A Giants title in 2017? Hey, it'd be peak Eli (again)

ByIan O'Connor via ESPN logo
Friday, August 18, 2017

Eli Manning has not won a single postseason game in 66 months, about the same amount of time it took Tolstoy to write "War and Peace." Manning is 36, and the New York Giants have acknowledged preparing for life without him. For the first time they have drafted a quarterback, Davis Webb, who could be a legitimate threat to take Eli's job someday.

Manning's 51.8 Total QBR last season ranked 27th in the league, which was five spots behind Brock Osweiler and four behind Colin Kaepernick. Manning ranked 17th, 14th, and 27th in his three preceding seasons. What does this all mean?

Eli Manning has you right where he wants you in 2017.

Why? He's one of the least likely big-city stars and probable Hall of Famers that the modern NFL has seen, that's why. Manning has been the master of the improbable for most of his career, and it sure seems improbable that he'll be good enough this season, or any remaining season, to become only the fifth quarterback to win at least three Super Bowl rings and the third to win at least three Super Bowl MVP awards.

Little about Manning's career has made much sense, starting with the fact that he's rightfully considered a clutch, big-game player despite his failure to win any playoff games in 11 of his 13 seasons. Manning has won as many as 12 games only once in his career. He has never struck people as the most rugged pocket passer, yet he's one snap away from becoming the third quarterback to make at least 200 consecutive regular-season starts. He has never struck people as the most elusive target, yet for all of the athletic marvels who have won championships -- from Roger Staubach to Steve Young to John Elway to Aaron Rodgers-- Eli is responsible for the greatest escape of all, on the David Tyree helmet catch against the 18-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

Forever projecting a quiet, retreating vibe, Eli would seem to be the least likely Manning, or SEC quarterback, to embrace New York life as much as Alabama's Joe Willie Namath did. Yet this former Ole Miss quarterback loves his New Jersey home and his new mansion in the Hamptons so much, his father Archie said, that Eli "doesn't even come back to Mississippi anymore. He used to come back for two months to Oxford, where he built a house. But we kid him now. We tell him, 'You're a New York guy.'"

Manning secured his no-trade clause for a reason. He was dying to spend his entire career with the team that suited up his paternal grandfather's favorite player, another Ole Miss guy named Charlie Conerly. "From the get-go," Archie said, "Eli has been in love with the New York Giants."

The youngest of three boys raised in New Orleans (Cooper is the oldest), Eli was always a bit different, his old man said. He was the only son who would go antique shopping with his mother Olivia. He's the only Manning son who enjoys studying wine.

Early on, after Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi made the 2004 draft-day deal with San Diego to acquire Manning, the No. 1 overall pick, it didn't appear that Eli's aw-shucks act would last long on Broadway. In his first three seasons under former Giants coach Tom Coughlin, Manning almost seemed too oblivious to the noise around him. "I'm not sure he knew one writer from another," his father said. Archie, a former New Orleans Saints quarterback, appreciated his son's carefree demeanor and generally saw it as an asset in such a high-pressure market. But at times even he grew frustrated with Eli's room-temperature approach.

"One day I called him and left him a message," Archie recalled, "and I said, 'Eli, Tiki (Barber) just blew up Coach Coughlin. You need to know that. Someone's going to ask you about it.'"

In the second half of the 2007 season, Archie was struck by an ominous thought. "I don't know who they're going to run out of town first up there," he asked himself, "Eli or Coach Coughlin?" Two months later, Eli and Coach Coughlin beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in what Giants owner John Mara called the greatest victory in franchise history. Four years later, Manning and Coughlin did it again to Brady and Belichick, who are 5-0 against all other Super Bowl opponents. Mara said after that second title that Manning is likely the Giants' best offensive player of all time.

The postseason drought ever since has been painful. Coughlin was forced out, and the Giants' long-awaited return to the playoffs last season was a one-and-done dud defined by Odell Beckham Jr.'s meltdown and -- after his infamous Miami boating trip with some teammates -- the popular postgame take that he'd left his talents in South Beach. Manning has weathered it all. Now he looks up and down the Giants' roster and sees a potentially great defense, a frighteningly good secondary, and a pair of new receivers in Brandon Marshall and tight end Evan Engram, the first-round pick out of (where else?) Ole Miss, who could make Beckham's life easier and give Eli his best shot yet to win ring No. 3.

"That's the goal," he told ESPN.com. "I feel we're putting together a special group of guys right now."

Manning doesn't use words like "special" for public consumption unless he means it.

"The culture, obviously, with the Giants is always good," he said, "and ownership is always going to do everything possible to put a winning team together. So I think there's a chance, and now it's a matter of, we've got to do our jobs."

Not many stars have done their jobs in the New York market with fewer missteps than Manning. He has tried to follow the Derek Jeter model, the stay-out-of-trouble-at-all-costs model, but nobody, not even Jeter, spends a full career in the big city without getting nicked along the way. The Yankees' captain got a little dirt on his uniform over his contentious relationship with Alex Rodriguez, and over an ugly contract standoff with management as his career was ending.

Manning? He has been named in a memorabilia fraud lawsuit that alleges the quarterback and the team passed off game-used helmets and jerseys that weren't, you know, used in a game. Manning angrily denied any wrongdoing and asked that people consider his track record when shaping their opinions about the case.

That track record, Manning said after a practice this week, was born of his philosophy from day one of consistently playing to a low-volume beat. "You just try not to get overwhelmed with everything going on, and New York can do that to you," Manning said. "And the media and just, you're kind of pulled this way and that way, and answering questions and ... anything you say is going to be a headline, or anything someone else says is going to be a headline. You just can't let it get you up and down. If you're worried about it, it's just going to drive you crazy. ... That's how I've always been, and I never let it change me."

The retired executive who made him a Giant, Accorsi, is thrilled that Manning never changed. If he hadn't made that draft-day deal with the Chargers, Accorsi would've taken Ben Roethlisberger over Philip Rivers with the fourth pick. Roethlisberger's coach at Miami of Ohio, Terry Hoeppner, told Accorsi he badly wanted Big Ben in the Big Apple, but the Giants' GM liked Manning a tad more. Accorsi's scouting report on Eli said the Ole Miss quarterback had "a chance to be better than his brother." Eli was never Peyton, but he did honor another part of that narrative.

"Has courage and poise," Accorsi wrote. "In my opinion, most of all, he has that quality you can't define. Call it magic."

Thirteen years later, despite the 2-2 Roethlisberger-Manning score in titles and the fact that the Giants surrendered their 2005 first-rounder -- San Diego picked Shawne Merriman, though the Giants still ended up with Corey Webster, Justin Tuck and Brandon Jacobs in that draft -- Accorsi wouldn't take a do-over. He was worried in the early years when the fans and the media were all over the quarterback. Accorsi would occasionally go out to dinner in Hoboken, New Jersey, and look over at the building Manning lived in at the time and figure the poor guy was holed up inside, half-afraid to come out. "And I'm the one who put him here," the GM would say.

But time and a couple of ticker-tape parades changed everything. So did Eli's staggering durability. Manning has made 16 starts a dozen consecutive seasons; Roethlisberger has made 16 starts only three times. "And the most remarkable thing to me," Accorsi said, "is if you picked one guy to miss no games, you would've picked Roethlisberger. He's built like a linebacker."

Another weird Eli truth in a career of many. Though not swift or terribly athletic, Manning rarely takes a direct hit. He knows when to get rid of the ball and when to go down before impact, because he understands there's no bigger drop-off in sports than the drop-off between the first-string and second-string quarterbacks in the NFL. In the end, a franchise quarterback's most valuable talent is the talent for staying on the field. If he remains healthy this season, Manning will surpass his older brother's run of 208 consecutive regular-season starts and land second on the all-time list behind Brett Favre's untouchable streak of 297 straight.

Eli has never been an individual numbers guy. "But I do take pride in that one," he said. "If there's any stat, being there each and every week is something I'm proud of and work hard at doing. ...I know I'm going to do everything I can to be there every Sunday for my teammates."

Manning's inner flame burns hotter than his facial expressions ever let on. His offensive coordinator for the two titles, the retired Kevin Gilbride, found out during a practice session in the pre-glory years, when the defense was dominating the offense and doing some heavy trash-talking to boot. An infuriated Gilbride confronted Manning, who looked as dispassionate as ever. "You can't let this happen," the coordinator screamed. "You've gotta compete. It's got to bother you. Everything we do is important, and you need to feel, 'I've got to win this thing.' I don't feel it with you."

And then Manning shot Gilbride a look he'd never seen before. A look that said, You have no idea how much this means to me.

Gilbride said he has seen no discernible deterioration in Manning's skills, and unequivocally believes Eli has a third ring in him. He loves the quarterback's receivers. Asked if these are the best playmakers Manning has ever had, including the 2007 and 2011 championship teams, Gilbride said, "I won't say that because those were my guys. But if I were you, I'd probably look at it differently than what I'm saying publicly. That's as far as I'll go."

Manning wouldn't rank one group of skill-position players against another, but it's clear he knows what he has. Marshall, the newcomer opposite Beckham, spoke of how his quarterback constantly challenges him to learn everything that needs to be learned about head coach Ben McAdoo's system. Marshall said Manning will emerge from the showers wearing only a towel and suddenly start giving him signals for calls at the line of scrimmage. "He's probably the most detailed quarterback I've been around," said the 12-year veteran.

If Manning gets some help from an offensive line that appears to be the team's weakest link, he could join Brady (five Super Bowl titles), Joe Montana (four), Terry Bradshaw (four), and Troy Aikman (three) in the exclusive three-or-more club. Asked what he thought another championship would do for his legacy, Manning said he hasn't thought of a prospective title in an individual context. He said he wants to win one for all the players and coaches in the building who have never experienced that feeling.

Manning suggested he might have one or two more cracks at it than most observers might suspect. He told ESPN.com he thinks he can play at least until he turns 40. "Yeah, I think sitting here right now, I think I can play another four years," Eli said. "That's the way the body feels."

Archie Manning said that he has "seen a lot of fire in Eli" of late, and that his youngest boy "threw the stew out of the ball this summer" at the Manning Passing Academy. When it's mentioned to Archie that Davis Webb could be to Eli what Jimmy Garoppolo is to Brady -- an heir apparent waiting for an opportunity -- the Manning patriarch said, "Well, Tom seems to be doing OK with it."

Of course, Brady never went 66 months without a postseason victory. That's why Accorsi's successor at GM, Jerry Reese, said Manning is "probably on the back nine" of his career.

But given his history, nobody should be shocked if this escape artist ends up behind the 18th green lifting another big trophy in the air.

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