Greatness and elite status are subjective terms, so trying to add some objectivity to this discussion (albeit in an opinion piece) is tricky. But, I wouldn't attempt it if I thought this were an exercise in futility.
To get things started, dictionary.com defines "elite" as, "the choice or best of anything considered collectively, as of a group or class of persons." When it comes to NFL quarterbacks, in a league with 32 teams, just how many quarterbacks can be considered elite?
I'm not sure that a specific number can be assigned. In my opinion, Aaron Rodgers is currently the best quarterback in the game. But is he in a class by himself? Is he the only elite trigger man in the NFL? Most fans and pundits—without including Green Bay Packers haters or those wearing a block of cheese on their heads—would say "No." Most would include the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees in their list of top (elite) quarterbacks.
Perhaps needless to say, the genesis of this question was a preseason interview that Eli Manning conducted with ESPN New York 1050's Michael Kay. Per an archived piece on espn.com, Kay asked Eli if he was in the same class as the great Tom Brady. The gist of his response was:
I consider myself in that class. Tom Brady is a great quarterback, he's a great player and what you've seen with him is he's gotten better every year. He started off winning championships and I think he's a better quarterback now than what he was, in all honesty, when he was winning those championships.
I think now he's grown up and gotten better every year and that's what I'm trying to do. I kind of hope these next seven years of my quarterback days are my best.
Judging by the mini-controversy these comments sparked, it appeared that many fans thought Eli was either being clueless or delusional at the time. He was coming off a season in which he topped 4,000 yards passing and led the New York Giants to a 10-6 record. That was only half the story. He also tossed up a league-leading 25 interceptions, had a middling 85.3 passer rating and the Giants just missed out on a playoff appearance.
Still, many fans admired Eli's bravado in making that statement, and Giants Nation hoped that this confidence would fuel a strong 2011-12 season for their team.
In 2011, Manning's strong season was overshadowed by those same three "elite" quarterbacks—Rodgers, Brees and Brady—who topped the quarterback ratings again. Oh yes, the Packers, Saints and Patriots combined to go 41-7 in the regular season.
When hosannas weren't being hurled at the "Big Three," love was being doled out to the relevant-again Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford, rookie phenom Cam Newton and a certain savior named Tim Tebow, down in Denver. (For what it's worth, I am a Tebow fan, but let's stay on point.). Even legendary big brother Peyton garnered a lot of attention from the sidelines as his Indianapolis Colts went in the tank without him.
Eli's Giants (alone) lost seven games, but their 9-7 record was good enough to win the NFC East, as the Dallas Cowboys self-destructed, the Philadelphia Eagles turned a dream into a nightmare and...the Washington Redskins? Enough said. Yes, the Giants looked to be free-falling again in the second half, but they—with strong, steady play from Eli—righted the ship just in time.
This season, Manning looked more in control of his offense than ever, while throwing for nearly 5,000 yards, topping eight yards per pass attempt for the first time in his career and only throwing 16 picks. His passer rating (92.9) was seventh in the league and just a hair less than the 93.1 he posted two seasons ago.
Once in the playoffs, Eli has rekindled memories of four seasons ago by spearheading road wins versus the Atlanta Falcons, Packers and San Francisco 49ers, a pretty good trifecta. He has looked confident, competent and almost impervious to pressure, whether facing the pressure of a tight playoff game or the stress of two behemoths bearing down on him while he is desperately trying to find an open receiver.
So, is Eli elite? And if not, what will it take for him to be considered so?
At the very least, Eli has redeemed his preseason statement by leading his Giants, if improbably, to their second Super Bowl in five years. Since Eli entered the league in 2004, only Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have led their teams to two or more ultimate games.
Is that enough to earn him elite status? That may very well be enough for some, and I won't argue vehemently against that viewpoint. I need more of the 2011 version of Eli before I elevate him to that top level.
To get to the heart of the issue, I would ask the following question. If you were starting a team right now for only one season and had to pick a quarterback (assuming he was healthy) to build around, who would it be?
With full respect for what Eli has accomplished this year, I would still choose in this order:
1. Aaron Rodgers
2. Tom Brady
3. Drew Brees
After that, it becomes a more difficult task to rank them. This time last year, I would have easily taken Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers, and thought about that third "R"—Tony Romo. If not a fourth, Matt Ryan. I would have certainly taken Michael Vick, assuming no health or other problems. I would have debated Matt Schaub, Jay Cutler and perhaps one or two others, such as Joe Flacco. Of course, Eli was still very much in the shadow of his big brother as well.
If nothing else, while Eli's career (even with a second title) may never eclipse his brother's, he has almost stepped out of that gigantic shadow cast by No. 18. He has also won over most of a very tough New York regional market by his consistent play.
Is all that enough to call Eli "elite?" To me, he's still a step below the Big Three, and I'd probably take Big Ben ahead of him as well. Other than that, Eli is right there with anyone else in the game. And one may even take him ahead of Peyton if answering that same question.
That alone is an indication of how far Eli has come this year—and at age 31, he should have several prime seasons to come.