starting a team and you have one quarterback to choose, would it be Aaron or Eli? Let’s assume both men are the same age. It makes for great barroom banter. Do you want the best closer in the game (Eli), or the best starter (Aaron)? Do you want Mariano Rivera or Justin Verlander? It’s obviously not an exact analogy, but you get the proverbial drift.
Had Rodgers not waited four years for Brett Favre to conquer his epic wanderlust, his career arc could have been historic, at least statistically. To extend the pitching metaphors, his stuff is just that filthy. No one throws a better ball with more accuracy than Rodgers. Not only did he lead Green Bay to 15 wins, he threw 44 touchdown passes, with six interceptions.
Rodgers also completed 68 percent of his passes, and amassed 4,643 yards, despite sitting out the final game.
Yet there was Manning in Green Bay last year, as in 2008, chilled breath puffing from his facemask, jogging off Lambeau the winner. No doubt there were many reasons the Giants stunned the 15-1 Packers on their sacred grass, but Manning is the guy in the NFL now, at least in terms of two minutes and a two point deficit.
Even during his best seasons, Manning can’t touch Rodgers’s numbers. When the Giants won their first Super Bowl under Eli, he threw 20 interceptions. Last year, which ended with another Lombardi, he threw 16 picks and had a paltry, 92.9 QB rating compared to Rodgers’s 122.5. Rodgers could give scorekeepers arthritis with his Playstation production. Eli threw a career-best 31 TDs in 2010, but also a career-high 25 INTs. Clearly, Eli makes his hay in the mayhem of crunch time, where things like confidence, focus, and leadership can’t be recorded by a pen.
The best part is that both players could get better. Neither is old, and they’ve remained remarkably healthy in a savage sport. The adage tells us that it’s better to be lucky than good. They are both. As Mike Francesa said when asked about picking between Joe Montana and John Elway – “I’d be quite happy with either” – you can’t go wrong with Manning or Rodgers.
But as a woman I dated once said, men love lists. What’s yours?
Where does Eli rank on your list? Let Keidel know in the comments below…