The thing about a true Hall of Fame player in any sport in my view is that you know one when you see one. A true Hall of Famer needs no defense. There is no debate.
Tom Brady is a Hall of Famer. Peyton Manning is a Hall of Famer. Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway and Brett Favre, they are all Hall of Famers. When you saw any of those guys play you recognized the things that scream Hall of Fame caliber week after week. They stand alone at the top of the class among their peers and they leave you with no doubt in your mind.
Eli Manning is not one of those guys.
Make no mistake, Eli had his moments, including two very big ones that will have him immortalized in New York Giants and New York sports lore for endless generations. Those distinctions are more than justified and have been well earned, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame is an entirely different distinction.
It is the most prestigious of our American clubs. It’s how we knight American athletes and stars in this country, reserved for the best of the best. Manning is nearing the end of a long and successful career in the NFL, but as it relates to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he should be on the outside looking in and there are tangible reasons to support why.
Beyond the eye test, I have some simple questions that need to be answered in the affirmative for me agree with entry into the hall. These three simple questions are true for me in every sport.
1) Was he ever elite or among the elite at his position?
Over Manning’s 16-year career he has been spectacularly mediocre, sporting a regular season record of 116-116. A dead even .500 winning percentage. When you add in the postseason and his two prolific Super Bowl victories over the Patriots, the overall record climbs to 124-120, good for a bump to a .508 overall career winning percentage. In totality, he’s basically lost as much as he won.
Statistically, he never led the NFL in any of the important categories used for measuring quarterback play like completion percentage, touchdowns, passing yards, yards per game or passer rating. Never once did Manning lead the league in any of those categories during any of his 16 seasons. He did however lead the league in one major category and that was interceptions. He accomplished that dubious feat three times.
2) Was there ever a three to five year stretch of dominance at his position?
This is a hard no. Manning's best statistical years range from between 2008 and 2015. That’s an eight year stretch. Arguably his best five years came right in the middle of his career, as is the case with many athletes. This would be the five seasons between 2011 and 2015. One of those seasons included a Super Bowl and one of his two Super Bowl MVP’s.
Here are the other facts from that time in his career.
In those five seasons, Manning ranked 19th in passer rating and 20th in completion percentage. He was outside the top five in touchdowns, yet led the league in interceptions during this period of time, which was the prime of his career and arguably his best years. To underscore the theory that these were in fact his best years, understand he made three of his four career Pro-Bowls during this 2011-15 stretch.
I’d like to make a parallel to a longtime baseball bubble player, Jim Rice, as he is the perfect case study about why the five year stretch of elite play is a critical factor in this kind of analysis. Simply said, it establishes an element of dominance in a player’s era. One of the reasons the long overdue case for Rice finally cracked the code for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame was because of his consistent presence in the MVP voting. He won it in 1978 and was in the top five for MVP voting five additional times in ('75, '77, '79, '83 and '86). Establishing prolonged dominance matters in Hall of Fame discussions. Rice had it in baseball, Manning does not in football. Regarding MVP seasons, that leads me to my next question in the test.
3) Did he ever have an MVP level season?
That would be another no. Manning was a four-time Pro Bowler in 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2015, but he never made All-Pro nor won a regular season MVP. In fact, he only finished in the top 10 in passer rating once during his entire career. Additionally, the highest single season passer rating Manning ever achieved was 93.6 in 2015, a mark he never reached again. Meanwhile, his brother Peyton, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and even Phillip Rivers have each eclipsed that mark a minimum of eight times in their respective careers.
Those are my main questions regarding Hall of Fame entry and Manning fails them all. Additionally, I think it’s important to add some anecdotal thoughts to this process as well.
First, it hasn’t ended well. In the last three seasons (2017, 2018 and in the two games so far this season) the Giants are 8-25 and Manning has lost his starting job. Obviously it’s not all his fault, but the results have been pathetic and it’s a microcosm of a larger point and that is regarding his floor. When Manning is off, he’s way off and looks far more like the most forgettable that have ever played the position versus those who are the most memorable and celebrated. Hall of Famers don’t look as consistently bad in games throughout their career as Manning does. They just don’t. His floor is loaded will mud, dust, dirt and holes it may even be rat infested. This is what truly keeps him down in my estimation.
You cannot take two Super Bowl and two Super Bowl MVP’s away from him. He won those games and earned that hardware. Those moments and performances have earned their place in NFL lore. His two greatest games will be immortalized for all to see for generations on NFL Films and that’s exactly what that organization is for. NFL Films will successfully recreate and relive the moments and those who created them for eternity. However, that does not translate to an automatic invitation into Pro Football’s most hallowed ground.
In the case of Manning, I think Apollo Creed said it best in Rocky III when talking to the Italian Stallion… “Rock, you fight great, but I’m a great fighter.”
Eli, you fought great, but you’re not a great quarterback and you’re certainly not a Hall of Famer.