Eli Manning is on top of the football world right now.
He is coming off a phenomenal season, the best of his career. He led the Giants through a dramatic season, where fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives became the expected norm rather than exciting surprises. Give Eli the ball inside two minutes, down by any less than seven and the Giants won the game.
That very scenario that became so common for Eli's Giants would prove itself to be a microcosm of their 2011 season. Sitting at 7-7 through 14 games of the season, the Giants' backs were literally against the wall, as they were staring elimination right in the face. Eli played lights out under that pressure, winning the final two games of the season, the second of which was a play-in game against the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East crown.
Then, of course, came the miracle playoff run. Eli took down the Falcons, Packers and 49ers, all three in their own homes and all three being favorites to beat the Giants. He ended it all with a brilliant performance against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, winning his second Super Bowl ring, along with his second Super Bowl MVP award. The victory carved his face into the Mount Rushmore of today's elite quarterbacks, along with Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and big brother Peyton.
That wonderful story makes it very easy to forget that Eli Manning was once known as a bust.
That's right. The man who might be the most clutch player in the NFL today was actually on thin ice going into his fourth season.
The first overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft, Eli had a terrible rookie season. Inexplicably named the starter when the Giants happened to be 5-4 with Kurt Warner at QB, Eli's awful play sucked any hope out of the 2004 season. He went 1-6 as a starter, with six TD passes to nine interceptions, and ended with a Ryan Leaf-ish 55.4 passer rating on the season.
The Giants made the playoffs in 2005 and 2006, but this had nothing to do with Manning and everything to do with the explosive platoon of Tiki Barber and Brandon Jacobs at halfback. Manning's completion percentages were low, his interception totals were high and he failed to win a playoff game in both seasons.
The Giants organization put a first overall pick and a lot of money into Manning, and his career passer rating was a paltry 73.2 after three seasons. To add insult to injury, Ben Roethlisberger, whom the Giants had passed on in the 2004 draft, had already won a Super Bowl and was 5-1 in the playoffs in the same three seasons. The Giants made it clear going into the 2007 season that without a playoff win, both Eli and coach Tom Coughlin's butts were on the line.
When the team started out 0-2 in 2007, the fate of both men seemed obvious. Coach Coughlin would be fired, and Eli would most likely be a backup quarterback on another team in 2008.
Obviously, that didn't happen. And between that 0-2 start in 2007 and this coming Wednesday, Eli went from a first-round flop akin to David Carr or Vince Young, to a future Hall of Famer akin to Tom Brady or big bro Peyton.
This story should give hope to a number of young men in the NFL. You know who I am talking about.
Did I mention Mark Sanchez?
The common thread of all of these guys is that they are awfully close to being slapped with the "bust" label. Save for Christian Ponder, who was drafted 13th overall, all of these guys are top-10 pick QBs who have come in under their expectations in the NFL. Little is expected of these QBs in 2012, and there aren't too many fans banking on any of these QBs to take their teams to the playoffs.
It is even less imaginable for fans to see any of these guys holding a Super Bowl trophy above their heads in February, with the confetti falling down on them, with Terry Bradshaw sticking a mic in their face asking them to describe the feeling of being Super Bowl MVP.
But maybe, just maybe, you should keep hope alive. Because as the Eli Manning story proves, it HAS happened before.
And then, it happened again.