Monday, January 16, 2012
Being both a big mouth and a football-obsessed member of the media for 18 years, I have spent a fair amount of time trying to figure things out in the NFL. Over 3,100 episodes of the Bob and Dan show since 1999 on Sportsradio 1310 the Ticket on Dallas airwaves at 3 hours per show has put us dangerously close to the Malcolm Gladwell "10,000" hour rule. That rule argues "that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours."
And yet, as I reread Gladwell's thoughts on the 10,000 hour rule, it does not profess to offer perfection after 10,000 hours. A pianist will not reach that milestone and suddenly never play a wrong note. A basketball player or golfer will not make every shot just because they have put in the experience. And to that truth, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Because after writing thousands of football blogs and bantering on and on about the sport for almost two decades, it is clear that I am now prepared to look a major mistake right in the eyes. After talking about Eli Manning for years and years, I am more that prepared to take it all back and admit I had it completely and utterly wrong.
You see, I have been skeptical of his work since Ole Miss, when he arrived on the scene as this prodigy who can't miss. Why? Because he is the son of a NFL Quarterback and the brother of maybe the best QB of our generation. And that is what bothered me. I would watch him play in college (in particular, a home and home series with Texas Tech in '02 and '03) and would begin to assemble a theory that most of the media was looking at his family lineage a lot closer than his actual play.
I saw problems with his judgement, his throws were sometimes off the back foot, his composure was hit-or-miss, and it just seemed lazy for media types to look at his last name and not look at his tape. I wasn't going to make that mistake, I thought. I will watch more tape and try to imagine him without that last name. What would I think of Eli Manning if his name was Scott Smith? I would think that he was a decent QB, but not destined for NFL greatness.
On draft day, 2004, Eli and his father decided to dictate terms to the NFL when it came to drafting him. San Diego had the top pick in the draft, and in the NFL, it takes a lot of nerve to think you can tell a franchise that you aren't going to play there. It delivers a message of ego and narcissism that usually doesn't exist in a kid right out of college, but the Mannings did not appear short on nerve. Somehow, playing in San Diego seemed to not meet with their hopes, and instead, with some help, they brokered a deal to where Eli could land in the biggest media market on the planet, New York.
Looking back, that surely affected my judgement. He was going to dictate terms to the NFL? Again, if he was Scott Smith, this would never work, I thought. This is more catering to his last name. And he wanted to go play for them? The Giants? Surely, my judgement was also affected by this kid wanting to force his way to a NFC rival that already thinks they are deserving of whatever advantages they may receive from their geographical location and self-assigned significance on the NFL landscape.
His career began in New York and his numbers were brutal. In his first few years, his production was far more reminiscent of Quincy Carter than any superstars who go #1 overall and tell San Diego to take a hike. Yet, he was being lavished with riches and adoration from New York and celebrated as NFL royalty. All the way through the end of his 4th season, his completion percentage was always in the mid-50s (mediocre) and his QB rating was always in the mid 70s (worse than mediocre). 4 years and 55 starts into his career, I had seen enough to feel like I hit this one out of the park. He was an average QB and New York and the NFL was fooled by his last name. If only they had done the Scott Smith test, like I did.
I clearly remember the start of the 2007 playoffs. New York was at Tampa Bay, and most were of the feeling that the Giants would be one and done. They beat Tampa, and Eli looked good. But, surely, that wouldn't last. The next week, they were coming here, to play the Dallas Cowboys and the 13-3 juggernaut with their "elite QB" Tony Romo. Romo, seemed to be the polar opposite of Manning. He was undrafted and yet had numbers that dazzled. QB rating was up their with Eli's big brother, Peyton. He wasn't anointed on draft day as the 2nd coming. Romo worked for everything that he had earned. Eli was presented everything on a comfortable pillow.
And then, the game revealed that Eli was ready to win this game. Throw after throw was made and 3rd downs were converted. Eli was no "bus driver". On that day, he out-dueled Romo and shocked the NFL with a knockout of a #1 seed. It was the first time that my opinion was rocked. The very next week, he made more big throws and never threw the big interception at Lambeau Field. He delivered on a stage where Brett Favre was sure to have a date with destiny in Super Bowl 42. But, Eli took that date and cancelled it. Not by himself, but again, like with his beating of Romo, he clearly offered the edge at QB play. His defense and running game did the rest, but Eli was no passenger.
Super Bowl 42 was a thing of beauty. Again, the Giants were a big underdog and were not a hot team at all when the playoffs hit. They finished the year 4-4 and were thought of as a nice easy playoff opponent. But after he made big throws in the 2nd half of that Super Bowl against the 18-0 Patriots, nobody doubted his award for Super Bowl MVP. He was clutch and he got it done. His playoff numbers in 2007 were the best of his career, with a rating of 96, and 6 TDs and just 1 INT.
Personally, I had mixed emotions on what he was all about. On one hand, we had a huge body of work of very average QB play over 4 seasons in the pros. But, then we had this remarkable month in January of 2008 where he couldn't miss and wouldn't crack under any type of scheme or pressure. Was this the case of a player in a 1-month zone, playing the best of his career at just the perfect time? Or even luckiest time?
2008 started and Eli was a Super Bowl champion. He was now in a position to be one of the elite QBs and needed to prove he could play well on a Sunday to Sunday basis like the greats all could. But, he was simply, "ok". He won a lot of games, but his QB play just wasn't that impressive. His numbers were always so-so, and his posture and expressions indicated that he was never enjoying himself. His demeanor seemed to indicate that this was not a fun profession, but rather something he had to do since he was a boy. His enthusiasm seemed to be non-existent and in a sport that features some very enthusiastic QBs, this was a weird departure.
The Giants were one-and-done in 2008, 8-8 in 2009, and missed the playoffs late in 2010. With each passing year, Eli's 2007 looked more like a decent QB playing out of his mind in that one month. He was a fine QB, but not a great one. Looking around the NFL, it was easy to make cases for his skill set being inferior to quite a few others.
But he had his ring. And therefore had the debate advantage against anyone who did not have one as well. As he hit his 30th birthday, opinions were still just as split as ever on Eli Manning.
In August, he was asked how he could get to that top class of NFL QBs, next to Tom Brady. Eli responded, "I consider myself in that class." I snickered. It seemed absurd.
2011 brought the 1st year in his career where his brother was not putting up superior numbers elsewhere in the league. And Eli responded by putting up the best numbers of his career. Easily the best yardage per attempt and yardage per game numbers. The interceptions that haunted him in 2010 dropped substantially, and his performances in big games started to soar again.
And yesterday can put those 2007 "fluke" premises to bed. His performance at Lambeau against a heavily-favored, 15-1 Packers squad cannot be understated. The Packers played like a team with the weight of the world on their shoulders and as they say, "pressure busts pipes". With each drop or fumble, the Packers free-wheeling offense grew tighter and tighter. Things were so easy until they were not. And with a ticking clock piling more and more pressure up, Eli hit Hakeem Nicks for a pair of gigantic 1st half TDs, including a Hail Mary that likely won New York the game.
Aaron Rodgers, who 9 out of 10 football people would say is a better QB, succumbed to the pressure of the situation - missing throws he never misses. While Eli Manning stood tall and delivered precise passes to perfect spots for a good part of the game. His best throws were his most important throws, converting on long 3rd Downs all day long. He won a duel that most people thought he couldn't.
Now, Eli Manning sits in the NFC Championship Game. He will again be an underdog, and many of us will look at a San Francisco defense to take him apart. But, my days of vocally doubting Eli Manning are done. He has seemed to always play well against the Dallas Cowboys - so much so that he autographed the wall in the new stadium visitor's locker room, but those aren't his only big days. In fact, they are not even close to his most important big days.
He beat Brady in a Super Bowl. He beat Favre in Lambeau in the NFC Championship Game. He now has beaten Rodgers in Lambeau in the playoffs. He has won enough times during the playoffs in very difficult situations to realize that while, yes, he does have the pleasure of playing on a team with a very dominant defense, he still delivers when called upon. He is not winning by himself, but he is winning.
So, yes, I was wrong on Eli Manning. Many times. I have no idea where to rate him among the elite QBs in the NFL. But, it is foolish to spend much time picking apart his body language or his October passer rating. He plays his best at the biggest time of the year, and has a special ability to never seem to feel pressure when his counter-parts do.
And that is where we must surmise that his lineage does matter and always did. The NFL is not as impressive to someone who grew up in a home with NFL Quarterbacks his entire life. His mind is not blown by the environment. And it shows.
So, I am out of the business of doubting him. He has taught me a valuable lesson that took almost 10,000 hours to learn. Sometimes, the name does matter. And no matter how much time you spend on your opinions, some of them are going to be dead wrong.