Last week, CBS analyst Phil Simms made some waves when he proclaimed to USA Today that Eli Manning is a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback. Simms, of course, played 14 seasons for the New York Giants, so he has walked in those shoes before.
The discussion devolved into the tired argument of whether or not Manning would make the Hall of Fame if he never played another down. The results of an ESPN poll were as split as possible.
Debate all you want if Eli Manning, after eight seasons, is a Hall of Fame quarterback. What should not be up for debate is that Manning is already the best quarterback in New York football history.
There has been plenty of hyperbole to prop up Manning after his second Super Bowl win during a career season in 2011, from the inane comparisons to his brother Peyton and rival Tom Brady, to even the revisionist history on where he stands in regards to Ben Roethlisberger and the 2004 draft class.
But when you are talking about the history of New York quarterbacks, it is no overstatement to claim that the reliable Manning and his big-game performances make him already the best they have ever had.
King of New York
The Big Apple has seen some big names behind center over the decades, but none were as dependable or durable as long as Manning, who has started 130 consecutive games, including playoffs.
Brett Favre has had the best career of any player to ever play quarterback in New York, but all that counts is what you do when you are there. Favre’s one season in 2008 with the Jets is not even better than what Boomer Esiason did for the team in his three years.
Manning is already prolific in New York history. The following table includes both the Giants and Jets (minimum 500 attempts for passer-rating rank).
Though Chad Pennington has the highest passer rating (88.9) in New York history, it's trivial when he was hurt every other season with the Jets. What Pennington accomplished in 2002, 2004 and 2006 was admirable, but at the end of the day, we’re talking about 32 regular season wins (in eight years) and never making it past the divisional playoffs.
Pennington was essentially the anti-Eli—a quarterback who could not stay healthy and relied on high-percentage short passes to work the ball down the field.
Unlike practically all New York quarterbacks, Manning has shown a flair for the dramatic, which can even date back to his college days at Ole Miss, where he played in a seven-overtime game, throwing five touchdowns in the overtimes.
Arkansas may have prevailed that day, but it was an early sign that Manning is a gamer, which he showed quickly in his NFL career. While he received a lot of attention for a record-tying seven comebacks in 2011, Manning has been pulling out the close ones for years.
When it comes to winning games with fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, Manning owns New York.
While Simms still holds the big passing records, by the end of the 2013 season, Manning will likely surpass him in attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns. He will have all the big numbers and is already holding a monopoly on the memorable moments and clutch drives to lead the team to victory.
Manning’s competition includes three Hall of Famers, a seven-time Hall of Fame finalist and the Giants’ franchise leader in most categories.
Charlie Conerly (New York Giants 1948-61)
The first great quarterback in New York history, Conerly was a 13th-round pick by Washington in 1945, but made his NFL debut in 1948. He had one of the all-time great rookie seasons, tossing 22 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions.
While most of his career did not live up to his debut, Conerly did retire tied for third with 173 touchdown passes.
He had a great performance off the bench in the 1958 NFL Championship game against Baltimore, where he completed 10-of-14 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown. The Giants lost in the first-ever overtime game.
A year later, Conerly had very impressive stats: 102.7 passer rating (though it did not exist at the time), 8.79 yards per attempt and only a 2.1 interception percentage. He was 8-1 as a starter, but the Giants lost to Johnny Unitas and the Colts again in the playoffs.
A Hall of Fame finalist seven times, Conerly never made it to Canton, though if any pre-merger quarterback still deserves it, he would be the top choice.
Y.A. Tittle (New York Giants 1961-64)
In a lopsided trade from San Francisco, the Giants got the 35-year-old prolific quarterback in 1961. Paired with rookie head coach Allie Sherman, Tittle put together one of the most dominant three-year runs in NFL history.
From 1961 to 1963, Tittle was 31-5-1 as a starter, threw 86 touchdowns, 46 interceptions, 8.41 yards per attempt, had a 93.8 passer rating and led the Giants to three straight NFL Championship games.
Tittle was named MVP by at least one source in all three seasons, including the “official” AP MVP in 1963 when he threw a league-record 36 touchdown passes in 13 games. This was following 33 touchdown passes in 1962. Tittle was first-team All-Pro in both seasons.
It is easily the greatest three-year run by a quarterback in New York football history. The only thing missing was a championship, as Tittle and the Giants lost all three championship games. The first two were at the hands of the Green Bay Packers, while in 1963, the Chicago Bears won 14-10 in a game during which Tittle threw five interceptions and was hurt.
In the three championship games, Tittle threw one touchdown and 10 interceptions. The Giants scored a combined 17 points in the three crushing defeats. Tittle never won a playoff game in his career.
In 1964, at age 38, Tittle struggled through one final injury-plagued season in New York, going 1-8-2 as a starter with 10 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
Though it was just four seasons, Tittle’s New York run leaves behind the legacy of three dominant seasons and one iconic photo with the Hall of Famer in his bloodied, beaten denouement.
Fran Tarkenton (New York Giants 1967-71)
After Favre, Tarkenton is the best quarterback to ever play in New York, though this is about what he did while he was there and not a career retrospective.
Traded from Minnesota in 1967, Tarkenton spent the next five seasons with the Giants before they traded him back to the Vikings. In that time, Tarkenton was quite good, throwing 103 touchdowns and 72 interceptions, and he had an 81.0 passer rating.
However, the Giants were not a great team anymore, and Tarkenton was just 33-36 as a starter and never led the team to the postseason. His final season in 1971 was a big disappointment as well.
No New York fan would trade four strong years statistically for the five postseasons the Giants have reached in the Manning/Tom Coughlin era.
Joe Namath (New York Jets 1965-76)
If you are wondering where all the Jets' quarterbacks are, well that is a problem the franchise has had. Namath was a superstar in the Jets’ early years, and they have been looking to replace him for over three decades.
First-round picks like Richard Todd and Ken O’Brien got them through to 1992 but were never the answer for a franchise quarterback. Following them were free-agent veterans like Boomer Esiason and Neil O’Donnell. Both were unsuccessful.
Vinny Testaverde was a big signing in 1998, and he provided the Jets with one of their greatest seasons, as they reached the AFC Championship. His season-ending injury in the first game of 1999 changed the long-term plans of the team, and they drafted Chad Pennington in the first round of the 2000 draft.
Pennington could never stay healthy for consecutive seasons, and after entertaining Brett Favre for a year, the Jets entered the Rex Ryan/Mark Sanchez era we have today.
Namath remains a very polarizing figure. In his playing career, he was the most popular player in the game. He was the NFL’s Elvis. Women loved him, and men wanted to be him.
Everyone knows about the guarantee to win Super Bowl III, but probably not everyone knows 1968 would be the only season in which Namath won a playoff game.
History has not treated Namath very kindly, as detractors will point out that he did not win enough, as evident by his 62-63-4 record as a starting quarterback (60-61-4 with the Jets).
He also takes a hit statistically, as his ratio of 173 touchdowns to 220 interceptions is not very good even for his era. Neither is his 65.5 passer rating.
The lack of wins and stats leaves many to believe Namath is the least deserving player in the Hall of Fame (I still say Paul Hornung), or at least the worst quarterback ever inducted.
I personally was one of the younger fans who just did not get the Namath appreciation, but in recent years I have softened up after digging deeper into the numbers and adjusting them for era.
You can basically say I have gone from thinking Namath was overrated to underrated.
When adjusted for era, Namath’s numbers are actually better than Eli Manning’s, who is still below league average in his career as a passer because of his first four seasons—though that should change in the coming years.
What Namath does not get enough credit for is how efficient he was at picking up yards. His yards per attempt was 7.35, which still ranks 37th all-time.
When you combine the fact that he was only sacked 150 times since 1967 (sack percentage of 4.84 percent is top 20 all-time), then that means Namath was very efficient at dropping back and producing yards. Perhaps it was no coincidence he was the first quarterback to ever throw for 4,000 yards, and did so in a 14-game season.
Manning is also very good at avoiding sacks, with a sack percentage of 4.71 (13th all-time), but his yards per attempt is only 7.03.
Namath is a classic example of why it is still important to remember a player for his peak performance. Injuries slowed down the star quarterback, and while everyone says longevity matters for the Hall of Fame, Namath would actually have a better case if he retired after 1974.
What would you say about a quarterback who was 56-44-4 (.558) as a starter, threw 151 touchdowns and 171 interceptions, won a Super Bowl in a huge upset and had a 69.3 passer rating when the league average was 67.1?
You would probably say you are looking at a Hall of Famer, or at least a very borderline candidate. You are looking at Joe Namath from 1965 to 1974.
When people talk about his greatness, they are not thinking about the quarterback, who from 1965 to 1967 threw 22 touchdowns and 49 interceptions, went 6-19 as a starter and had a 47.7 passer rating.
Namath ended his career on a harsh, battered downslide, but that does not change how he began it, which was good enough to justify the hype.
Manning looks to be heading in the opposite direction as he gets better with age, and in the last season he surpassed Namath in touchdowns and regular season wins. Definitely less flash, but more substance to his career.
While Namath found more ways to stand out among his peers, Manning looks to still be standing much longer into his career as the best in New York.
Phil Simms (1979-93 New York Giants)
Finally there is Simms, who started the whole Eli debate last week. He has something in common with Manning, in that each passer was rather mediocre in their career until a breakthrough performance in the playoffs led to a championship.
Simms had that masterful 22-of-25 passing performance as Super Bowl MVP against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. Future MVP performances by Doug Williams and Joe Montana against the same Denver defense take a little shine off of Simms’ day, but it is still one of the greatest performances in Super Bowl history.
Manning had arguably the greatest fourth quarter any quarterback has ever had in Super Bowl history, when he led two touchdown drives against the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The winning drive is one I like to call the greatest drive in NFL history based on what was at stake and the situation they faced.
After each quarterback won a Super Bowl, you immediately saw a rise in their regular season efficiency.
Starting at age 33 in 1987, Simms finished his career by going 48-29 as a starter, and he had an 85.4 passer rating. In only one of those seasons (1993) did he play every game. Prior to the Super Bowl win, Simms was 47-35 as a starter and had a 72.5 passer rating.
Since 2008, Manning has had his four best seasons in regards to passer rating, yards per attempt and completion percentage. He has thrown at least 23 touchdown passes in six different seasons, while Simms’ career high was 22.
Though Simms played six more seasons, he only has 40 more regular season starts than Manning, because he often was injured throughout his career. That is why it will only take a few more seasons for Manning to surpass all of Simms’ franchise records, and that durability is also a reason why Manning is a better quarterback.
While technically Simms has won two Super Bowls, it was unproven Jeff Hostetler leading the Giants in the 1990 playoffs on their way to a second ring in five seasons.
After his first Super Bowl win, Simms would only start three more playoff games and posted a 1-2 record with zero touchdown passes and three interceptions.
In 10 career playoff games (6-4 record), Simms had 10 touchdown passes. Manning had nine touchdown passes in the four playoff games last season. He has 17 touchdowns in 11 playoff games (8-3 record).
Manning’s peak regular season performance has been outdoing Simms, and he clearly has the postseason edge.
Any arguments about the Giants playing such great defense matter very little when you are comparing Manning to Simms. Neither quarterback has won a playoff game when the Giants allow more than 20 points.
When the 1986 Giants won the Super Bowl under Simms, they got there in the playoffs by allowing a total of three points to top 10 offenses coached by Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs. They shut John Elway and the Denver Broncos down as well.
Simms enjoyed superior regular season defenses led by Lawrence Taylor and coached under Bill Parcells for most of his prime.
Simms never led the Giants to the playoffs without a top-10 scoring defense. In 1987, Simms was 4-5 as a starter and the Giants finished just 6-9 in their title defense. In 1991-92, Simms started only eight games and was 2-6.
Meanwhile, just once in eight seasons has Manning had a scoring defense ranked in the top 10. Regardless, the Giants have made it to five postseasons and won two Super Bowls with what are statistically the worst regular season defenses ever.
Manning’s coach Tom Coughlin was an assistant on Bill Parcells’ staff, so there is even a connection there. Both coaches like to run the ball, though Manning is relied upon more in today’s passing game.
It should not be overlooked that Manning has led the Giants to five straight seasons scoring over 370 points. Only five teams in NFL history have done better. Of the Giants’ 10 seasons with at least 370 points, six have been quarterbacked by Manning.
Simms was a very good quarterback for New York, but even he would probably admit Manning surpassed him with his 2011 performance.
If you want the quarterback who can be relied on to start each week, put points on the board, win some high-scoring games and save many of his best performances for crunch time and big games, then you have to go with Manning over Simms.
And anyone else that has ever strapped them up for New York.
Eli Manning may not have Phil Simms’ longevity, Joe Namath’s mass popularity or the peak performance of Y.A. Tittle.
But when you consider the breadth of Manning’s accomplishments and the historical competition, the distinction is clear and deserving. New York fans are in the middle of enjoying their city’s greatest franchise quarterback.
Under the gaze of New York’s bright lights and shadow of his prolific brother, Manning has lived up to the status and pressure of being the No. 1 pick in the draft.
At age 31, Manning is still in his prime and has a great opportunity to add more wins, playoff success, yards, touchdowns and great moments to his resume. He can boost his efficiency stats, such as he has done ever since that first Super Bowl win.
His Manning-gene durability makes him a prime candidate for retiring as one of the all-time leaders in most major passing categories.
Barring an epic decline in play, Manning will make the Hall of Fame one day. But even if Eli never plays another down, he would still already be the best quarterback in New York history.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer and researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.