Raise your hand if you have a sibling. Keep your hand up if that sibling is in the same profession as you. Keep it up if you are one of the best at what you do, but your sibling is better. Now, keep that hand up if your sibling is a complete drama queen. If you are Eli Manning, right now your hand is still in the air. That upraised hand begs a question: Do you think after an entire Super Bowl week in which we’ve heard more about the Manning with the bad neck than the one who is actually playing in the game that Eli might be wondering what his life might be like if he hadn’t been named Manning?
That’s the question being asked by Andrew Sharp at SB Nation. It is a tremendous question, but without going all “It’s a Wonderful Life’” Sharp misses a bit on the answer. To fully understand this, let’s walk through his assertion.
As the playoffs have unfolded I’ve found myself rooting for the Giants, and a number of friends keep asking, “How can you root for Eli?” On the surface, he looks like a spoiled, spastic version of his big brother, part of a royal football family that just won’t go away. But to understand what makes Eli great, you have to look past his bloodlines.
Eli Manning has always been famous because of his family. First when he was playing high school football in New Orleans, then throughout college at Ole Miss, then through the NFL Draft process, and even during the first half of his career. Every step of the way.
You’ve read this story a million times because it’s been written over and over again for 15 years. It started in 1997, when Eli was a 16-year-old quarterback at Isidore Newman in New Orleans:
“The two boys, Peyton and Eli, are as different as saucy shrimp Creole and a soothing mint julep. The whole family agrees about that. Olivia Peyton, their mother, says that Peyton was so organized at home, he bordered on compulsive. “He couldn’t relax until everything was perfect,” she said. “He’d be fluffing all the pillows on the sofa to make sure they were right.”
He may never become Peyton, but Eli is a legit quarterback.
This is the sort of backhanded praise that’s framed his entire career.
OK, there’s the premise right up front, the two brothers are different, but for some reason, Peyton is superior based only on his personality type. In his own second sentence, Sharp jumps right to Eli’s character and demeanor. The story goes for several more paragraphs until this commentary, and we have yet to get to anything remotely close about football.
It gets worse. Sharp lists a timeline of Eli v. Peyton anecdotes, and not one of them talks about performance on the field. In fact, let’s go through these dates and add some “What Ifs” of our own.
In 2001, the lead from a New York Times story on Eli at Ole Miss: “From the juke joints of the Delta to the feed stores of northern Mississippi, he is called Archie’s boy, a son of one of sports’ most famous Sons of the South. In Tuscaloosa, Ala., in Knoxville, Tenn., and in every other castle in the Southeastern Conference football kingdom, he is “Peyton’s brother.”
In 2003, from USA Today: “Like his father, Archie, and older brother, Peyton, before him, however, Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning appears to have fallen into the close-but-no-cigar family routine.”
The “It’s A Wonderful Life Moment:” It is important to remember that once Ole Miss knew they had a Manning coming in to play quarterback, it was a moment bigger than if Notre Dame found out Jesus McGod had just committed to come South Bend. The moment was so big Mississippi went out and got David Cutcliffe to be their head coach since he had been Peyton’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee.
In 2004, the day he was drafted: “It started in kindergarten. Eli Manning would join his classmates at recess, and they would already have a position picked out for him. Many of the children knew that Eli’s father, Archie, had played in the National Football League. Some knew Eli’s older brother Peyton, who was a neighborhood legend as a preteen. The decision was simple. Eli was playing quarterback again.”
In 2004, the day after he was drafted: “Can he be as good as Peyton Manning, the NFL’s co-MVP last season? … Did the Giants get another Peyton Manning or just a player with the same last name?”
The “It’s A Wonderful Life Moment:” Let’s not forget the Chargers and the Mannings have a checkered history with each other. Remember that it was Chargers who came up “snake eyes’ in 1998 on the whole Peyton vs. Ryan Leaf draft choice. Then it was Eli who made it clear he would not play for the Chargers if they used their #1 overall draft pick to select him.
In 2005, there was more backhanded praise from the New York Daily News: “Montana, Young, Aikman, Brady, Favre, Elway. … Nobody is saying Eli Manning is going to make that list. Or be an immortal. Nobody is even saying Manning is going to be his big brother. … But we have found out a lot about Eli Manning already.”
The “It’s A Wonderful Life Moment:” More proof that the name “Manning” carries serious weight in Mississippi. Eli’s footprints out of Oxford are hardly cold when head coach David Cutcliffe is essentially forced out in favor the “Cajun Mastodon” also known as Ed Orgeron.
In 2008, after Eli pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history, it was another excuse to highlight the Mannings. As the Washington Post wrote: ”When the New York Giants beat the Patriots in a stunning Super Bowl upset Sunday night, they did more than merely keep New England from completing an unbeaten season … The Giants also gave a second straight Super Bowl triumph to the Manning quarterbacks, as Eli reached the pinnacle a year after his older brother, Peyton.”
The “It’s A Wonderful Life Moment:” How many people think if it hadn’t been about the “Manning” connection, this story in 2008 would have been all about “Eli Whoever cock-blocks Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of our generation.”
See, not only is Sharp ignoring the on-the-field stuff, he also ignoring that since Eli won a Super Bowl, the Manning family became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the NFL’s publicity monster. The whole family is in on the deal; this is why there’s a brother who shows up in photos who has never taken a snap in the NFL. Cooper is the Manning’s equivalent of Fredo Corleone; if they were a political family he’d be Billy Carter or Roger Clinton.
Instead, Sharp inadvertently starts to paint the picture some of us have suspected for a while; that Peyton is a narcissistic, anal-retentive dickhead.
Even this week, Eli’s family still frames his success. From Newsday (subscription required):
Peyton was very much on Eli’s mind yesterday after the Giants arrived in Indianapolis for a week of preparation for Sunday’s game. He thanked him for all his support over the years. And he even brought us back into their childhood in New Orleans, when Peyton occasionally would beat up on his younger brother.
“He’d pin me down and take his knuckles and knock on my chest and make me name the 12 schools in the SEC,” Eli said. “I was 6 or 7 at the time, and I didn’t know them, so I quickly learned them. It was a great learning technique, but I don’t suggest anyone duplicate that or try that out.”
There was more.
“Once I figured those [SEC schools] out, we moved on to all 28 NFL teams, so I had to get my studying done for that,” he said. “The one I never got was naming 10 brands of cigarettes. When he really wanted to torture me and I knew I had no shot of getting it, that’s when I started screaming for my mom or dad to save me.”
None of this is surprising. The Manning family has all the mystique to football fans that Camelot does for political nerds and Vanity Fair readers. In either case we’re talking about surreal levels of fortune and success, and just enough mystery to keep everyone fascinated for years. It’s nobody’s fault that Eli’s seen as a Manning first.
Again, what happens to this all if he’s Eli Smith? There’s a ton of writers out there who might actually have to develop real story lines on this guy; the low-hanging fruit of the “Kennedys of the NFL” drops like the leaves on Martha’s Vineyard in October. If Eli was just another gun-slinger who graduated the college ranks to a starring role on the main stage of the NFL, the stories about him would be more about football than family.
If Eli weren’t a Manning, he would have a bit of the same problem Tim Tebow has. In this “fantasy football” world the NFL has become, you can’t simply be a winning quarterback, you have to look like one. Sharp runs his finger around the edge of this problem.
It’s impossible to look at Eli without seeing shades of his big brother, and next to his big brother, it’s impossible not to see where Eli comes up short. Peyton’s taller, stronger, more accurate, more commanding, and more consistent. Peyton personifies the word “elite”. With Eli, the first question’s always been “Is he as good as his brother?” and any objective measure says no. That alone makes it hard to take him seriously. Next to Peyton Manning’s Brad Pitt, Eli seems more like Owen Wilson.
But if Eli wasn’t named Manning, he wouldn’t have spent his whole life being compared to Peyton, and instead of looking down on his goofy style, we’d celebrate his ability to win that way. Instead of some off-brand version of his big brother, Eli would be a whole different commodity.
And he IS a whole different commodity. That’s what we’ve started to see throughout the NFL Playoffs. If he wins Sunday, we’ll have no other choice but to appreciate him apart from his brother. Next to someone like Peyton or Tom Brady or Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, Eli’s nowhere near as perfect or consistent, but he’s every bit as deadly–the guy who can look truly horrible against the Redskins in Week 15, then turn around a month later and beat the best team in the NFL on the road.
This is the problem with framing Eli next to his brother, or even Tom Brady. It distracts us from what makes Eli Manning so much fun: He isn’t just elite, he’s unique.
There’s no doubting that Tim Tebow is unique. There’s no doubting Peyton Manning is unique. The only thing that casts a shadow on Eli’s unique nature is the fact he’s sharing a surname with another NFL quarterback. If Eli Manning weren’t constantly being compared to his older brother, he might just be a favorite son of the NFL. After all, people love it when “regular” guys succeed; Eli is the “elite” quarterback who is actually fun to watch, and isn’t afraid to show his “regular guy” status. He doesn’t hide his pathological obsession with pranks, his “mama’s boy complex,” or that stupid grin he always seems to have glued to his face. America loves a the “win at all costs” guy, but they also love a winner who has a certain amount of humanity; Eli would be that guy if he were Eli Smith rather than Eli Manning.
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