Thursday, August 4, 2011

Peyton’s Little Brother

By Neil Bright

It's easy to devalue Eli Manning. Not judged as a stand-alone, athlete but compared to his "face of the league" older brother, it is easy to be viewed as second best. It also doesn't help that on the day he became the number one NFL draft pick he threatened to take his ball and go home rather than playing for the team choosing him. This, combined with his hayseed "aw shucks" Mayberry RFD demeanor and a continued tendency to throw "oh shit" interceptions, inspires little confidence that he will ever be an elite professional signal-caller.

While looking deeper into the career of Peyton's little brother doesn't suggest an arrival in Canton anytime soon, it clearly shows that the man called "Easy" has been greatly underestimated by the fans, by the media, and even by the other players in the National Football League.

As good a place as any to make the case for Manning as a top-10 quarterback is a comparison of his statistics to those on the NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2011" list. Voted on by the players, 12 QBs made the cut. And though impossible to know whether ballots were based on longstanding reputation or recent results, the former Super Bowl MVP with NY on his helmet wasn't even invited to the dance.

While difficult to make a beyond a reasonable doubt comparison between players at any position, doing so for quarterbacks is arguably even more difficult. This is so because the position is obviously affected by the health and quality of the team's offensive line, its receivers, and its running game. Even so, looking at the 2010 numbers of the last five QBs chosen on the "Top 100 Players" list — Donovan McNabb, Joe Flacco, Josh Freeman, Tony Romo, and Matt Ryan — Manning the younger is as good as and arguably better than any of them.

Given that Romo only played six games and McNabb 13, Eli compiled more passing yards and threw for more touchdowns than any of the gang of five. Out of that group, he was second only to Romo in completion percentage and was superior to "Matty Ice," the 52nd-best player on the NFL Network's list, in every passing category except for quarterback rating and number of interceptions. Even in a comparison to No. 41 on the list, Ben Roethlisberger, Manning threw for more touchdowns, significantly more yards, and had a higher completion percentage.

Additionally, Manning has surpassed 4,000 yards the past two seasons, has improved his completion percentage every year since entering the league, and as a full-time starter, has never missed a game due to injury.

Despite these accomplishments, Eli's propensity to force throws leading to interceptions has reduced his quarterback rating statistically and perceptually. And although his 2008-2009 average of 12 picks was in line with other top quarterbacks playing home games in outdoor stadiums, last year's number was 25% higher than his next highest total during the Super Bowl season of 2007. Yet the greatest reason for last season's spike in interceptions was not solely a lack of care and certainly not a lack of ability; it was a lack of quality receivers.

Although every season for every team is a war of attrition, it would be difficult to find a franchise with a greater number of significant injuries affecting one unit than those impacting the Giants' receiving corps in 2010. Clichéd but true, Big Blue's injured reserve roster and weekly "out" list read more like a script from ER or a small town telephone book than anything else.

Ramses Barden, touted as a potential Plaxico Burress clone, broke his ankle and missed the final seven games of the season. Promising rookie Victor Cruz played only three games due to a severe hamstring injury. Speedster Dominik Hixon tore his ACL at the team's first practice and missed the entire campaign. And Pro Bowler Steve Smith, initially out with a partially torn pectoral muscle, came back only to severely injure his knee, resulting in micro-fracture surgery.

With Big Blue turning into big black and blue, the team was forced to find anyone capable of fogging a mirror to catch passes. And with the second coming of Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin nowhere to be found, Duke Calhoun, an undrafted free agent, Derek Hagan, cut by the Giants at the end of training camp, Devin Thomas, claimed off waivers, and Michael Clayton of the Omaha Nighthawks attempted to fill the musical chairs receiver void.

True, for most of the season, Eli could look down the field to find Mario Manningham his number three receiver and Hakeem Nicks his number one, but even Nicks missed a quarter of the season with injuries. To this deflection-happy receiving unit, add a patchwork offensive line down to its third string center, and the season could have easily spiraled out of control. Yet while throwing to castoff and never-were receivers too rarely open and too often at the wrong place and wrong time led to picks, it also led to winning 10 games and narrowly missing the playoffs.

Apologists for Eli Manning notwithstanding, no one is suggesting that he is an elite player on the level of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Michael Vick, or certainly his brother. Based on his body of work, the numbers don't suggest that. However, the numbers also don't suggest that he is a middle-of-the-road quarterback singularly finding his mojo in 2007, either. Eli is better than that. And with the NFL exhibition season just beginning, perhaps it's time for fans, the media, and for players around the league to recognize that he is more than practically perfect Peyton's little brother. Far more.

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