By Jason Keidel
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Few, if any, athletes have spent more time in the celebrity fish bowl — in the world’s media vortex — than Eli Manning.
With perhaps the exception of Derek Jeter, no one has represented his sport, team, and town with Manning’s low-key regularity, spent more time on the back page while keeping his name off Page Six. All while playing the most important position in team sports.
And when Manning led the Giants over the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII he got a lifetime pass from the pitfalls of his position. And when he won a second league championship, we rolled out the red carpet to Canton.
But this is the Big Apple, where memories are microscopic, and where QBs making $21 million a season are held to account for their gridiron sins, no matter how many layers of Teflon you’ve grown. And it’s time for Manning to play like the franchise QB he has assured us he is.
Over the last 10 years, Manning has averaged 26.6 touchdowns and 17.1 interceptions, and has led the league in INT three times. Consider Manning has tossed 266 TDs and 171 INTs, while Aaron Rodgers, who became a starter several years after Manning, is about to reach 300 TDs, with 72 just INTs.
Manning is so innately humble, with his self-effacing charm, we dismiss his bonehead picks as part of his goofy persona. He’s the silly southern dude who does crazy rap videos and musical locker room contortions. So, his head-scratching throws are just a harmless extension of his aw-shucks demeanor.
But since the rules spawned all these pyrotechnic passing attacks, it’s unacceptable that Manning is still learning how to protect the football. Not only does he complete too many passes to the other team, he doesn’t even find his own guys often enough. Not once in his career has Manning completed just 64 percent of his passes, and five times he completed fewer than 60 percent.
That falls on Manning, who is famous enough to warrant a nickname, but so modest we simply use his first name. He has also been bad enough to call him out by name. While last year was something of a renaissance for Big Blue — 11-5 and a trip to the playoffs — the Giants ended the season on an ugly note. While it’s no shame to leave the Frozen Tundra with frostbite and a failed season, the Giants acted like they had never been there, or, even worse, like they didn’t belong there.
Could you imagine the Patriots pulling that love boat jaunt in January? Could you see Julian Edelman or Malcolm Butler shirtless on the deck of some boat, posing like the next Drake album cover?
Odell Beckham Jr is a generational talent, so sublime even his peers are spellbound by his talent. Beckham clearly works hard and cares deeply about his craft. But it’s no secret there’s a loose wire somewhere. And whenever that wire is perilously close to electrocuting the club, his QB is nowhere to be found.
Manning might belch a few bromides about responsibility. But where was he when Beckham morphed into Mike Tyson that day against Josh Norman? Where was Manning when Beckham was making a fool of himself, mimicking a love affair with a kicking net? Where was Manning when Beckham decided the best way to prepare for the frosty field of Lambeau was to party in tropical climes?
When we think of great teams, they are tethered to a great quarterback, each the symbol of the other. The Pats’ devotion to perfection is clearly a reflection of Tom Brady’s work ethic. The Packers’ history of excellence is synonymous with Rodgers. No QB represents the rugged, blue-collar ethos of Pittsburgh like Big Ben.
Do you really see Eli Manning owning the Giants? Is he the undisputed leader and general? Does the team kneel in silent respect when he addresses the locker room? Will he grab a teammate by the face mask? Bark at his lineman? Does anyone act differently because they fear reprisal from Peyton’s kid brother?
Sure, you can lead by example. And Eli Manning does. He’s a fine quarterback, a good guy, and someone you’d love to meet for a bite or beverage at some Midtown dive. But the confetti and faerie dust from 2007 and 2011 have long been swept away. His ticket to Canton is probably laminated. But it’s time for Eli to take over, to commandeer a club for 16 games, to lead them into January, not wait until they get there.
If Eli Manning is a surefire Hall of Famer he only has a few years to remind us why. And this year may the best chance he will ever get.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel