Keeping Score

Gentle Giant: Is Eli Now the NFL’s Main Manning?

Eli Manning — you know, Peyton's baby brother — has quietly had an MVP-caliber season. With the playoffs here, don't sleep on him

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Brooks Von Arx / Southcreek / Zuma

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning comes under pressure from Dallas Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Jan. 2, 2012. The Giants defeated the Cowboys 31-14 to claim the NFC East title

Peyton and Eli. When people discuss the quarterbacking Manning brothers, that’s always been the order — Peyton first, with Eli getting second billing. And it’s not just because Peyton is older. He’s also undeniably been a better QB than his brother. Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Eli is Peyton’s little brother, both on and off the field.

But it may now be time to flip the Manning marquee.

After this season, such a status shuffle no longer seems laughable. Peyton missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury. The Colts, having finished 2-14 without Peyton, own the top pick in the draft and will almost certainly choose Stanford QB Andrew Luck, eyeing him as the future of the franchise. Not only do the Colts have valid concerns about Peyton’s long-term health, but the team also owes him a $28 million bonus in March. Will they release him before the bill comes due? Will Peyton be the same player when he returns from the injury? Will the stem-cell treatment he received in Europe help? Will he even make it back at all?

(See the top 10 sports moments of 2011.)

“You’re talking about a guy who had three surgeries within 19 months,” says former Oakland Raiders quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst Rich Gannon, whose career was effectively ended in 2004 when he broke his neck. Gannon does believe that Manning, legendary for his competitiveness and drive, will make it back to the NFL, but he acknowledges that the doubts are legitimate. “He’s going to be 36 years old in March. He has young twins. It weighs on you. It’ll make you think twice about playing football.”

Meanwhile, in 2011 Eli Manning, 31, had a career year. He threw for almost 5,000 yards, tossed a record 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes and engineered five comeback victories. Eli has always had a knack for coming through late in games, and let’s not forget that he was also a Super Bowl MVP in 2008, when his New York Giants beat the New England Patriots, who were trying to finish off a perfect season. But let’s also remember — as even many cynical Giants fans will admit — that the game was a bit of a fluke: Manning needed a miracle against-the-helmet catch from rarely used wide receiver David Tyree (who never caught another pass in the NFL) to win that game.

Manning’s Giants didn’t exactly dominate this year; the team needed to beat Dallas in the last week of the regular season to win the NFC East and reach the playoffs. (New York hosts the Atlanta Falcons in an opening-round game on Sunday, Jan. 8.) And Eli had a few subpar performances, like when he threw three interceptions and no touchdown passes in a potentially devastating late-season loss to the Washington Redskins. But going into the year, few had expected much out of the Giants, who missed the playoffs a year ago and didn’t sign any star free agents in the off-season.

(See photos of NFL players returning to training after the 2011 lockout.)

“It’s amazing that we’re even having this conversation — a year and a half ago, we would have been wondering if Eli was, what, maybe the ninth best quarterback in the league?” says Gannon, who won the NFL MVP award in 2002. “Now he’s pulled himself into the upper echelons of the best quarterbacks in the business.”

And he’s done it by just going about his business, quietly as ever. “The thing about Eli is that he never changes,” says former quarterback Boomer Esiason, a studio analyst for the CBS pregame show The NFL Today. “His coach says he doesn’t have an arrogant bone in his body. I found that hard to believe — I’ve always thought that in order to be great, you do have to have a level of arrogance. But here, I believe it. Eli goes against the grain.” When a teammate screws up, Manning won’t go wild and publicly scold him. “Dan Marino would be screaming to holy heaven if somebody went the wrong way,” says Esiason. “You can hear him from the top row of the stadium. But Eli isn’t nearly as demonstrative.”

A crew of young receivers, especially second-year player Victor Cruz, who went undrafted out of college, have overachieved playing alongside Eli. “I’ll tell you what he does very well,” says Esiason. “Anytime an older player like Eli plays with younger guys and makes those players better because of his presence and his demeanor, to me that’s the truest form of professionalism.”

(See Sean Gregory’s fearless sports predictions for 2012.)

But even with his older brother on the sidelines all year long, Manning has again seen his stellar performance be overshadowed. Throughout this entire NFL season, QB talk has flooded airwaves, chat sites and barrooms. The dissection of Tim Tebow, whose Denver Broncos host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, has sucked up a chunk of bandwidth. Should Tebow, who has looked terrible for most of his games before pulling out fourth-quarter heroics, be playing? Should he be praying? Were all those comebacks luck, skill or a miracle from a higher power? After the Broncos lost three straight games to close the season, is Tebow toast? Outstanding efforts from New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for a record 5,476 yards this season; Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, the likely NFL MVP, whose team finished 15-1; and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, who also threw for over 5,000 yards, were hot topics. In Eli Manning’s own town, the tiresome bluster of New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and the collapse of his team and its underperforming quarterback Mark Sanchez down the stretch stole the spotlight.

It’s hard to believe that a guy who threw for almost 5,000 yards, has the last name of Manning and plays in the country’s biggest market — and most aggressive hype machine — has flown under the radar this year. Call Eli’s emergence as one of the league’s elite a win for the tight-lipped guys who just get the job done. This year’s Giants team, with its surge late in the regular season and its strong pass rush on defense, is drawing comparisons to the 2007 Giants squad that went all the way. And if the Giants can pull off a few upsets and raise the Super Bowl trophy, that would give Eli one more title than Peyton.

Remember him?