Manning (10) on the field. Photo: Jon Friedman
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning is the most underappreciated athlete in modern New York sports history.
I was reminded of this when I attended the Giants’ home game on Sept. 30 at MetLife Field against the New Orleans Saints. There was tremendous excitement in the stadium — and apprehension — because the Saints quarterback Drew Brees was in town.
This season, Brees passed Peyton Manning’s record (aka Eli’s big brother) as the National Football League’s all-time passing leader. Against the Giants that day, Brees had, by his lofty standards, a quiet game. But the Saints beat the Giants so the fans and pundits said that Brees outplayed Manning. Such is life.
Eli Manning sparks a perplexing and fascinating question: Should he be judged, ultimately, by his play in the New York Giants’ two Super Bowl victories in 2008 and 2012 or by the team’s very disappointing losing campaigns since Manning broke in in 2004?
Manning will — and should — forever be defined by his heroic play in the Giants’ Super Bowl victories over quarterback Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick and their New England Patriots. The Giants are the only franchise in this century to beat the Pats twice in the Super Bowl. In 2008, the Patriots had come to the Super Bowl undefeated, having won all of its 18 regular- and post-season games, the longest such winning streak in NFL history.
Manning quarterbacked the Giants to victories in those games by throwing two of the most iconic passes in Super Bowl history. Late in the 2008 game, Manning shook free of a ferocious Patriots pass rush and completed a strike to wide receiver David Tyree (who put his own stamp on football immortality by somehow catching the ball against his helmet while fighting off the Patriots’ defender).
Then, in February 2012, Manning fired an absolutely perfect pass from deep in Giants’ territory to wide receiver Mario Manningham to lead to the team’s subsequent go-ahead and Super Bowl-winning touchdown.
Manning’s haters — and if you want to get an earful of them, just turn on WFAN after a Giants’ loss — will shrug off those glorious moments as either moments in ancient history or outright aberrations. They will contend that the bad outweighs the good.
And that’s the crux of why Eli Manning is so underappreciated. Forget that he shows up every Sunday — a remarkable record for durability, alone. Overlook that he is a classy, selfless athlete who treats media people respectfully, even after dismaying losses. And, needles to say, dismiss those two Super Bowl victories.
Some fans will insist he is not an elite quarterback because his Giants teams have struggled so much in recent years. Indeed, the Giants have yet another desultory record of 1-4 heading into the Thursday night game this week against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Manning has played well this season in spots but has been inconsistent, plagued by a leaky offensive line.
Manning’s supporters — and I am a card-carrying member of the society — say puckishly that you can’t spell “elite” without Eli.
The fans have a right to be disenchanted. The Giants had the coveted No. 2 pick in the last college draft and passed on selecting a strong-armed young franchise-building quarterback, believing that Manning still had one or more good years left. Instead, they took a safe pick, the world-class running back, Saquon Barkley. Barkley has played very well but the skeptics still insist that the Giants should have taken a quarterback and kicked Eli to the curb.
Sports is a tough business — and it is even more stressful for the participants in a media-heavy market such as New York City. Everyone has an opinion. You’re only as good as your last game. Manning has persevered here since his rookie season in 2004 by adopting a team-first mentality. He can be counted on to talk robotically in post-game interviews by rhapsodizing about how the whole team played.
Manning has never boasted an outsized personality and he doesn’t seem to need to have his ego stroked week after week. He can drive Giants fans crazy with his stoic personality, when they want him to show more emotion.
Eli Manning’s detractors say he can’t throw the deep ball any more, that he is too laid back for 2018 NFL realities and is too aloof to satisfy New Yorkers. They contend that the game has passed him by and that those two cherished Super Bowl victories, which now seem like distant memories, were atypical of Manning’s play as a New York Giant quarterback and the real Manning is not in the same category as such peers as Brady, Brees, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
One more thing about those naysayers and self-styled experts: They’re really, really going to miss Eli Manning after he is gone.