Sometime before the 2011 NFL season, the NFL Network polled the league to come up with who they thought were the top 100 players in the league. Excluded from that list was New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. When the 2011 season concluded, Manning was lifting his second Vincent Lombardi Trophy.
How could someone who already had a championship to his name at the time the poll was conducted fall so far under the radar? Easy, but anyone who would have considered the younger Manning brother not an elite quarterback before was just not paying attention.
There have always been strong expectations placed upon the youngest Manning. His father was an All-Pro quarterback with his hometown New Orleans Saints in an era where the Saints were just terrible. He also has a rather established, Hall of Fame bound big brother that spent twelve seasons rewriting the record books in Indianapolis.
Before Manning ever stepped onto an NFL field, he had Archie and Peyton’s large shadows to grow out of. When Archie pretty much told the San Diego Chargers that his kid was not going to play there if they drafted him No. 1, the Chargers called the bluff and ended up trading him to New York for Phillip Rivers.
The pressure put on Eli was nothing short of astounding, and for the first five years he did not live up to expectations.
One could see at the end of the 2007 season that Eli was finally growing into the position. As a rookie, he sat behind Kurt Warner on the depth chart, but after a horrible start to the season, Manning took over. He also lost, going 1-6 as a starter that year—the last time he finished a season with a losing record.
By the time the undefeated New England Patriots came calling to the old Giants Stadium looking to become the second team since the AFL/NFL merger to finish with a perfect record, Manning was ready for the task.
Yes the Patriots won that night, but the Giants had earned a playoff wild-card berth. Unlike most playoff teams that thrive at home, New York left the Meadowlands and just continued to win, all the way to Glendale where they upset those very same Patriots to win the Super Bowl.
The Giants' basic philosophy then is the same as it is now. There are no big superstars, and Eli certainly subscribes to being one of the guys in a market full of big name athletes.
His completion percentage exceeded 60 percent for the first time in 2008, but when Plaxico Burress’ handgun fired into his own leg in a Manhattan night club, things turned sour quickly for the Giants. Burress and Amani Toomer were the big receivers, and it seemed that Eli just fed them the ball.
Sporting the best record in the NFC that year at 12-4, the Giants hosted the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round. Not only were the Giants crushed, but Manning was just horrible, playing as if his oldest brother Cooper had possessed him. He struggled with the reads, he struggled with the Eagles defense, and boy did he struggle with the wind.
No Burress, no championship.
Eli recovered from that as Toomer retired and Giants general manager Jerry Reese would rework the tools around him. Eli’s accuracy improved and his interception rate dropped. 2009 was the first of three consecutive 4,000-yard seasons, and by the time 2010 dawned, it seemed like the Giants were on the cusp.
2010 was a bad year, even with 10 wins. The defense allowed over 400 points and Eli led the league again in interceptions.
Here, however, is a case where statistics are deceiving.
Manning had a huge amount of passes dropped and tipped for picks that season. While there are times, even now, where you have to wonder what in the world Manning is thinking on a given play, his completion percentage and total yardage were better than they were in 2009.
There was a time when teams gave quarterbacks five years to learn on the job. Today’s big money contracts make that grace period obsolete, and for those first five years, Manning was an average quarterback at best; he was nowhere close to his brother’s level of play.
Last year forever changed that.
The Giants found themselves with a castoff kid from New Jersey: Victor Cruz grew up a Cowboys fan and was their best receiver. 2011 mirrored what we had seen in previous years—a red hot start by the Giants go down the drain in the second half. However, one game and one play changed the perceptions of Eli Manning forever.
Christmas Eve featured a do-or-die game against the New York Jets, champions of the city’s back pages. The Jets were flat and the Giants were not much better, until Manning hit Cruz for a 99-yard touchdown pass. That woke up the sleepwalking Giants and deflated the Jets. The Jets would implode while the Giants would not lose again.
With a 69-50 record as a starter and two rings, it really does seem silly to think of Eli Manning as anything other than an elite quarterback. While it is nice that people are starting to realize it, Eli does not care.
He just wants to win.