EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Eli Manning was to the Giants what Derek Jeter was to the Yankees.
He brought multiple championships, conducted himself with class in the world’s biggest market, never made the organization worry about chilling 2 a.m. phone calls from authorities and gave back in a big way to the community.
Jeter made it to Cooperstown this week and the only controversy was the one voter out of 397 who decided Jeter’s five World Series championships and 3,465 hits were not good enough. It was an emotional yet ultimately meaningless discussion.
When the Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors convene the day before the Super Bowl in 2025 to vote in five modern-era candidates, first-time eligible Eli Manning will surely be among the 15 finalists who will be debated. Unlike when Jerry Rice, Brett Favre and Deion Sanders have come up in recent years, and the presenter didn’t even feel the need to make a case and just said the player’s name and sat down, it’s not going to be so easy for Easy Eli.
Manning retired Friday after 16 years playing only for the Giants. He listened as co-owner John Mara said he will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor during the 2020 season and that his No. 10 will be retired. Manning later brushed aside one question during his press conference about his Hall of Fame chances, but once he came off the podium and there was nobody around, he was more forthcoming with SI.com whether his credentials are Hall of Fame worthy.
“I am content with what I did,” Manning said.
For the ultra laid-back Manning, that amounted to a campaign speech.
Is what he did good enough? Does he look at other quarterbacks who have been selected?
“I don’t even compare,” he said. “It really is off my radar. I don’t worry about it. I’m not going to lobby for it or promote myself. It doesn’t affect how I feel about my career or affect my life going forward one way or the other.”
He might feel differently next year at this time when big brother Peyton is eligible for the first time and he certainly will get the Rice/Favre/Sanders treatment and be celebrated for six months.
“I have a feeling it will be good for him,” Eli said.
This is my 11th year as a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector. I can already hear the back-and-forth that will take place in a hotel conference room the day before wherever the NFL decides to hold Super Bowl LIX. My opinion: Manning is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He did enough.
Yes For Eli: He’s one of only five players to win multiple Super Bowl MVPs. Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady are the others. “There really is no “yeah, but” after that,” Peyton told the Denver Broncos’ website. “That kind of ends it.”
No for Eli: He was 117-117 in the regular season. That’s not a Hall of Famer.
Yes For Eli: He beat the Patriots twice in the Super Bowl, each with last-minute touchdown drives. Peyton called Bill Belichick and Brady a “two-headed monster.”
No For Eli: He only made the playoffs four other times and lost all four games. Get it? He didn’t win a playoff game in any year other than his two Super Bowl seasons.
Yes For Eli: The first championship came against the Patriots when they were undefeated and prevented them from being called the greatest single-season team in NFL history. (By the way, Eli’s dad Archie said Friday he received a celebratory video from the undefeated Dolphins toasting the Giants the day after the game).
No For Eli: It involves more than the playoffs. He had 244 interceptions, 12th-most in NFL history and the most of any quarterback active in 2019.
Yes For Eli: Sure, but did you know Peyton threw 251 interceptions, ninth on the list?
No For Eli: He never made All-Pro. He was never considered a top two or three QB in any season. He made the Pro Bowl just four times. Eli is one of the few who ever called Eli an elite quarterback. Uncharacteristic self-promotion.
Yes For Eli: The best ability is availability. He started 210 consecutive regular-season games until Ben McAdoo benched him in 2017 for Geno Smith. Geno Smith. It got McAdoo fired. Manning never missed a game because of injury. His replacement, rookie Daniel Jones, suffered a high ankle sprain in just his 10th start in 2019 and missed two games. “It wasn’t like (Eli) just played two (Super Bowl) seasons,” Peyton said. “He answered the bell, played his butt off, won some huge games for his team. I have strong opinions on it.”
No For Eli: He was 34-50 in the final seven years of his career and made the playoffs once in his final eight years.
Yes For Eli: He is seventh all-time in passing yards and touchdowns.
No For Eli: He was a compiler.
Yes for Eli: He compiled $252 million in his career, the most in NFL history.
The discussion with Manning in five years can easily eclipse the nearly one hour spent on Terrell Owens three years in a row until he finally was selected in 2018. But the issue with Owens was not his on-field credentials and accomplishments. Once the Hall of Fame deemed that behavior in the locker room could be considered an extension of the field, Owens’s reputation as a cancer—he was particularly rough on his quarterbacks Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo—kept him out.
Back to Jeter: the Yankees shortstop called Manning his rookie season in 2004 when he was struggling, losing his first six starts. By then, Jeter had four rings.
“He just taught me that it would get easier and just stay the course and be yourself and keep working hard and things do improve,” Manning said. “We’ve had a good relationship over the years.”
When Manning finally won his first game in his seventh start in the final outing of his rookie season, he audibled off a pass to a run by Tiki Barber, who scored from the 3-yard line with 11 seconds remaining to beat the Cowboys. Mara was walking with his father Wellington to the Giants’ locker room after the game. It would be the final game the Giants’ patriarch would see in person. He died in 2005 after battling cancer.
“I think we found our guy,” Wellington said.
Manning not only beat Brady and Belichick twice in the Super Bowl. On the way to the first one, he beat the No. 1 seed Cowboys in Dallas and beat Favre and the Packers in frigid Lambeau before his great escape from the Patriots’ pass rush led to the Helmet Catch. On the second Super Bowl run, he beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Lambeau and the 49ers in San Francisco on a day he was sacked six times and hit 12 times but kept picking himself up out of the Candlestick slop to beat the 49ers.
“Pulverized,” is how Peyton described what happened to his little brother that day.
Then he beat the Patriots again with a perfectly placed 38-yard sideline pass to Mario Manningham setting up the winning score.
Brady tweeted Friday, “Congratulations on your retirement, and a great career Eli! Not going to lie though, I wish you hadn’t won any Super Bowls.”
Somebody read Manning that tweet, bringing back the two greatest memories of his career, but two of the lowest moments for Brady.
“We joke around it a little bit, but I think, you know, it’s not real funny to him,” he said.
Manning didn’t wait until free agency to survey the landscape to see if there was a starting job available for a 39-year-old with a declining skillset. He’s healthy and thinks he can still play. But it was important to him to never have to wear another uniform.
Giants from the past and present showed up for him on Friday, including Tom Coughlin, Ernie Accorsi, Phil Simms, Harry Carson, Michael Strahan, Plaxico Burress, David Tyree, Amani Toomer, Shaun O’Hara, Jones and new coach Joe Judge.
It will help Manning’s Hall of Fame case that Brady, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger plan to play in 2020 and will not be competing for a spot in his first year of eligibility.
“Wellington Mara always said, ‘Once a Giant, always a Giant,'” Manning said. “For me, it’s only a Giant.”
And perhaps like his friend Jeter, a soon-to-be Hall of Famer.