the “eli experiment” revisited

i haven’t written much about sports in a very long time – perhaps not since elementary school when i used to self-publish a little sports magazine (using our family’s copy machine) to hand out to friends – but after watching one of the more inspiring regular season NFL games in a long time, i feel the need to touch upon a topic that has been on my mind since the season started.

“He’s going to be better than his brother, if not better already,” I declared to some of my friends early in the season regarding Eli Manning, the starting quarterback of the New York Giants. His brother is Indiannapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, record-holder of the most touchdown passes thrown in one regular season – 49 – set last year. Manning, a second-year player out of Ole Miss, has never won on the road and was a dismal 1-6 as a starter in his rookie season. But this year, the Giants are 4-2 and Eli has already established himself as one of the quickest rising stars in the league.

Although I worked for a year at the National Football League headquarters in New York as an intern, I was never a rabid fan. Since elementary school, when I first began to watch football seriously, I never let myself become a loyal fan to one team. While I admired certain players such as Jerry Rice or Barry Sanders, I was less interested in one team’s domination than in the storylines and dramas that unfolded each week on Sunday: the dynastic battles of the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers , the perennial hope that maybe this year the Buffalo Bills would finally win the Super Bowl, the 500 push-ups Ray Lewis did each day in his jail cell to stay in shape, the explosion of black quarterbacks in the NFL (Vick, Culpepper, McNabb, Brooks, etc.), and many more. I sought out these background plots and conflicts and sat back to see them played out on a gladiatorial setting. This was how I came to love football as a fan.

Last winter, I picked up a copy of New York Times Magazine and saw Eli Manning’s face on the cover – an elegant black and white photograph in the usual artsy style of the Magazine. It was a piece called “The Eli Experiment” by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball. The story was about the $54 million “crapshoot” known as Eli Manning, the son of former NFL quarterback Archie Manning and younger brother of NFL MVP quarterback Peyton. Eli Manning – introverted, aloof, and maybe too laid back – seemed to be the antithesis of the quarterback position – an alpha-male dominated role that recalls legends such as “Broadway” Joe Nameth, Joe Montana, and John Elway. But Ernie Accorsi, the Giants’ general manager up until last season, believed that Eli possessed “intangibles” – he called it “magic” – that held the promise of a great quarterback. This “magic” was Eli’s ability to single-handedly keep his team in the game and to give his team a chance, or at the least the hope of a chance, to win any game. His poise, his arm strength, and his ability to make big plays – all these things were recipes for greatness that convinced Accorsi to trade up in order to draft Manning as the first pick of the 2004 NFL Draft.

When I read the article last year, I became curious as to what sort of player Eli would turn out to be and the question that came to my mind was – could he ever escape the long shadow cast by the greatness of his brother? My first serious exposure to Eli’s game was in Week 3 when the Giants were pummeled by the San Diego Chargers 45-23. And while the score turned out that way, the game never seemed to be a blowout because with each Giants offensive drive, there was an expectation that Eli would somehow find a way to move the ball down the field and score. In another loss in Week 6, I watched as Eli drove his team downfield with less than 2 minutes left against the Dallas Cowboys, leading them to a tying score with an ease that made me wonder where the hell such grace had been for the other 48 minutes of the game – as the Giants had failed to score a touchdown until the very end. The way he moved in the pocket, sensing blitzes and approaching linemen, letting go of the ball just in time – I quickly realized why it was that Kurt Warner, a proven veteran, was replaced by Eli last year: (Lewis mentions this in the article) Warner held the ball for too long and made himself vulnerable to sacks while Eli was quick and firm with his decisions.

And it was this past Sunday game against the Denver Broncos that sealed the deal for me in terms of acknowleding Eli as a true up and coming star: with his team down 23-17 and having been intercepted by Champ Bailey on the previous series, Manning coolly led his team eighty yards downfield, making crisp, perfect passes, making zero mistakes, and heroically, backpeddling away from defenders while chucking up a perfect ball for Amani Toomer in the endzone with only seconds left on the clock. In all the choas, there seemed to be a degree of order orchestrated by Eli at just the right time. The Giants converted the extra point and won the game.

In the NYT Magazine article, Eli mentioned that he never wanted to be the quarterback who runs around sticking his finger up in the air as if he’s just saved the world — and it’s funny that he mentions it because when you come to think of it, most quarterbacks in the NFL do stick their finger up in the air and run around as if they’ve just saved the world after an impressive victory. Given all the pressure, not only of the media and fans, but also of his legacy and the burden of being a top draft pick as well as QB in big-time New York, it’s nice to see someone who isn’t so intent on taking himself so seriously. Yet another storyline which will hopefully develop as Eli continues to improve. What other plots await? Peyton versus Eli in the Super Bowl? A Phillip Rivers-to-New York Jets trade – the continuation of the story of Eli’s spurning of San Diego and the emergence of a rivalry between the top two QB picks of 2004?

I once interviewed writer Ray Robinson, author of numerous books on baseball, about his recent book on the 50 Greatest Baseball Players. I asked him how he came up with the list. He told me that it was completely arbitrary and that no science was involved. I asked him why he wanted to make up such a list. “You make a list and some people will agree with it and some people will disagree with it, but most of all, it’ll make everyone want to talk about it and put in their own two cents. It’s all for the sake of passionate, enjoyable argument. That’s the beauty of sports.” And I’m willing to stake my claim that Eli is on his way to greatness – and is better than his brother.

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