Eli Manning's late-season struggles prompted many to question whether it was time to declare him a bust. It wasn't that Manning had failed to prove he was capable of playing in the NFL. Rather, it was that he came to New York with such high expectations, and it was beginning to look like he simply wasn't capable of becoming the superstar the Giants fans hoped for.
Manning's strong play during the last month has changed those perceptions, and his three playoff wins have made most Giants fans feel as if their patience with the young quarterback is finally paying off.
I don't think that's a fair way to look at things. As fans, our expectations for young quarterbacks have been dramatically skewed by the sudden success of two recent signal callers. In 1999, Kurt Warner led the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl in his first season as an NFL starter. Two years later, Tom Brady achieved the same feat with the New England Patriots. That sort of immediate achievement is exceptionally rare. Historically, it has taken longer for quarterbacks to develop and achieve success at the professional level.
Terry Bradshaw struggled through his first five seasons, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns in each of those years as he struggled to hold on to his starting job. Roger Staubach didn't become the Cowboys' starter until he was 29 years old, and Steve Young turned 30 before he finally took the helm in San Francisco. And there are plenty of examples of great quarterbacks, from Johnny Unitas to Brett Favre, who only found success after failing with their first team (or in the case of Len Dawson, after failing with his first two teams).
Individual passing statistics are one way to gauge a quarterback's success. By that measure, it would be tough to consider Manning a superstar. He hasn't won any passing titles, hasn't been invited to any Pro Bowls, and hasn't put up any of the gaudy statistics that would set him apart from his peers.
I would argue, however, that passing numbers only tell part of the story for quarterbacks. Those numbers are greatly affected by the teammates that surround him. Obviously, having talented receivers will help boost his stats, as will a solid offensive line. A quarterback's
numbers are also significantly impacted by his team's style of play. If his team has a consistent running game, he won't need to throw as much, and the numbers are deflated. Consider Bob Griese, for example. The Hall of Fame quarterback led the Dolphins to back-to-back championships in 1972 and 1973. Both years, he averaged just a little more than 100 passing yards per game, and totaled 21 touchdown passes in the two seasons combined. In the two Super Bowl games, Griese attempted just 18 passes for 161 yards. Why the low numbers? Miami's offense was built around a dominating ground game, with Larry Csonka pounding the ball up the middle and the elusive Mercury Morris running to the outside.
That's an extreme example, but Manning has shown that he doesn't need to throw for 300 yards every Sunday in order for the Giants to win. In his three full seasons as the starter, he's led the team to a 29–19 record in the regular season. Like Griese's Dolphins, the Giants have a stingy defense and an offense that's built around the running game.
By reaching the Super Bowl in his fourth pro season, Manning joins some select company. There are 12 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame whose careers started during the Super Bowl era. Half of them didn't get to a Super Bowl in their first four seasons, and a quarter of them didn't even reach the playoffs by then.
More than 50 quarterbacks have led their teams to a Super Bowl. Manning is just the 15th man to reach the big game this quickly. He's just the seventh quarterback from the Super Bowl era to lead his team to the playoffs three times in his first four years.
Critics may say that credit for the won-loss record and the playoff appearances should be shared by his teammates, but isn't that always the case? All of the great quarterbacks, from Unitas and Bart Starr to Joe Montana and Troy Aikman were indebted to the superstars who joined them in the huddle. The ultimate measure of success is whether or not a quarterback can lead those players to victory, and Manning has proved more than capable of that task.
Folks who are looking for Manning to light up the scoreboard and dominate the highlight reels are probably always going to be disappointed. But those who are more interested in winning are beginning to see what GM Ernie Accorsi saw in Manning when he made the blockbuster deal to acquire him. Whether or not he can deliver one more win in Super Bowl XLII, Manning has given the Giants reason to believe that they're at the dawn of a great new era, and that there will be plenty of more big postseason games in the years to come.