Fools Gold?: The Uniquely Average Career of Eli Manning

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By Michael Hu

The New York Giants and Eli Manning had their last press conference together on January 24, marking the end of a 16-year NFL veteran’s remarkable career after two Super Bowl wins and a four-time Pro-Bowler title. Now that he’s retired, let's answer the question that's on everyone’s mind: Is Eli Manning a Hall of Fame quarterback?

In the 2004 NFL Draft, Eli Manning was selected first overall by the former San Diego Chargers (now the Los Angeles Chargers) but was then traded to New York for fourth overall pick Phillip Rivers. Right before the draft, Archie Manning, Eli’s father and an ex-NFL quarterback, publicly announced that he did not want his son to play for the Chargers and would prefer he play for New York. This allowed New York to take Eli because the Chargers, who took Eli with the number one pick anyway, had reason to trade down the draft and acquire more assets. The New York Giants traded Philip Rivers, a third round pick and a 2005 first round and fifth round pick, to acquire Eli Manning. This completely changed the landscape of the 2004 draft because had the Chargers not made the trade, New York would have selected Ben Rothlesberger, another quarterback and a future Hall of Famer. Was this worth it? For the Giants, definitely.

When you take a good look at Eli’s stats, they are anything but extraordinary. In his best year, Eli threw for 35 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. But compared to other illustrious Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Dan Marino, Eli doesn’t come close. Eli’s 35 touchdowns and 14 interceptions are often the statistics of a Hall of Fame player’s mediocre seasons, and Manning’s 117-117 (W-L) record suggests that he is a mediocre system quarterback. His 60 percent pass completion demonstrates that he makes indecisive throws and is not up to par with other Hall of Famers. When looking at his average statistics, one would think Eli had an incredibly average career, even being seventh in career TD passes and yards. Even though those statistics shed poor light on Eli, he has put himself in the record books. He currently sits seventh in touchdown passes thrown and seventh for total passing yards.

After a shaky start, Eli finally caught lightning in a bottle and reached the Super Bowl in 2008. The game was unexciting until the fourth quarter, when there were four lead changes. With about one minute 10 seconds left, we may have seen the greatest throw and catch in football history: the “helmet catch.” Manning somehow avoided being sacked by two people, spun out of the pocket, stayed up, and fired the ball down the middle of the field, where David Tyree was waiting to haul in the catch using the side of his helmet. This play would be in history books decades to come as the defining throw of Eli’s career. With about 45 seconds left, it would again be make or break for Eli. Third and 11. Eli with a short sideline pass to Steve Smith. Caught. Then the play to give them the lead: “Manning. Lobs It. Burress, Alone. Touchdown! New York,” said Joe Buck, the game’s commentator. With a few incomplete passes and sacks, Tom Brady was unable to get the ball down the field and New York won the Superbowl for the first time in almost two decades. Eli Manning was finally getting superstar recognition.

In the next four years, Eli would throw over 25 touchdowns. Though New York had a top five defense in all those seasons, Eli played an integral role in helping New York reach a playoff spot. In a mediocre 2012 season, the Giants had a 9-7 record, just barely getting an NFC wildcard spot. No one believed that Eli and the Giants could push through and win their second Super Bowl. But with grit and grind, New York beat Tom Brady in the Big Game for the second time in five years, on the back of their star QB.

Sadly, Eli would never reach the Super Bowl again due to a combination of a disintegrating defense due to a salary cap and a decline in play. However, after seasons of terrible records for the Giants, things are looking up. The Giants drafted Saquon Barkley in 2018 with the number two pick of the draft, and in 2019, they drafted Daniel Jones with the number six pick. With a young and transcending roster, New York only has space to improve.

Now that Eli Manning is retiring, we have a clear nickname for him: the dynasty killer. A prime combo of Tom Brady and Randy Moss was not once, but twice beaten by Eli. Recently, Tom Brady said on Twitter: “Congratulations on your retirement and a great career, Eli! Not going to lie, though, I wish you hadn’t won any Super bowls,” showing just how important those two victories were to Eli’s career.

Eli made a home for himself in New York, becoming a local hero as a Babe Ruth for our generation in football. Never once was Eli in the news for the wrong reasons off the field. Unlike Aaron Rodgers and Brett Farve, he kept his head high and his mouth shut, never getting into trouble in the public’s eye. Eli was also a role model for all the young players who went in and out of the Giants organization throughout his career. So when John Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants said, “No Giant will ever wear No. 10 again,” I couldn't agree more.