Eli Manning: Approaching elite QB status
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning made waves before the season started when he declared himself to be on the same level as some of the league’s top signal callers. As a long-time skeptic of Eli’s ability, I initially scoffed at his “top five NFL quarterback” assertion. He has always been perceived as a quality QB who gives his team a great chance to win every Sunday, but most experts usually rate him behind the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and others in the hierarchy of great NFL quarterbacks. Eli has occasionally shown flashes of brilliances (i.e. his transcendent play during the 2007 playoffs), but he can also be inconsistent at times and turnover prone. However, in leading his injury riddled team to a 5-2 record heading into Sunday’s showdown at New England, Manning is on his way to having the best season of his career.
Born into a celebrated football family, Eli has been in the public eye for most of his football life. He caused a stir before he was even drafted by openly stating that he would refuse to play for the San Diego Chargers (who had the 1st pick of the 2004 draft) if they selected him, essentially forcing his way to New York via a trade. Manning has had some good seasons and at times played spectacularly, but his occasionally wobbly throws and high interception numbers often give critics reasons for to pounce on him. The media scrutiny in the New York market is so intense that even his outstanding 2007 playoff and Super Bowl performances are often seen as a byproduct of receiver Plaxico Burress playing out of his head and David Tyree making a once in a lifetime catch. And last by not least, to most Eli will always be viewed as the “other Manning”. His older brother Peyton is one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history and was already well established by the time Eli entered the NFL.
As the face of the Giants franchise, Eli was under a great deal of pressure entering this season. He was trying to bounce back from a subpar 2010 campaign in which he threw a career high 25 interceptions, and would have to do so without a few of his favorite targets from years past (Steve Smith, Kevin Boss). After missing the playoffs each of the last two years, if the team faltered once again this season the likelihood of head coach Tom Coughlin returning in 2012 would be questionable at best. And lastly, Eli’s ability to win during crunch time has routinely been questioned; the Giants have been notorious in the Coughlin/Manning era for starting fast only to fade down the stretch, and not counting his 2007 playoff run Eli holds a 0-3 record as a starter in the NFL’s second season.
Despite these factors, at this point in the season Eli is playing at an elite level and backing up his preseason claim in a big way. He currently has the third highest passer rating in the league (102.1), and has 13 touchdowns with only 5 interceptions. For a long time one of the criticisms of Eli was the belief that he was a QB who excelled only if he was surrounded with talented players; he couldn’t win without superior talent and couldn’t make average players better. This assessment has been proven false this season, as although the Giants receivers are serviceable, they have been beset by injuries and lack the experience of Eli’s previous units. Equally impressive is that the majority of Manning’s passes are right on point; he is putting his receivers in position to succeed and make plays, and even if he misses his intended target it’s not by much. His performance and mannerisms have been reminiscent of Peyton in many of the Giants games this year – he seems to always be in control, is confidently going through his progressions, and making good decisions.
Achieving the standing of the premier quarterbacks mentioned earlier takes years of success and consistency. While Eli might not be there just yet, he can continue to alter many opinions about where he ranks if he can sustain his stellar play. Eli’s reputation as one of the league’s top-flight quarterbacks will likely be determined to an even greater extent in the coming weeks. The Giants desperately need him to keep playing at his current high level if they are going to avoid another late season swoon, as they face a brutal upcoming schedule. After going head to head with Tom Brady in Foxborough, Eli will face the stout defense of the revived San Francisco 49ers before engaging in showdowns with Michael Vick and the Eagles, Brees and the Saints, and Rodgers and the Packers. With Peyton on the shelf this year, if Eli can lead his team through this difficult stretch and capture the NFC East he will take another step out of his brother’s shadow and vault towards the status of the league’s elite QB’s.