"I consider myself in that class," Manning told Michael Kay in a radio interview with WEPN-AM 1050 in New York, when asked whether or not he was an elite quarterback in the NFL.
With outstanding talent throughout the NFL at the quarterback position, such as the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers, the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees and the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, who could blame the doubters falling on the floor in laughter when they heard of Manning’s comments?
Heck, even Giants fans were skeptical.
The reality is, at the time of that statement, Eli Manning wasn’t elite. Despite his lack of talent at the wide receiver position for most of his career, his statistics did not do enough to place him atop the pedestal with the “greats” like Brady and Brees, nor was the former Super Bowl MVP’s recent lack of postseason success favorable in comparison to the breakout superstardom of Aaron Rodgers.
His pedestrian 2010 season stocked full of interceptions, an NFL-leading 29 to be exact—his fault or not—did not help his case either.
When Manning supporters tried to argue his cause with comparisons to Brees’ interception-laden 2010 campaign, haters scoffed citing five straight seasons of 4,300-plus passing yards, his outstanding completion percentage of 70.6 percent in 2009 and his sovereign leadership within the Saints' locker room.
The Sporting News’ Matthew Lutovsky even went as far as comparing Eli Manning to the Oakland Raiders’ Jason Campbell and Denver Broncos’ Kyle Orton, and worse, Manning’s father and former New Orleans Saints' quarterback Archie Manning.
There were plenty of arguments to be made either way. Wherever someone stood before Eli Manning’s claims of elite-ness was likely the same place that person stood after every argument they read declaring otherwise.
So what did Eli Manning do to back up his claims?
Manning lit up the NFL and had the best season of his career, if not the best season ever for a quarterback in a New York Giants uniform.
In doing so, Manning also led the most clutch season ever seen by an NFL quarterback, starting with a dominating four-touchdown performance against the Philadelphia Eagles and their so-called “Dream Team” secondary in Week 3. The fourth-quarter comeback was the first of five fourth quarterback comebacks led by the eight-year veteran in 2011.
But while the New York media started to stir about the possibility of Eli Manning’s claims being true, most focused on the Giants’ Week 9 meeting with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots as an opportunity for Manning to prove just how elite he truly he was.
And he delivered, leading the Giants to a 24-20 victory following a spectacular 80-yard drive with just over a minute remaining in the game.
But that wasn’t enough.
The victory was impressive, but the Patriots had the worst defense in the NFL, and Manning’s dominance of that defense was conveniently of no surprise to his greatest critics.
While Eli Manning continued posting great numbers and doing all he possibly could to keep his team in games, the Giants defense failed to pick up the pieces and the Giants lost four straight. In that fourth loss, Manning rallied the Giants to a tie with the undefeated Green Bay Packers. Sure enough, Manning’s phenomenal 347-yard, three-touchdown performance was outshined by a game-winning drive of epic proportions at the hand of Aaron Rodgers.
Manning was good. Rodgers was elite.
It was becoming clearer and clearer, as has been the case for much of Manning’s eight-year career, that nothing Manning did would ever be good enough for his critics.
Manning’s incredible performances in Week 14 against the Dallas Cowboys to save the Giants’ season and Week 17 to lift the Giants to their first playoff berth since 2008, did not quiet those critics either.
Manning’s 2011 season should speak for itself. His numbers back up every claim Manning made in the preseason, while his leadership and heart kept an otherwise lost Giants team in contention all season long.
Manning posted great statistics for the Giants—4,933 passing yards, 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions—but his record-setting 15 touchdowns in the fourth quarter and six game-winning drives in the Giants’ first seven wins defines how important Manning is to his team. But this is really nothing new for Manning.
While Manning’s numbers may have never blown the competition away, his leadership and will to win should have. In his eight seasons, Manning’s only losing season came in his rookie year where he struggled dramatically. Since that time, Manning has a win-loss record of 68-44 (a .607 winning percentage) and has guided the Giants to playoff berths in five of his eight seasons, winning the Super Bowl in 2008 in memorable fashion against the undefeated New England Patriots.
Of all the quarterbacks in the NFL, Eli Manning is one of two to have thrown 20 touchdowns in each of the last seven seasons. The other is elite quarterback Drew Brees. Both men are also the only two quarterbacks to have thrown for at least 3,000 yards in each of those last seven seasons since 2005—Manning’s first full season as a starter.
And yet, the haters just keep on hating.
For most, a Super Bowl ring alone earns a quarterback a safe haven deemed as one of the best in the NFL. For Manning, it’s overlooked and ignored, even cited as something which had more to do with luck than Manning’s play and leadership in that Super Bowl run.
Ultimately, there may be nothing Manning can do to silence his haters. Whether it’s living in the shadows of older brother Peyton Manning or never being quite as personable as Drew Brees or as good looking as Tom Brady, something will haunt Manning and keep him from being grouped with the cream of the crop.
The possibility that another Super Bowl run may give Manning the boost in respect he deserves is unfair. There is no question Eli Manning is a top five quarterback in the NFL and has done more than enough in his young career to prove his worth amongst the most elite quarterbacks in the league.
Despite Manning’s success in overcoming the many challenges given to him, he still seems to fall short of claiming his well-deserved title as an “elite” quarterback in the NFL. Even after such a spectacular season as the one Manning led in 2011, it’s become quite evident he may never be able to silence his world of haters.
In the end, there’s nothing more that could be asked of him than to simply do what he has done for his entire tenure with the New York Giants, quieting his haters—if only for a moment—through his play on Sundays while guiding the Giants to victory.
Eli Manning is elite, even if his haters may continue to believe otherwise.