By Jason Keidel
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At the risk of redundancy, we enter another NFL season with a decorated quarterback trying to prove himself.
Evidently, two Super Bowl rings don’t ring as loudly as they used to.
Eli Manning isn’t the most underrated QB in NFL history, but he may be the most under appreciated. For whatever reason, whenever Sid Rosenberg commandeers the mike at WFAN, his show morphs into an Eli Manning symposium. And while he hasn’t been as heavy-handed as he was over the holidays, callers express sincere angst, anxiety, and doubt over Eli, which still boggles this writer’s small brain.
Last we checked, Jim Plunkett is the only two-time NFL champion as a starting QB who’s not in the Hall of Fame. And while we can debate Eli’s Canton bona fides, he certainly deserves more respect than he gets now.
Is there a more dissected signal-caller of Eli’s cachet?
Is it his humility? His decency? His soft, Southern refrain? His “Aw, shucks” persona? You half expect him to have overalls under his pads, which he thumbs during those sideline chats with Tom Coughlin with 2 minutes left in the game.
Not even Peyton or Archie Manning can defend Eli’s performance in 2013. The youngest Manning was as bad as the Giants’ 0-6 start. And usually someone whose lapels are as littered as Eli’s is a little more consistent. The very reason he isn’t a member of the aristocracy, led by his brother and Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees, is his schizophrenic statistics.
It feels like the baseball geeks and sabremetricians have dripped into the NFL, because the old numbers read like hieroglyphics now. And, of course, they are wholly misleading.
If you read last year’s spreadsheet you’ll see the best QB in the NFL last year was…Josh McCown, who led the league with an 85.1 total QBR. (Big bro Peyton was second.)
Outside the top 10 in the new acronyms and algorithms would be Tom Brady (61.1 QBR). Guess he’s not an elite quarterback. Tony Romo is 12th (59.5). Ben Roethlisberger, he of my beloved black & gold and proud papa of two Lombardi Trophies, was 17th (54.3).
Oh, and the kid who actually won the Super Bowl last year was 13th. Yes, Russell Wilson had a paltry 58.9 total QBR. So while ESPN has cut a swath of programming to the proposition that “Numbers Never Lie,” they do fib.
Speaking of which, let’s browse 2007 — the year when Brady went Neo on the NFL, tossing 50 touchdowns, just eight interceptions, and essentially took a giant eraser to the record books. Brady’s total QBR that year was 87.08. By galling contrast, Eli lobbed just 23 TDs, led the NFL with 20 INT and had a skeletal total QBR (46.95). The Patriots went 18-0 that year. Then Eli made them 18-1.
You may recall the rematch between the I-95 foes a few years later, which saw Eli yet again craft a late, adrenaline-soaked march to his second Super Bowl victory. During the regular season, Brady was, well, Brady, posting 39 TDs and 12 INTs, for a 72.74 total QBR. Eli? 29 TDs, 16 INTs, 59.39 total QBR.
Taken entirely from autumn Sundays, when the leaves are still alive and falling like red confetti, Brady looks like the NFL QB vis-a-vis Manning’s more collegiate accomplishments. But you can say that about anyone juxtaposed with Brady, who paved his gold-plated path to Canton years ago. Eli Manning is halfway to a bronze bust, yet to hear the folks from the five boroughs and beyond, you’d think Manning were Dave Brown fighting for the starting spot under center.
So what is it about Eli? It’s not measured in yards or points, for sure. Eli bends or breaks the needle in the needed but immeasurable metric. Clutch.
It’s widely accepted that the quarterback is the most important position in team sports, even more than a pitcher, who’s job is largely done once he snaps his fastball. A pitcher doesn’t call plays, align the lineup, or make personnel changes; nor is he forced to memorize mammoth, 500-page tomes of formations and audibles and check-downs.
And last we checked, Eli is not only a two-time champion, he’s the MVP of each Super Bowl. Largely regarded as the best two-minute drive general in the business, Eli made his bones in the bare moments of crunch time.
Yet cyberspace is stuffed with sardonic references to Manning. Every columnist is a de facto critic and cynic over all things Eli. Folks are flustered over the notion of a new offensive coordinator, as if the Giants were now asking Eli to throw the ball with his left hand. To listen to the media Illuminati, you’d think he were the pale, pampered brat who refused to play for the Chargers, forcing San Diego to deal him to the Giants.
You’ll even find a phalanx of fans who would rather swap with San Diego. Philip Rivers is a fine player who posts robust numbers. But Rivers hasn’t even sniffed a Super Bowl, much less won one.
And there’s the small matter of Peyton, whose lapels are littered with the most glitter in NFL history. Yet Peyton doesn’t even have the most rings in his own tribe. That doesn’t make the elder Manning worse, but it’s hard to think of a current or former quarterback who is regarded with more rancor or less admiration than Eli Manning.
Ask fans in Detroit or Cleveland or Atlanta or Buffalo if they’d take two titles in 10 years. Sure, Eli isn’t the sole reason Big Blue won those championships, but even if he isn’t the sole reason, he’s the soul of the season when the Giants are what they are: winners. The Giants are more architects than daredevils, more coach than caged animal. The Giants play like they are built — slow, measured, methodical.
But that doesn’t feed our OCD need for instant euphoria. Let our team tank a few games, or even a season and we call for the collective heads. Fire the coach. Can the GM. Bench the QB.
It could just be Eli’s countenance. We regard football with savage passion, and we expect the same on Sunday from our favorite and fantasy players. We can’t metabolize a stoic, and don’t expect the iconic to be laconic. We want Rodgers’s intensity, Brady’s throaty exhortations, and Brett Favre butting heads with Warren Sapp. We want our quarterbacks to be failed linebackers.
We alternate our view of football between rancor and romance. We exhaust all wartime metaphors, refer to our teams in gladiatorial euphemisms. We cascade down the rainbow of emotions, and since Eli isn’t a loud or loquacious leader, we assume he’s not a leader.
Forgive him if he doesn’t see it that way. Sometimes it’s hard to see you over those Lombardi Trophies.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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