Eli Manning is No Longer Just Peyton’s Little Brother by Lloyd Vance

Eli Manning

After a masterful 2011 regular season and playoffs, there is no doubt that New York Giants QB Eli Manning has stepped out from the long shadow of his older brother Peyton

Let’s jump in the hot-tub time machine and go back to August 16, 2011. Appearing on ESPN 1050 Radio, New York Giants QB Eli Manning was asked if he considered himself a top-five quarterback in the NFL, basically on the level of a Tom Brady. Which Eli strongly responded, “Yeah, I think I am… I definitely consider myself in that class”. Well you know the snickers among NFL fans and media were heard from Maine to California as many have always viewed Eli as the “other” Manning quarterback.

Former United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy must’ve heard it over one million times during his political career, “You will never be as good as your brother”. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you see it, that was the road that Robert had to follow in walking in the footsteps of his older brother, former President John F. Kennedy. And those are similar footsteps that other less famous brothers Ken Brett (George), Eddie Payton (Walter), Patrick McEnroe (John), and others have had to walk in on “Comparison Road”.

Certainly you know that Eli has heard the same refrain just as many times in being compared to his older brother and surefire future Hall of Famer, Peyton – NFL’s only 4-time MVP. Despite leading the Giants to an improbable Super Bowl XLII victory over the then-undefeated New England Patriots in February 2008, many still felt that the younger Manning was just along for the ride, even though he won the game’s MVP award.

There were many who still questioned if “Awe Shucks” babyfaced Eli would ever possess the steely tough-guy quarterback leadership mentality of Peyton and their Father, Archie, a former NFL quarterback himself. But true to his form from following in his father’s footsteps at his alma mater, Ole Miss, and Peyton’s in the SEC, young Eli just put his head down and worked at being the best player that he could be.

The road to NFL stardom was a tough one for the more “shy” Manning brother as many in the pressure cooker that is New York City constantly wondered if he truly could ever become “The Man” in a city that demands it. After the Manning family orchestrated a 2004 draft day deal that brought Eli to New York instead of San Diego, expectations were very high and everyone was expecting Peyton – not his skinnier little brother – to come walking through the door at the old Meadowlands Stadium.

But early on it was evident that Eli, despite his royal NFL lineage, would also have to suffer through the many bumps in the road that usually accompany graduating to the “big boy” league. Though NFL scouts point to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) as professional football’s No. 1 minor league system, the speed and excentricities of the pro game make it look like Pop Warner football at times. Eli was supposed to be brought along “slowly” as the Giants signed former Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner to mentor him.

However Warner’s own struggles and Eli’s high expectations (No. 1 selection, being a Manning, and huge contract) caused his growth cycle to accelerate to light speed. To say the least Eli was not prepared for what was waiting for him in the NFL and it showed at times. His low-point had to have been in his fourth career start, against the Baltimore Ravens in M&T Bank Stadium on December 12, 2004. In that game that he would like to forget, the Ravens veteran defense confused him into a 0.0 passer rating performance and a seat on the bench with Warner playing in the second half.

While older brother Peyton was able to finally qwell his own demons with MVP regular seasons and regular playoff appearances that eventually led to a victory in Super Bowl XLI. There were still those who wondered if Eli could even be the next Jeff Hostetler (last QB before Manning to lead the G-Men to a SB win), let alone his older brother. Not even breakout seasons in 2005 and 2006, where he led the Giants back to the playoffs, were enough to silence the growing “Eli Can’t Do It” chorus.

Unfortunately, many of Eli’s detractors could point to his touchdown-to-interception ratio (48:35), pass completion percentage (combined 55%) , and two underwhelming playoff performances (both losses including 3 INTs, 1 TD, and not breaking 200 yards in either game) in his first two playoff seasons as ammunition to further question if the younger Manning was even worth his pedigree. However something may have started to click in Eli after Peyton won a Super Bowl in 2006 that finally made the young brother to want to also silence his own critics. His fuel definitely had to be further invigorated as Eli was surprisingly blasted by his former teammate, turned media guy, Tiki Barber before the 2007 season.

On his former radio show, Barber said of Eli, “His personality hasn’t been so that he can step up, make a strong statement and have people believe that it’s coming from his heart.” The Giants’ all-time rusher then added a story from Week 12 of the previous season. “He didn’t feel like his voice was going to be strong enough and it showed,” Barber said. “Sometimes it was almost comical the way that he would say things.” But as expected, Eli being Eli took the high road andt used Barber’s comments as motivation.

In training camp when asked about Barber’s comments Eli said, I’m not going to lose any sleep about what Tiki has to say”. The emerging quarterback added, “I guess I could have questioned his leadership skills last year with calling out the coach and having articles about him retiring in the middle of the season, and (how) he’s lost the heart (to play). As a quarterback you’re reading that your running back has lost the heart to play the game and it’s about the 10th week. I can see that a little bit at times.”

During the 2007 season, Eli may not have had the prettiest passing numbers (23 TDs, 20 INTs). But what he lacked in stats, he more than made-up for in lockerroom respect. After a season-ending stretch where the Giants were inconsistent – record of 3-2 in their last 5 games – both quarterback and team got on track when it mattered most. A heartbreaking 17-14 loss to the undefeated high-powered Patriots was what New York needed in terms of confidence entering the playoffs and they never looked back. Manning and his teammates – NYG were 10-6 while hanging on just to gain a Wildcard spot — were poised and ready, even though they had the unenviable task of having to win 4 road games to take home the Lombardi Trophy.

As Eli played some of the best football of his career, in succession the Giants defeated the Bucs (24-14 with Eli’s passing numbers 20-27, 185 yards, 2 TDs, and 0 INTs); Cowboys (21-17 with Eli’s passing numbers 12-18, 163 yards, 2 TDs, and 0 INTs), and Packers (23-20 in OT with Eli’s passing numbers 21-40, 251 yards, 0 TDs, and 0 INTs) to setup the unenviable task of playing the 18-0 undefeated New England Patriots. After showing some serious grit in leading the underdog Giants to a historical overtime win over the Packers in frigid Lambeau Field, Manning seemed poised for the challenge of facing the might Patriots.

With hardly anyone outside of their lockerroom giving them a chance, the Giants went right back to where they left off in Week 17 by taking the game to the Patriots. Eli (19-34, 255, 2 TD, 1 INT) was part of the story too as he kept the chains moving when needed and overcame some tense moments to lead his team to the Giants first Super Bowl win in over 15 years. Manning was gritty and never made the mistake that so many doubters predicted. And once again, it was in the clutch ending moments of the game where Eli showed that he has aninate ability “out-Manning” Peyton, when it matters most.

Eli truly showed his mettle in the fourth quarter leading the Giants’ comeback from a 14-10 deficit. The NFL Films highlight from the Giants’ game-winning drive was Manning miraculously pulling away from Patriots defensive end Jarvis Green, who had two large handfuls of the Giants quarterback’s jersey. And then Manning throwing up a prayer over the middle that was answered by special teamer turned receiving star David Tyree. Tyree catch the 32-yard jump ball against his helmet as Rodney Harrison pulled and prodded unsuccessfully at the G-Men’s tough guy. The play ignited the Giants sideline and showed that the New Yorkers would not be denied.

Manning and the G-Men offense concluded the “white knuckle” drive with a perfect 13-yard touchdown fade route to his favorite target Plaxico Burress that made the final deficit of 17-14 – audibled on touchdown throw. On the game-winning drive, Eli was 5-9 for 79 yards with a huge touchdown and one big “shut up” for his haters. The magical game-winning 12-play, 83-yard drive was a test of will that the G-Men passed as they converted three third downs.

However even in victory there were those who continued to say, despite winning the MVP of Super Bowl XLII, that Eli wasn’t the focal point of his team and that he was riding along in Trent Dilfer style. Even some of the praise that came Eli’s way was a little back-handed too. “Eli had a great game today,” Giants receiver Amani Toomer said. “He took what was out there and didn’t force anything. He doesn’t get real excited…there is more than one way to lead a team … and he showed that today.”

In the after-glow of their playoff win, many people were heaping praise on head coach Tom Coughlin, Tyree, and veteran defensive players Michael Strahan and Antonio Pierce, leaving Eli way down the list. But the younger Manning knew at age 26 that he would have more than a few opportunities to distance himself from his brother, now that they both had 1 Super Bowl win and 1 SB MVP. However the ensuing 2008, 2009, and 2010 were tough on the Giants and Eli. As “Heavy is the head that wears the crown”.

The good news from the 2008 NFL Season was that Eli made his first Pro Bowl after posting passing numbers: 289-479, 60% — then a career-high, 3238 yards, 21 TDs and 10 INTs career-low for 16-game season. However the Giants were one-and-done in the playoffs as they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 23-11 at home in the Meadowlands. In that game, Eli was tentative and made some rookie mistakes as he finished with pedestrian numbers (15-29, 51.7%, 169 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs and a 40.7 QBR).

That Wildcard loss was also the last time that Giants would sniff the playoffs until the 2011 season. Manning continued to hear cries that the “real” Eli is back as the Giants did not make the playoffs in 2009 and 2010 after solid starts in both seasons. In those two seasons Manning also threw for over 4,000 yards and over 25 TDs, but numbers and a past Super Bowl victory were ancient history to his detractors. Also there was the little matter of Eli agreeing to a six-year, $97 million contract extension — average salary of roughly $15.3 million – in before the 2010 season that made him the highest paid player in the NFL at the time. The cries of “Eli isn’t Peyton” and “Coughlin must go” were growing louder and louder entering the 2011 season.

In an effort to prepare himself for a Make-or-Break season, Eli, despite the NFL Lockout, stayed in the New York area for the first time in a while. He coordinated player-led workouts and you could clearly see that the 30-year old passer was physically and mentally ready to be the unquestioned leader of the Giants. When the season started, despite a multitude of injuries and some serious bumps in the road, the Giants and Manning stayed the course and won the games that mattered most. With their season on the line, the Giants won in Weeks 16 over the NY Jets and in Week 17 over the Dallas Cowboys to improbably win the NFC East division with an underwhelming record of 9-7.

But don’t let the Giants record fool you into thinking that Eli had regressed in 2011. To the contrary, Manning is by far playing the best football of his career. He has gotten physically bigger and is also putting in the extra off-the-field work with Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride that has given him a total understanding of the entire field. The 2011 season has been magical for Eli as he made his second Pro Bowl after posting some of the most astounding numbers in New York Giants history. His numbers (359-589, 61% — 2nd highest in career, 4933 yds – Giants team record, 8.4 yds per pass, 29 TDs – 2nd highest in career, 16 INTs, and his second highest QBR at 92.9) and leadership have shown that indeed Eli was right when he made his Top 5 comments before the season.

Manning has also shown that he is in the NFL’s Top 5, if not one of the league’s best, when it comes to Crunch Time. He lead the league with 6 comeback victories and set an NFL record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes – broke Peyton’s record. The confidence, leadership, maturity and physicality that Eli – just celebrated his 31st birthday on January – has displayed in putting up MVP type numbers has definitely carried over to the postseason.

This season’s Giants team has eerily resembled their 2007 Super Bowl winning version as they may not have been spectacular in the regular (record 9-7, scored 394 points, and allowed 400 points). But they are now red-hot in the games that matter most. In dominating wins over the Falcons (by a score of 24-2) and the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers (by a score of 37-20), Eli Manning has been masterful in dictating and orchestrating at the line of scrimmage. We are seeing more “Peyton” from Eli as he is seeing the field with clarity and has shown an ability to audible and call-out pass protections with the best of them.

Eli’s numbers in the Giants’ wins over the Falcons (23 -32, 277 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 1 sack allowed, and an intentional grounding penalty for a safety) and Packers (21-33, 330 yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT, and allowed only 1 sack) also reflect that he is indeed the a Top 5 quarterback and should be viewed as more than Peyton’s little brother. Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan recently said of Eli, “The guy’s playing excellent. He does a great job. He’s got an unbelievable touch. He will stand in there in the face of a damn hurricane and throw the ball. He’s really tough…. He’s in that elite group for sure.”

Pretty soon Peyton – age 35 and trying to comeback from three neck surgeries — may soon be answering to calls of “Hey Eli’s Brother”. As the older Manning’s playoff tally now stands at 2 Super Bowls played in, 1 Super Bowl win, 1 SB MVP, 1 playoff game-winning drive, and a postseason record of 9-11. Compared to Eli’s 1 Super Bowls played in, 1 Super Bowl win, 1 SB MVP, 3 playoff game-winning drives and a postseason record of 6-3.

CBS NFL Analyst Rich Gannon on whether Eli Manning is now an elite quarterback said, “It’s amazing that we’re even having this conversation — a year and a half ago, we would have been wondering if Eli was, what, maybe the ninth best quarterback in the league? Now he’s pulled himself into the upper echelons of the best quarterbacks in the business.”

And don’t forget, Eli is not done yet in the 2011 Playoffs. So his resume could continue to grow, starting with a big game this Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game. ….Could we be seeing two Manning’s in Canton one day??

Let’s not get too far ahead ourselves. But Eli’s growth is unquestioned – right behind Brady as the best quarterback left playing in the 2011 Playoffs — and we just might be seeing the beginning of a sustained period of success from Archie’s Youngest Son and Peyton’s Little Brother.

 

Lloyd Vance is the Editor for Taking It to the House , who is also an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA). He is a NFL Contributor to the Sports Journey Broadcast Network.  Lloyd can be reached on Twitter @lloydvance_nfl

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