As the New York Giants broke their huddle, with just 53 seconds left in the first half and the ball on their own 29, there was this scant solace: If Eli Manning didn't screw up, the team could hit the locker room down only seven to the Dallas Cowboys. But 46 seconds later, the Giants had tied the game. Eli Manning pass to Steve Smith for 22 yards. A pass to Smith again, plus a face-mask penalty, a gain of 26. A high-risk sideline pass to rookie tight end Kevin Boss, 19 yards to the Dallas 4. Manning to Amani Toomer: Touchdown.
This was a historic moment for the 82-year-old Giants franchise, one of the key drives in the team's history. Two quarters and a couple of huge defensive plays later, the Giants had won, 21-17. The only signals Dallas' Tony Romo will be calling this week are for margaritas. Eli Manning, meanwhile, leads the Giants into Green Bay for the NFC championship. Eli Manning, the little brother. The kid who was so quiet growing up that his dad never knew if he was in the house. The passive one, the runt of the litter. Is it possible that this guy could be a championship quarterback?
Sixty-two starts into his NFL career, Eli has been consistent in his mediocrity. Giants fans need a shot of whiskey before looking at his passer rating, which is always in the weak mid-70s. And you need another shot when you look at the interceptions—he led the league this year, throwing 20. The numbers match what any fan can see. Eli Manning plays some dismayingly boneheaded football—throwing off his back foot, short-hopping wide-open throws, fumbling snaps. In a sequence of three games earlier this year, he threw four interceptions against the Vikings (three of which were run back for touchdowns), fired 35 incomplete passes against the Redskins (the most by a quarterback in 40 years), and committed five fumbles against Buffalo. It was the most puke-worthy stretch of football by any NFL player this season.
It's not just Eli's on-field performance that can be dismaying. He is anything but the inspirational battlefield commander that his older brother is. When recently retired Tiki Barber mocked Eli's leadership skills, it was hard not to sympathize with Barber, rather than his meek quarterback.
It has always been hard to escape the conclusion that Eli plays football because it's his birthright, as opposed to having any real affinity for the game. In 'most every way it's possible for the human eye to detect, the older brother, Peyton, holds title to the family legacy. Eli's dad, Archie, never played on a winning NFL squad, but he led his lousy New Orleans Saints teams with the dash of a Dixie cavalry commander, sword in hand, hell-bent and go-for-broke. Peyton isn't the scrambler his dad was, but he is an alpha dog at the line of scrimmage—ordering teammates around, chewing them out when need be, flailing his arms with audibles and directions.
The little brother seems to be disenfranchised, not possessed of a whole range of things—from passing talent to on-field flair to speaking ability to commercial appeal—that have been usurped by his elder. (Eli has starred solo in at least one commercial, for a fancy watch. It makes me laugh every time I see it.) Eli probably calls his brother to ask him what to wear. Probably calls him to ask how much to tip the caddy when he plays a round of golf.
Watching Eli Manning play this season, I find myself thinking of a story that former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi once told me about standing on the sidelines in Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium on Jan. 11, 1987. His team, the Browns, had just punted the ball away. There were five and a half minutes left to play, and Elway and the Denver Broncos marched out to their own 2-yard line with a trip to the Super Bowl in the balance. Accorsi watched helplessly as Elway engineered what is simply known as "the Drive."
That game hung in Accorsi's mind two decades later when he traded a king's ransom for the rights to get … not the hot-blooded Philip Rivers and not Ben Roethlisberger, both of whom were available in the 2004 NFL draft. Accorsi, the old-school football man, bet his career and legacy on Peyton Manning's little brother. Accorsi doesn't say why he eschewed the others, but my sense is that Accorsi looked up from his Daily Racing Form, went to the betting window, and couldn't ignore the bloodline.
Throughout his career, Eli has done little to assuage Giants fans' fears that Accorsi bought the Manning name but, upon unwrapping the package, came away with some knockoff imitation. There have been times, though, when he has shown sparks of the cold-blooded lethality a great QB needs. He stunned Philly with a late game-winning drive last season and beat Denver the same way the year before. Such displays of Mission Impossible-esque élan are usually associated with quarterbacks like Elway, Brett Favre, Tom Brady, and, of course, Eli's older brother. Those guys are Harrison Fords in helmets. Eli doesn't look like an action hero, and he often plays like his helmet is twisted around, leaving him peering empty-eyed through the ear hole. But perhaps you don't have to look like a great quarterback to be a great quarterback.
Colorless, inscrutable Eli—on the brink of the Super Bowl, outshining his older brother for the first time—challenges our assumptions of what a quarterback needs to be. Somehow, after that hapless stretch late in the year, he has managed to win the games the Giants have needed to win. He hasn't done this through the force of his personality, but rather through his unassuming play on the field.
The Patriots game was the pivot point. They lost, of course, and the Giants players were saying all the right things about refusing to see anything good in a loss. "They took our best shot and we took their best shot," defender Justin Tuck said afterward, "only they came away with the victory."
But Eli had thrown four touchdown passes. Four. Against the Patriots. Although he threw a late interception to seal the defeat, he played three-and-a-half quarters of inspired, winning football. The Giants and Eli and their coach, Tom Coughlin, were fortified by realizing just how good their best shot was against New England. The coach saw an opportunity not to rest his players for the playoffs, as some advocated, but to underline for them his assumption that they were winners. They had responded by playing like winners. They knew what that felt like now. "This is the way we want to be playing heading into the playoffs," Eli said, dressing at his locker. "You want to be executing plays."
That's about as much as Eli ever says. Which people find irritating. He is not content-heavy. Drill down and there will be no gushers. No predictions. No trash talk. No swagger. No Namath. None of the manifest, fingers-through-the-hair anguish haunting Tony Romo after the Cowboys loss.
Win or lose, even after coining his own version of "the Drive" at the end of the first half against Dallas, Eli doesn't move the needle and doesn't want to. Maybe this, rather than the frequently infuriating plays he actually does make, is what irritates us. We want something from our sports heroes. We want our quarterbacks to be tabloid-dimensional, to provide an adrenaline jolt when we see their pictures in the sports pages. And Eli doesn't. And won't. Maybe he's quietly telling us to keep things in perspective, to put away the popcorn machines. Maybe we're so busy telling him to grow up, we don't realize we're the ones who need to.
But athletes are meant to be tested. And for some, like Eli, the questions will never die. That's life for the little brothers of the world—they always have something to prove. And so Eli will go into Green Bay on Sunday, where the wind chill will be below zero, and no matter what he did against Dallas or Tampa Bay or New England, Giants fans everywhere will be gnawing on their knuckles and wondering who the hell the kid will be this week.