(Note: This could technically apply to the Hall of Fame moniker in any competitive sport, but football is the only one I care enough about, so I titled this appropriately.)
With the recent retirement of Eli Manning, the NFL world will be Manning-less for the first time since 1997. The fact that people are even mentioning this as a notable fact speaks volumes to the impact that the Manning brothers have had in NFL history. Not many will argue against Peyton’s ability, unless in relation to Tom Brady, but Eli always got a bit of heat for his play throughout the years. Many are debating his credentials as a Hall of Fame player, with those opposed citing his career record and quarterback rating, while those in favor point to his Super Bowl rings. Both sides are missing something important, though, something I believe in that not everyone will agree with.
The NFL Hall of Fame (and likely most others) is reserved for the best players to ever come into the league. Those crowned with shiny titles like “Pro Bowl” and “All-Pro” monikers over a large period of their career tend to be seen as the best of the best, and obvious favorites for the prestigious ceremony. Winning Super Bowls help, too, though those aren’t necessarily required. Put bluntly, it’s a place where the best players are recognized as the best by their peers and associated onlookers. If they’re anywhere under that level of dominance, their place in the Hall is put into question by some. I never really understood that, as while the criteria seems relatively set, there’s something that’s bothered me about it all, specifically with the very name.
Hall of Fame. Hall of Fame. Not “Hall of The Best,” which just sounds weird. I propose a system where those valuable to their teams and their next-level play should be recognized, but also including the impact they serve on the history of the game. As some might say to categorize one’s greatness: “Can you write NFL History without writing about [blank]?” To know the player and the commitment they gave to the game, even when they weren’t the best at their position at the time, should be considered when placing those golden votes.
Such should help Eli in his case for the Hall of Fame. When compared to those of his peers, his statistical history is not the prettiest. He has never led the league in any major passing category, and on the flipside, has finished first in interceptions thrown three times. His teams reached the playoffs six times in fifteen full years as a starter, and when he didn’t win it all during the 2007 and 2011 seasons, he was one-and-done. He has never surpassed a 93.6 quarterback rating in his entire career, when Philip Rivers, a quarterback he will forever be linked to because of the infamous ’04 NFL Draft trade, surpassed a 93.6 QBR eight times in the same span, minus one less full season. If you’re critical of Eli’s place in the HOF, these are the measures you point to in arguing for his general mediocrity.
The big “But” comes into play when you consider his playoff achievements. Yes, of the six times he reached the playoffs, four runs were complete duds. ’07 and ’11 were, magical, however, and the impact they had with Eli leading the way are little short of Cinderella-esque narratives.
In ’07 specifically, they squeaked into the Super Bowl facing off against a team that had, at that point, not been defeated at all that season. 18-0. The New England Patriots absolutely obliterated all other competition, with Tom Brady throwing a then-record 50 touchdown passes over the course of the regular season, with Randy Moss doing a bulk of the work. To say they were favored to win would be like asking if we need oxygen to survive. And yet, the Giants won, due in part to the now-famous “Helmet Catch,” which is regarded by many as one of the most memorable plays in NFL history. Eli Manning struck magic and, along with a strong defense, managed to stop history from being made on the other side.
2011 wasn’t quite as magical, but the chances were considerably stacked against the Giants, just barely making the playoffs with a 9-7 record. They had to beat the 10-6 Atlanta Falcons, 15-1 Green Bay Packers, and 13-3 San Francisco 49ers in order to meet the New England Patriots once again in the Super Bowl, and they did. Strengthened by a good defense throughout the playoffs, Eli played tremendously well and even managed to provide another miracle throw and catch with Mario Manningham in the Super Bowl to seal the Patriots’ fate for a second time. The Patriots have only lost to two
team’s defenses quarterbacks in nine Super Bowl appearances: Nick Foles and Eli Manning.
These miracle runs, predicated by strong play, should be enough of a boost to his HOF credentials even if he was never comparably superior to his peers. If everyone is going to be compared to the Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady’s of the NFL, there would be a very limited Hall to begin with. Eli has done enough on his own merit and in the benefit of his team to establish himself as a stalwart in NFL history, which is what I don’t think people care to account for. This is also the case for two other NFL Hall of Famers: Kurt Warner and Joe Namath (both quarterbacks—how coincidental!).
Warner’s case is a tad more concrete from a statistical standpoint, though there’s one large criticism people point to: his mid-career skid. His final years with the St. Louis Rams, his lone year in New York (starting in place of rookie Eli, ironically), and the first couple seasons with the Arizona Cardinals are nothing to write home about. He was, at best, a capable starter used to make a team respectable. It was his early days with the Rams and his late-career heroics with the Cardinals that got him enshrined in Canton, but it’s his origin story that really make him special. Undrafted initially, he spent years with the Arena Football League and NFL Europe before finally getting a shot as an NFL quarterback. In his downtime, he worked as a grocery bagger at Hy-Vee, which is as un-glamorous as you can imagine. And when his time came, he only had one of the greatest seasons for a quarterback in NFL history, winning regular season and Super Bowl MVP awards. Pretty sweet.
With Namath, his charisma and the impact he had on the game is always the topic of his namesake. He made being a quarterback “cool,” inspiring a generation of young people with his Hollywood-esque look and popularizing the position in pro sports. His vocal guarantee that his New York Jets would defeat the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III is legendary, especially because he backed up his words and won in what’s generally considered the biggest upset in Super Bowl history (along with the Giants beating the 18-0 Patriots in ’07, ironically). Statistically, however, he was pretty mediocre. Far more interceptions than touchdowns, just barely over 50% career completion percentage, and a losing record as a starter. His early-career ventures are easier to look at, but many cite his knee problems during the ’70s as a reason for his vast decline in play, leading to a pretty gruesome five-year stretch to end his career.
This also isn’t to say that players should be able to get into the Hall of Fame solely from their (positive) notoriety. Earl Morrall is a name that veteran sports fans will remember for his penchant for being placed in great situations and capitalizing on them. He led the Miami Dolphins to a majority of their wins in their perfect 17-0 season, and was the starter for the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III against Namath’s Jets. He’s had good seasons statistically, as well, but for a majority of his career, he was a back-up. He did well when thrust into the starting role, though was never quite as good as the person ahead of him, benefiting from a strong supporting cast. Still, you can’t write NFL history without him. Does a Hall of Fame back-up story translate to the same as a Hall of Fame overall? Probably not, though I personally wouldn’t mind seeing him get in.
The NFL even inadvertently(?) adhered to this historical motivation with its induction of Ken Stabler in 2016, a year after his death. “The Snake” was the captain of the Oakland Raiders teams of the ’70s under John Madden, who did a whole lot of winning. A Super Bowl champion and overall groovy guy, he mirrored Namath somewhat in his off-the-field tendencies to have fun and party. Also like Namath, his stats weren’t great for his era. Lots of picks, specifically, hurt his overall case for enshrinement, and he ended up waiting over thirty years after retirement with no calls from Canton, Ohio.
After his passing, the outcry for his case exploded, with people calling it a sham that he hadn’t made it in with as much of an impact he had on the Raiders and in the NFL during the ’70s. In his honor, they put him in the very next year, perhaps as an ode to him, but to keep him out for that long and then putting him in immediately after everyone was reminiscing about his impact, it seems like the fame part kicked in.
So, I think everyone should relax about Eli Manning as a Hall of Famer, along with any other fringe-
quarterback player in consideration. Sometimes I think it’s enough to have a player be just good enough to leave their touch on the sport forever, even if they weren’t the best of the best. They should absolutely be good, and that is the quality that ensures Tim Tebow will never get in, despite his overwhelming popularity, but had Tebow played maybe six or seven more seasons and put up admirable statistics and a few more “WOW” playoff performances, I think it’d be enough. It’s the Hall of Fame, after all. Impact should have a say in the way athletes are recognized, along with statistical prowess. In the end, it’s what we take away from it all that counts… so long as it’s a positive reminiscing. Mark Sanchez’s Butt Fumble shouldn’t be what the Hall of Fame considers credible criteria.
For other opinion pieces on this topic, be sure to check out the accompanying archive!
Thank you for your time. Have a great day.