As everyone knows, the New York Giants are in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. As a lifelong Giants fan, I am happy for the team and for all the fellow fans (just not the fake ones who jump on the bandwagon). The defense has played out of this world, the line has come together superbly, and Tom Coughlin has done a good job coaching. However, the most publicized reason, and probably the most likely reason, that Big Blue is one of the final two teams standing is because of the improved play of Eli Manning. For these long 3 1/2 years of Eli under center, he has been a lightning rod for controversy. Here are some of the reasons:
1. He plays in New York.
2. He is Peyton Manning's, last year's Super Bowl champion, little brother.
3. The Giants traded for him, the Number One pick in the draft, and gave up a choice that turned into Shawne Merriman for him.
4. His perceived lackadaisical attitude.
5. The first 4 were no fault of his own, but the 5th reason is that he has been plain bad. He misses open receivers and has a career completion percentage around 55%. I have seen every snap of Eli's pro career and until a month ago did not like what I saw. He has flashes of talent, talent that made him the first overall pick. But too many times he failed to audibilize, made poor throws or poor judgment.
Like many other Giants fans, the first two years of his career were an adjustment period for him and the team. The best plan of action, I am convinced, would have been to let Kurt Warner finish out the season. But no one knows how exactly to treat a rookie, so I can't really argue. The next season, 2005, was his year implanted as the starter. A rookie is a rookie, so I didn't care that he was taking his lumps. However, 2006 and 2007 were not much better. One time this year I heard Sean Salisbury say "Tarvaris Jackson has started (however) games, he needs to learn how to be a starter in this league. For some reason though, Eli had such a long leash. I must admit, even during the winning streak in the first half of the year, I wanted them to bring in a starting worthy quarterback in the off-season. Eli had 20 interceptions! It's not like they throw the ball all over the field, either.
Eli, just because of his God-given talent and the plentiful talent around him, would always get them to the playoffs. He has steered them to the playoffs in his 3 seasons as starter, but I believe that Ray Romano could have led them there, too. The sentiment among fans was that he could always get you to The Dance, but never into the second round. I am not comparing Giants past success to Yankees or Lakers, but some franchises and fan bases deserve more than a first round exit each year.
In the off-season, I wanted Jerry Reese to pursue someone like Chris Simms, Brad Johnson, or Joey Harrington. Of the 3, a caretaker like Johnson would be the best, followed by Simms and than a Harrington, Grossman, or Josh McCown.
However, against New England in Week 17, Eli famously turned it around. He had the Patriots beat, but New England is the better team and was going for a flawless regular season. Props to the Pats for toughing it out, but something went on in Eli's head. The Giants went into the playoffs on a mission. They did something that Giants teams of the past few years have not, and that is they didn't play down to an inferior opponent. Though the score, 24-14, appeared close, the Giants dominated the ballgame. The next week in Dallas, a team with the biggest, fastest defense this side of Jacksonville, with the offensive explosion of the Colts, the Giants outplayed a team that had beaten them twice during the regular season.
Of course, this past weekend, the Giants played at historic Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Lining up opposite Eli is one of the best players ever, a player that embodies tough. The game temperature dipped to 4 degrees below zero. That's pretty cold. However, Eli went a deceiving 21/40. Since the game was so cold, the completion percentage is skewed compared to how effective he was. He was un-spectacularly spectacular. He had no interceptions, something he has accomplished in 93 straight pass attempts.Manning never did well in cold weather, and this showed that he could do it.
I always hoped and prayed I was wrong about Eli, that he would emerge and bring the Giants back to being a contender. I was beginning to lose all hope, but he sure did turn it on at the right time. Because of past inconsistency, one game like this would have been a welcome change. Two games like this, he's on a hot streak. But 4 games against most likely the 4 best teams they played all year and Eli has gone from (gulp) bust to a franchise quarterback. That's right; Manning's a franchise quarterback. I will split up reasons why into four categories:
-He makes throws that make grown men say "wow!"
-He now stands tough in the pocket
-He is a big man, 6'4, but moves around pretty well, especially for a traditional pocket passer.
-He has a fairly quick release
-I don't know if there's a better thrower of jump balls
Complements around him:
-Every franchise quarterback has a go-to receiver, he certainly has his in Plaxico Burress, who has done quite a bit to bolster the Giants himself.
-He has a big offensive line who has meshed well after the departure of LT Luke "The False Start" Petigout.
-He has a big tight end with good hands who runs good routes. This good be a post all by itself. Kevin Boss, the big rook from D2 Western Oregon, has played extremely well since Shockey's injury. Shockey is a great player, but he and Manning weren't on the same page at all. They consistently did not make the same reads on option routes.
-He has a power running game with Brandon Jacobs (who could stand to run with a little more anger, not just after he gets pulled). Ahmad Bradshaw is a great player who is a better between the tackles runner than Jacobs and makes plays after contact. I think a healthy Derrick Ward is the best of all of them.
-Kevin Gilbride has done a good job of not asking Eli to do too much. This could be the single biggest reason.
Maturation as a quarterback:
-Eli knows when to take a sack, unlike when he pathetically ran around during the Minnesota game.
-He knows when to throw the ball away.
-He does not force it to Burress or feel the need to get Shockey the ball early (because he's not there).
-Looking off defenders, something he mastered on his 2nd TD to Toomer in Tampa.
-Audibilizing at the line.
-Brandon Jacobs said that Eli now maks the pre-game speeches. Get this, he curses.
-When Tiki Barber lobbed barbs at Manning during the pre-season, Eli shot back.
-His "lackadaisical attitude" has turned into Eli being "an unflappable competitor". Amazing what 3 wins will do. It really has helped him tune out negativity and not be affected by the pressure-packed situations of the past few weeks.
After looking at all these reasons, I think Eli can be labeled as a franchise quarterback now. People throw that term around a lot. The Dolphins and Vikings hope that Beck and Jackson can be franchise QBs as non-first rounders, and the Browns and 49ers expect the same out of Brady Quinn and Alex Smith, big name guys. However, looking over the NFL landscape, there isn't many true franchise quarterbacks, at least in my definition. A franchise quarterback is someone that will be able to be your starter, and compete at a high level for 10-12 years. When your team is battling injuries or adversity, a franchise quarterback should make those variables not even matter. They have to be tough, talented, and courageous. They can be fiery or calm. Here are who I think the current franchise quarterbacks in the NFL are.
Tom Brady- He may be the best player of all time. You gotta love Tom, especially after that ESPN skit!
Peyton Manning- He won a Super Bowl last year, and he consistently puts up the best numbers in the game.
Carson Palmer- Things in Cincy may be falling apart, but none of it is Palmer's doing.
Brett Favre- Whether or not he has played his last game, he will always add something extra to his team.
Tony Romo- Too bad he's on the Cowboys, or he'd be one of my favorite players.
Ben Roethlisberger- Pittsburgh's 4th year QB, same age as Manning, Big Ben went 13-0 starting in the regular season as a rookie and wont he Super Bowl in his second year.
David Garrard- Does not have the skill set of a prototypical "Franchise Quarterback", but he is a warrior who does not turn the ball over.
Donovan McNabb- He has battled injuries recently, but there's no other quarterback besides Brady or the elder Manning that I wouldn't want to play in a big game.
Drew Brees- Set a single season record for completions this past year, and the offense was a few injuries removed from unstoppable.
Marc Bulger- I am a huge Bulger fan. He throws the ball as well as anyone. He gets a pass this year because of his rib injury and injuries to teammates.
Matt Hasselbeck- The Seahawks may be underachievers, but Hasselbeck is as tough as they come.
You see, if you include Eli in this group, that makes 12 Franchise Quarterbacks. There are only 32 teams. Having one of these 11 in invaluable.
Guys who could become franchise quarterbacks (my thoughts of possibility, 1-10 1-very unlikely, 10 very likely):
Trent Edwards- 3
John Beck- 2
Matt Schaub- 4
Vince Young- 6
JaMarcus Russell- 7
Philip Rivers- 5.5
Kevin Kolb- 2
Jason Campbell- 7
Aaron Rodgers- 1.5
Tarvaris Jackson- 3.5
Matt Leinart- 8
Alex Smith- 6.5
Brian Brohm- 5.5
Matt Ryan- 7.5
Andre Woodson- 3
Colt Brennan- 2
Eric Ainge- 3
Ok, so there's my piece on Franchise quarterbacks and Eli's metamorphosis. My next piece will be on this year's quarterback crop and who I think has big things ahead for them.