Why We Debate If Eli Manning Is Elite

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Tom Brady will lead the New England Patriots into Super Bowl 46 in Indianapolis on Sunday. He's already won the Super Bowl three times before. Standing in the way of yet another Patriots victory are Eli Manning and the New York Giants. But a debate is raging over whether Manning belongs among the elite in the game.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

And this is Super Bowl weekend. Tomorrow, Tom Brady will lead his New England Patriots into Super Bowl 46. Brady is certainly seen as an elite quarterback. He's already won three Super Bowls. Standing in the way of yet another Patriot's victory are the New York Giants and its quarterback, Eli Manning. Manning beat Brady in a Super Bowl already. He's been superb this season, throwing for 29 touchdowns, almost 5,000 yards. That certainly makes him very, very good - no question. But is Manning also elite? NPR's Mike Pesca has this report on one raging debate.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: In much of public life calling someone elite is a scurrilous charge to be rebutted. In football, however, elitism is something to strive for, as when local radio host, Michael Kay of ESPN New York, put it to Eli Manning in training camp this summer.

MICHAEL KAY: Is it - I'll ask you straight out. Is Eli Manning an elite quarterback? Are you a top 5, top 10 quarterback?

ELI MANNING: Yeah, and I think I am. And I think we have the offense.

PESCA: Manning went on to answer that, yes, he would put himself in a class with Tom Brady. He did not say he was a more versatile actress than Meryl Streep or got better gas mileage than the Toyota Prius, but you'd think he did given the overwhelming yawps of discontent that emerged from the quarterback codifying public. Ray Lucas, a former Jets quarterback, was among the puzzled.

RAY LUCAS: And I said on my TV show I think he needs to get drug tested, because I thought he was crazy.

PESCA: Bobby Hebert, former Saints quarterback, knows the Mannings well. Eli, his brother Peyton and their NFL veteran dad, Archie. He was incredulous when he heard EliĀ“s preseason answer.

BOBBY HEBERT: Come on, are you kidding me? Eli and Archie is not even in the same league as Peyton.

PESCA: You really cannot make a good case that Eli is better than Aaron Rogers, Tom Brady or Drew Brees. Those QBs, Super Bowl winners all, have statistics that shame Eli's. For instance, none has ever led the league in interceptions, which Eli did twice.

But there is a case to be made that if Eli Manning doesn't have a house on Elite Street, at least he's in the zip code. It all depends on how you define elite. Former NFL QB Sean Salisbury defines it this way.

SEAN SALISBURY: To me, elite stands for this: being in a class where we consider you a difference maker, a guy who takes ordinary and makes it extraordinary.

PESCA: The majority of football experts would rank Eli somewhere around the fifth-best in the league. Not in the top 10 percent, but certainly top 20. Is he elite? Nebulous term, says retired QB Boomer Esiason. He lists Manning's more tangible traits.

BOOMER ESIASON: He's a winning quarterback and he's done it in the biggest spots. He does it in the fourth quarter, which is always the true test of whether or not a quarterback has what it takes I guess to be elite. But the other aspect is he's a Super Bowl MVP for crying out loud. I don't know why we're even still having this discussion.

PESCA: Maybe because there's 332 hours of sports radio air to fill between the conference championship and the Super Bowl. Screaming matches over who is best or second best is the lifeblood of sports talk radio.

But there is an interesting point to be made. If you say elite is a near flawless quarterback, Eli is not elite. If you call a quarterback elite if he can do everything needed to win a championship, Eli Manning qualifies. He's smart, skilled and definitely tough.

DEACON JONES: No quarterback is tough.

PESCA: That is Deacon Jones, possibly the greatest tormentor of quarterbacks in football history.

JONES: Don't ask me that question. No quarterback is tough. Where you get on that? Where you get - what quarterbacks you've been dealing with?

PESCA: Well, Esiason, Hebert, Lucas - look, I'm not going to argue with the secretary of defense. And as far as this elite discussion goes, remember the original question, quote, "Is Eli Manning an elite quarterback? Are you a top 5 or top 10 quarterback?" Well, of course he is. If Eli Manning wins Sunday he'll be one of three active quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl rings. And that is the pinnacle.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, Indianapolis.

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