Peyton Manning is just now starting to throw the football again — in earnest — after being sidelined all season with the World’s Most Publicized Neck Injury. He likely won’t put himself in harm’s way, though, until next year, and it could very well be for a team other than the Indianapolis Colts. (Stay tuned on that one, Washington Redskins fans.)
Naturally, the Colts have suffered excruciatingly from Manning’s absence. Indeed, they’re still waiting to win their first game without him. But — how strange is this? — his sabbatical has been a boon to his younger brother Eli, the New York Giants quarterback, who has been enjoying the best season of his career while Peyton has been on the mend.
For the first time in his professional life, Eli isn’t the Other Manning, he’s the Only Manning. He doesn’t have to wake up every Monday and see his name below his illustrious sibling’s in the passer ratings. Instead, he gets to read about how he’s been keeping the Giants in the playoff hunt by engineering one fourth-quarter comeback after another — six of them so far this season, including one in New England against the Patriots.
You can get into a long and heated debate about which was the best brother act in NFL history. (Shannon and Sterling Sharpe? Tiki and Ronde Barber? The six Nassers who ran amok for the Columbus Panhandles in the ‘20s?) When all is said and done, though, there’s a good chance Peyton and Eli Manning will stand atop the list. Why? Well, first, because they play the most important position on the field. Second, because they’ve both won championships. And third, because Eli has turned out to be pretty darn good.
The Redskins will be reminded of this Sunday when they meet the 7-6 Giants at the Meadowlands. The big difference for Eli these days is that his team relies on him a lot more. As recently as three years ago, when Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward both gained 1,000 yards, the Giants were No. 1 in the league in rushing. Now they’re No. 32 — last.
But they’re still in postseason contention because Eli has begun to shoulder more of the load. In fact, with 4,105 passing yards through 13 games, he’s on pace for more than 5,000. He also has 25 touchdown passes (sixth in the NFL) and a 95.5 rating (seventh), which will be a personal best if he can maintain it in the wintry conditions ahead.
None of this would surprise Ernie Accorsi, the general manager who traded for him on Draft Day 2004 (after Manning, the No. 1 overall pick, balked at signing with San Diego). When Accorsi scouted him for the first time in ‘02, Eli’s junior year at Mississippi, he filed this report (quoted in Tom Callahan’s fine book, “The GM”):
“Never gets rattled … Doesn’t scold his teammates … He’s not going to be a fast runner [like his dad, Archie], but … he has a feel for the pocket. Feels the rush.
“Throws the ball, takes the hit, gets right back up … Has courage and poise … As [former Baltimore Colts defensive back] Bobby Boyd told me once about [Hall of Fame QB Johnny] Unitas, ‘Two things set him apart: his left testicle and his right testicle.’ “
At the time, Accorsi thought Eli could conceivably be a better pro than his older brother. (In the fall of ‘02, remember, Peyton had yet to win a playoff game.) But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. And when Eli did break through and win the Super Bowl after the ‘07 season, taking down the previously perfect Patriots with a memorable late drive, it was the New York defense and running game that got most of the credit. Eli, after all, was just the 25th-rated passer in the league — a passenger on the bus, so to speak.
Still, you wonder how the public’s view of Eli has been affected by the glare of his brother. If he couldn’t be so easily dismissed as “not even the best quarterback in the Manning household,” would NFL Nation — and demanding Giants fans especially — have a higher opinion of him?
He’s clearly a much better QB now, at the age of 30, than he was before Super Bowl XLII. His statistics bear that out. In the past four seasons, he’s completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 15,366 yards, had a touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 104 to 61 and posted a rating of 90. In his first four seasons, his numbers were utterly ordinary (if not worse): 54.7 percent, 11,385 yards, 77/64 ratio and 73.4 rating.
Eli might not be Canton-bound like Peyton, but he’s developed into a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback (even if he does throw the occasional, hair-pulling pick). And he’s done it, let’s not forget, in the fishbowl of New York, where the TV lights burn hottest. I mean, when we’re talking about Peyton and Eli Manning, we’re not talking about Terry and Craig Bradshaw (who threw for a combined 212 TDs — all Terry’s). We’re talking about a great quarterback and a good-to-very-good quarterback.
The Other Manning has come a long way from his first season, when he lost six of his seven starts and, like many rookies, looked out of his depth. The lowest point was probably the back-to-back road losses to the Redskins (31-7) and Baltimore Ravens (37-14) in December — in which he hit just 16 of 43 passes for 140 yards (yes, 140 yards in two games) and had two intercepted.
After the second of those defeats, Callahan recounts in his book, Eli walked into coach Tom Coughlin’s office, sank into a chair and said, “I played awful, Coach, but I’d like you to know something. I want to be the quarterback of the New York Giants. I want to be as good a quarterback for this team as I can possibly be.”
Seven years later, you would have to say he’s kept his word.