We’re really going to have this conversation, aren’t we? That’s fine. Everybody deserves his day in court. So let’s put on our earnest faces and set aside our preconceptions and give Eli Manning the hearing that his two Super Bowl rings have earned him.
First thing’s first, though. Like a lot of Hall of Fame debates, the question of whether Manning deserves inclusion in Canton is less a question of his qualifications than it is of the nature of the Hall of Fame itself. Football is a game that does not lend itself to objective measures nearly as tidily as sports like baseball and basketball, where individual dominance is easily quantifiable thanks to the relative ease with which we can isolate the relevant variables. Success and failure on the diamond or hardwood is dictated by 1-on-1 performance to a much greater degree than it is on the gridiron, where the execution of a player at one position is heavily dependent on the execution of players at multiple other positions. A batter can hit a home run without the help of his teammates. A guard can score a bucket as long as he shares the court with at least one other human being capable of throwing an inbounds pass. But even the most talented of quarterbacks will be helpless to fulfill his duties if he does not have five players in front of him to block the pass rush and at least one player capable of beating his coverage and catching the ball.
The result of this situational complexity is a whole lot of exploitable wiggle room for folks like Manning’s proponents. Success in football is a holistic endeavor, and, thus, we must take a holistic view when judging the game’s most important position. Or, so the thinking goes. As one of Manning’s former teammates, journeyman quarterback Sage Rosenfels, recently put it on Twitter: “Any NFL player (non-kicker) that starts for 16 years for the same team, and doesn’t miss a start because of injury, should be in the Hall of Fame."
Note that Rosenfels’ argument actually concerns the qualifications that the Hall of Fame should consider, and not whether Manning’s career measures up to a standard that already exists. It’s the same line of reasoning that people use when arguing that Manning’s two Super Bowl rings should tip the scale in his favor.
Any NFL player at the game’s most important position who wins its most important game twice should be in the Hall of Fame.
The rationale sounds good, but it is devastatingly easy to topple, because it requires one to accept the fact that Super Bowl victories are the primary metric by which quarterbacks should be measured. If two Super Bowl victories signify greatness moreso than one, then either one Super Bowl victory signifies greatness moreso than zero, or we’re creating an arbitrary standard out of thin air. And if you aren’t ready to concede that Trent Dilfer and Nick Foles are greater than Dan Marino and Warren Moon, then the whole line of reasoning is bunk.
That’s not to say that Manning’s Super Bowl performances are irrelevant. They aren’t. But they are part of a broader portfolio of performance. And when you look at that portfolio as a whole, it does not take long to understand why his inclusion in the Hall of Fame would be a disservice to those who will come after him.
Simply put, if a quarterback never ranked among the greatest of his contemporaries, he cannot be considered to rank among the greatest of all time. Since Manning’s rookie season in 2004, there are 40 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 2,000 passes. Forget where he ranks among that group in statistical categories like completion percentage (29th), yards per game (14th), yards per attempt (26th), passer rating (27th), or touchdown percentage (18th). Instead, let’s attempt to order the list of names in a qualitative fashion. I’m not talking about ranking these guys. At least not yet. Let’s just see where even an ardent Eli-for-HOF supporter and somebody on the other side of the spectrum would agree.
For instance, I can’t imagine even the most ardent Eli apologist would argue that his case is stronger than Tom Brady’s. Brady is the gold standard, because he is one of only three quarterbacks on this list who isn’t susceptible to the Eli trump card, i.e., the number of Super Bowl rings he has won. Same goes for the two other players with multiple rings, starting with Eli’s brother. There isn’t a major statistical category in which Peyton and Big Ben aren’t significantly ahead of Eli, including playoff and total wins.
But, like we said, this is a qualitative argument, and I don’t think most would agree that both players progressed the quarterback position in a way that nobody has ever suggested Eli did. Peyton did it with the way he dominated pre-snap like a coach on the field, and Big Ben did it with his ability to create something out of nothing. I think it is fair to say that even Eli’s fiercest backers would concede that Drew Brees is a more obvious Hall of Famer by virtue of his being the NFL’s all-time passing leader.
Already, we have a list of four players whose careers ran concurrently to Eli Manning’s who even his most ardent backers should agree are more obvious Hall candidates. If we divide by 32 teams, that puts him, outside the top 13 percent at his position, and if we divide by the 40 quarterbacks with at least 2,000 pass attempts, outside the top 10 percent. Forget summa cum laude, he wouldn’t even get a special shout out on graduation day. And that’s before we consider a guy like Aaron Rodgers, who has one Super Bowl ring and ranks among the top 10 all time in every major statistical category: QB rating (1st), completion percentage (6th), yards-per-game (8th), yards-per-attempt (8th), touchdown percentage (fourth), and interception percentage (1st). Nor does it include Phillip Rivers, who ranks in the top 15 in each of those categories. Manning’s ranks: 31st, 29th, 13th, 56th, 48th, 36th.