Amid all the enormous hype generated by Tim Tebow’s miracle on Wild Card Weekend; then Alex Smith’s Joe Montana impersonation and Tom Brady’s Tour de Force on Saturday night of Divisional Weekend, one quarterback continued to fly under the radar despite acting as the catalyst for the biggest shock of the NFL season, and possibly the biggest shock since the 18-0 New England Patriots were defeated in Super Bowl XLII. The Green Bay Packers, led by the peerless Aaron Rodgers – NFL MVP to be – were throttled 37-20 at home. Coincidentally, or rather not in my opinion, both upsets were perpetrated by the New York Giants and engineered by Eli Manning.
Manning has been a top-5 quarterback for 4 years now, yet he has consistently been denied of the credit due for his achievements. Bar the 2010 season, when he threw an inexplicable 25 interceptions for the year as the Giants collapsed down the stretch, Manning has steadily improved to the undoubtedly elite level he now inhabits. However, despite the great numbers, Manning’s greatest characteristic is his intangible ability to be clutch at the crucial moments.
Watching the complete video of the game winning drive against New England in the Super Bowl it is obvious that he was lucky on a couple of occasions; the prime examples: Asante Samuel’s infamous dropped interception and a less-heralded pass to David Tyree which Brandon Meriweather was in close proximity to. However, despite this modicum of good fortune, it was undoubtedly one of the most impressive, clutch drives in NFL history complete with vital third down completions, miraculous plays and an ice-cold strike to decide the game.
Sure, the defense remains a huge part of any New York success. The defensive front comprising Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul might be even more intimidating than the Michael Strahan-led group that shut down the record-setting Patriots offense in 2008. Pressuring the quarterback with the minimum number of rushers is of paramount importance in the modern game and the Giants achieve this better than anyone in football. Indeed their defensive prowess makes the 49 point meltdown against New Orleans in November all the more inexplicable.
But ultimately, during this passing era in the NFL the burden of meeting triumph and disaster while treating them just the same rests with the quarterback. And at this stage of the season the pressure on the signal caller intensifies exponentially. And it is under this most enormous stress that Eli Manning seems to thrive. I’d go so far as to suggest there is no-one in football you’d rather have leading a game-deciding two minute drill in the playoffs than Eli Manning. Possibly Brady, possibly Roethlisberger; for my money: Eli.
The best quarterbacks of this season, Drew Brees and Rodgers both have the arm-strength, accuracy, touch on the deep ball, athletic ability and pocket presence; as well as a previous Super Bowl ring each and numerous gaudy passing statistics, but neither has the intangible ability to inspire absolute certainty of success under asphyxiating pressure that Eli Manning does. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Only a few athletes and teams in the world share this superhuman ability; Tiger Woods at the peak of his powers was the best example. You just knew he would hole the crucial putts on the back 9 on Sunday at a Major. More recently, Novak Djokovic has carried an aura of relentless inevitability into Grand Slam finals, and Barcelona into football matches against their greatest rivals.
Eli might not be the prettiest quarterback to watch, he’ll never shatter passing records or throw 50 touchdowns but for inspiring confidence when a game is at its crisis point there is no-one greater in the National Football League. “Manning…lobs it…Burress…alone…TOUCHDOWN NEW YORK!” In that moment, at the denouement of Super Bowl XLII, Manning’s reputation should have been sealed.
But despite the Super Bowl heroics it has been a continued battle for Manning to prove himself to a still sceptical NFL media. In 2009 – a year and a half after the Giants’ victory in Glendale, and coming off the best statistical season of his career - Sports Illustrated’s Peter King conducted a QB Poll with NFL experts Brian Billick, Mike Shananhan, Rich Gannon, Phil Savage and Mike Mayock. Of the 10 categories the quarterbacks were judged on, Eli did not make it into any top 5. Indeed, King himself noted in the article, with apparent surprise:”…(Eli) was not named on any ballot on any category.”
Surely, victory on Sunday night in San Francisco against the favoured 49ers and a potential repeat triumph over Brady’s Patriots on February 5th would ensure his legacy as the greatest big-game player since Joe Montana. Despite his placid demeanour, Manning certainly comes laced with steel in his veins and this unquenchable self-belief and assurance of triumph he possesses even in the greatest adversity, is a much more powerful weapon than any surgically diagnosed defense or perfectly thrown spiral.