Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: New York Giants

(Note to Eli: If a strange blonde woman approaches you in a pink "Manning 10" jersey and promises to be your new best friend, run far, fast, and more importantly, in the opposite direction. Trust me, you do not want to speak to or approach this person, and should call authorities as quickly as possible).

New York Giants (10-6): Eli Manning

Elisha Nelson Manning has the misfortune of a) a disturbingly feminine-sounding first name that gets whipped out whenever his detractors wish to make a point, and b) sharing a gene pool with his older brother Peyton, who he's expected to be and continually fails to be, thus disappointing all involved. Eli is the progeny of football's most famous family, and has a father who had a long and storied career despite playing on a uniformly shitty progression of New Orleans Saints teams (it bears noting, however, that Archie had 125 career TD to 173 career INT, a career 67.1 rating, and a 35-101-3 won/loss/tie, so perhaps Eli actually is just like his father and therein lies the problem). Not to mention his brother, who despite taking eight years to win a Super Bowl, finally did so, and is widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks of the era. Eli, however, is neither great nor a total chump, and as in Your Face Is A Sports Blog pointed out, the weird thing is that his closest comparison is... Joe Namath. Yes, and if Eli wins a Super Bowl while being the underdog by approximately a zillion points (as Namath and the Jets famously did in 1969 against the Colts) the comparison will grow even further. Everyone (well, Giants fans) are hoping that his sudden coming-of-age during Week 17 in the close 38-35 loss to the Patriots signaled that the quarterback they've been waiting for (not too patiently, this being New York) has finally arrived. The only way to tell for sure? Wait 'till next year. Sports fans of all stripes are familiar with this refrain.

The thing is, Eli was already supposed to be at this level coming out of Ole Miss. Following in his father's footsteps, he quarterbacked the Rebels for four years while setting or tying 47 (!) school records. His Ole Miss rating was 137.7, and he finished third in Heisman Trophy voting behind winner Jason White of Oklahoma and runner-up Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh while racking up a slew of other ones: the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Scholar Athlete Award (that's a mouthful, but he actually did graduate with a 3.44 GPA and a marketing degree) and various others. Based on his pedigree and his impressive college career, he was the consensus number one pick in the 2004 draft and was taken first overall by the San Diego Chargers, but San Diego had gone 4-12 the year before and Archie didn't want his boy playing there, in the relaxed, warm environment of SoCal -- so he worked out for Eli to be traded to a swamp in Jersey, in exchange for fourth-overall pick Philip Rivers (a name that may be familiar) and the Giants' first and fifth-round picks.

This also ended up netting the Chargers Nate Kaeding, who they used one of the Giants' picks on, but this is less of a loss if his habit of missing crucial field goals in the playoffs is any indication. In thus doing, Archie diddled Eli out of having LT around to make him look very good, and set his unsuspecting offspring up for a lifetime of being ridden by the New York Post. What Archie was thinking, one wonders, seeing as the Giants too had gone 4-12 the year before, and if Archie can recall his own career, he wouldn't be surprised to see that yes, Mannings were no stranger to playing on shitty teams. (Archie played for the Oilers and the Vikings during the last few years of his career, teams that went a combined 6-35).

Eli spent his first few years in Gotham making enemies of Giants fans, certainly not the way he wanted to arrive on the scene. In 2005, his first year as a starter, he finished 294 of 557 passes for a 52.8 completion percentage, a 75.9 rating, and 24 TD against 17 INT -- Eli, as everyone's aware, still has an unfortunate propensity for getting picked. In fact, his 2007 season showed him record his lowest passer rating --73.1, with 23 TD/20 INT, 3,336 yards, a 56.1 completion percentage, and 27 sacks. Not to mention he suddenly developed slippery hands, fumbling 13 times (after fumbling nine times in 2005 and 2006 each) and losing 7 of them. (Five of these, and two of the losses, came in one game). But everyone began to overlook that when the season ended and Eli had a great game against the Patriots -- 22/32, 68.8 pct, 251 yards, 4 TD, only 1 pick, and a 118.6 rating (after a 32.2 rating in the Buffalo game the week before and a 52.1 rating against the Skins the week before that, when he completed 18 of 52). As the Giants moved through the playoffs with tilts against Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Green Bay, winning all of them, and Eli began to play much more like his older brother, Giants fans, in the way that NY sports fans do, turned on a dime and decided the guy wasn't so bad after all.

Of course, as everyone knows, if Eli somehow manages to pull off one of the biggest upsets in history next week and beat the Patriots, New York will decide he really is Joe Namath reincarnated. Also, he's perfectly capable of having two or three good games in a row, so the allegations that he's "turned the corner" always come if he's managed to pass a few weeks without doing anything completely disastrous. But the Giants somewhat remind me of my Rockies -- mediocre team suddenly turns on the afterburners and goes roaring through the playoffs, then has to sit a few weeks and play a much stronger team from Boston. It'll be interesting to see how the Rockies, and the Giants for that matter, do next year now that they've had a chance to see what success tastes like.

But although Eli got called "skittish" by the Giants' owner after the horrendous four-pick game against the Vikings (the owner also publicly questioned whether the Giants could win long-term with him) it's amazing how winning has a way of putting that all to rest. Eli has saved his job for at least the next few years, and the Giants have a good running back combo (Jacobs/Bradshaw) and a still-fearsome defense (which does have questions about whether or not defensive end, and half of the Big Blue Sack Machine, Michael Strahan is planning to hang it up). They'll be good again next year, but with the Cowboys in the division, who aren't looking to get much worse, they'll have to play top-of-the-heap all year to win the division title. Can Eli do that? That's what everyone else wants to know as well.

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