Debates have been the story of Manning's 16-year NFL career. There always seemed to be something about the New York Giants quarterback, with his "aw-shucks" demeanor and a last name that denotes football royalty, that sparked external disputes. Not that he cared.
It began with concerns about his ability as a leader when older teammates criticized him early on. Then it was whether he was good enough to lead the Giants to a Super Bowl title. When that was crossed off the list, the question became whether he was "elite." Then, could he win another title? Could he carry a team? Was he on the decline? Should he continue to be a starter?
It was always something, and that's still the case. When Manning announced his retirement Wednesday, the focus shifted to whether he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame and whether he would make it on the first ballot. It's a discussion he will want no part of, but it will last another five years. That is when he will be eligible for the honor for the first time.
The competition will be key. Right now, it appears Manning's quarterbacking contemporaries are not ready to join him in retirement. New England's Tom Brady, New Orleans' Drew Brees and the Los Angeles Chargers' Philip Rivers have all expressed a desire to continue playing. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger also intends to return from injury next season. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers shows no sign of slowing down.
Assuming they all play in the fall, the path becomes cleaner to a first-ballot induction for Manning.
Each year, a panel of 48 media members debates and votes up to five modern-era players into the Hall of Fame after a thorough and exhaustive process that concludes on the eve of the Super Bowl. Brees, Brady and Rodgers are all but guaranteed first-ballot induction when their times roll around.
"Right now,Luke Kuechly is the only other big-name player to retire after the 2019 season, and the fact that Brees and Brady and Roethlisberger all appear to be playing next year, that will certainly help Eli to not be in the same first-year-eligible pool with those guys," said Sports Illustrated's Gary Myers, one of the two New York voters on the HOF selection committee. "If [Manning's] separated from those guys ... there is no doubt it works to his advantage."
Kuechly, the former Carolina Panthers linebacker, seems the most likely to be assured of a spot in the Class of '25 following his surprise retirement this month. In eight NFL seasons, Kuechly was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and first-team All Pro five times.
Manning looks to be next on the list with an impressive résumé highlighted by being named MVP in both of his Super Bowl victories (2007, 2011). But his induction likely hinges on who else retires this offseason.
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has already decided to return, helping Manning's cause. Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has expressed a desire to continue playing. Witten would seem to be a lock for the Hall of Fame in 2025 -- if he retires. Same goes for Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson.
Other first-year candidates who could be in the running with Manning in five years are Indianapolis Coltskicker Adam Vinatieri and Buffalo Bills running back Frank Gore. Overall, the potential candidate pool bodes well for Manning.
"It will be about his merits," Detroit Free Press reporter and Hall of Fame voter Dave Birkett said of Manning. "I think they're enough to get in at some point. He has a pretty good Hall of Fame case. But it will depend on who is in the class and might have a stronger case. Two Super Bowls for Eli is something I think will resonate with a lot of voters."
Manning's résumé is more than the two NFL championships. He ranks in the top seven in career passing yards (57,023), touchdown passes (366) and completions (4,895). He owns just about every Giants passing record, and his availability might have been his best ability.
Manning never missed a game because of injury in 16 NFL seasons.
"Eli Manning is a Hall of Famer," ESPN reporter and Hall of Fame voter Sal Paolantonio said. "And I will vote for Eli every time he's on the ballot. Eli Manning is the perfect example of what a Hall of Fame quarterback looks like."
Paolantonio cites Manning having played his best when it mattered most. The Giants twice beat the New England Patriots and Brady in the Super Bowl, including knocking off New England's undefeated team in Super Bowl XLII. Manning is on an elite list with Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Brady as the only players with at least two Super Bowl MVPs.
Manning's résumé includes the gaudy numbers, historic longevity and durability, and necessary intangibles as a leader and consummate professional. Few players have been as accountable throughout their careers. For example, he made it a habit to talk to the media after losses while stepping aside and allowing others to bask in the glory after a victory.
It's all part of the uniqueness of Eli. So, too, is his 117-117 regular-season record. That record, along with four Pro Bowls and no All-Pro selections, will be part of what Myers believes will be the "most spirited debate we've had" about a Hall of Fame candidate since receiver Terrell Owens, who was inducted in 2018.
For some, first-ballot votes are reserved for the truly special players, a sign of respect. Manning appears to have a chance to earn it, given the way his potential Hall of Fame class is shaping up.
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