Eli Manning has to be the most under appreciated, underrated, flying-under-the-radar player in history. Consider that: he has led his team to the playoffs in all 4 years as a starter; that he led the Giants on a magical playoff run in 2007 where he completely outplayed 2 guaranteed first ballot HOF qbs in Favre and Brady; that he also completely outplayed the 2007 probowl starter and the public's favorite future HOF qb in Tony Romo; that he put the team on his back in critical moments in the playoffs, like the 47 second TD drive at the end of the half against the Cowboys and the 2:00 drive to win the Superbowl; that he threw for 150 yards and 2 TDs in the 4th qtr of the Superbowl, something no qb in history has ever done; that he was part of what everyone agrees is the greatest single play in Superbowl history with his scramble and throw to Tyree; that he plays in the freaking media capital of the world.... and he still is barely noticed.
I'll admit it - I am a huge Eli fan. I have been going to Giants training camps every summer for a day or two every year and I saw his enormous talent the first time he walked on the field. My favorite Eli training camp story... Giants were running a drill where the routes the WRs were running were flag patterns - in this version, the WR would start from around the +40, run about 20 yards down field and then cut diagonally towards the pylon (used to be a flag in the old days, hence the name) where the sideline meets the goal line. The qb would throw it from around the 50 and had to place the ball over the WR shoulder, timing it so he got the ball there as the WR was getting to the goal line. The objective for the qb, therefore, is to try and hit the pylon. They ran this play 5 or 6 times and I noticed that every ball from Eli seemed perfect. Some passes were complete, some were incomplete because the DB knew what play was coming and could anticipate the throw. On the last play, the DB and WR were running towards the pylon and their feet got tangled and both fell to the ground, but Eli had already let the ball go before they fell. The ball kept floating through the air on a perfect arc... and hit the pylon dead on. There is no throw that Eli can't make. I'll admit that Eli took a little longer to grow into an elite qb than I thought or hoped that he should have, but there is no doubt that he has arrived, and he's going to keep getting better and better.
I think there are several reason for his somewhat delayed development. Perhaps the most important of them is that he needed expert qb coach Palmer to tighten and perfect his mechanics. There is no doubt that physically he is throwing the ball better and more consistently these last two years than he did in his first two years of starting and we have to credit Palmer for part of that. But I think there is another factor that contributed to his slower development and I got this from snippets of various interviews I heard from Coughlin and other NY coaches as well as an interview I heard from Bill Cowher. Coughlin did not limit what he put on Manning's plate in terms of qb play, in terms of managing the game, difficult throws etc, from the very beginning. Therefore his development was slower until he could incorporate and integrate all of the aspects of the very complex Giants playbook. I heard Coughlin interviewed once when he was explaining a less-than-wonderful performance by Eli earlier in his career. He talked about mechanics and bad decisions on some throws, but then wanted to emphasize that when it came to changing plays at the line of scrimmage and changing the protection scheme in response to the defensive front, Coughlin said that Eli always made the right call. The interviewer followed up on this point and asked: "Always??? He always gets them right? You mean surely that most of the time he gets them right." Coughlin answered very firmly - "No. Always. He gets 100% of them right. He is a very cerebral player".
The flip side is a recent interview I heard with Bill Cowher. He was talking about the prospects of Flacco, Ryan and rookie qbs in general doing well in a playoff run. He said that he had some experience with it because of the success he had with Ben Roethlisberger. He said directly that the way to manage the young qb is the way they managed Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. he did not put too much on his plate, he had a great running game and did not ask him to do too much. He did not have to make many plays in pressure situations and tried to stay away from 3rd and long situations. Looking at the way the two qb's have progressed, Eli now looks like a much more polished qb to me than Ben R. That's not to say that the Giants won't lose this week and the Steelers won't move on and win the Superbowl. That doesn't change the fact that despite the many spectacular looking plays that Roethlisberger makes, Eli is a better passer and a smarter player. Eli's development was slower because he had more to digest. Roethlisberger rise was quicker, but ultimately, will not be as high, IMO.
Maybe this last statement about spectacular plays is why Eli is under appreciated. You'll never see Eli scramble for 30 yards, or shrug off a big hit by a rushing LB and stand to make a throw, or flip the ball underhand while falling to the ground so he ends up on SportsCenter highlights. Eli's statistics are somewhat ordinary as well. Eli completed 60.3% of his passes, 19th in the league; he passed for 3,238 yards which was 17th in the league. But he threw only 10 INTs which was exceeded by only 3 qbs that started regularly all year like Eli did: Kerry Collins, Chad Pennington and Jason Campbell. Of those three that were intercepted less frequently, Eli is the only one that threw more than 20 TDs this year. I think this highlights how good Eli has become - he is very productive, takes care of the ball, makes good decisions, but is unspectacular in his stats. He wins. Giants have won 41 games and 4 playoff games in the last 4 years. He's a keeper.