Easy Eli and the Sheriff

Most rivalries, in sports as in life, are stories the losing side tells itself when the damage goes on too long. I know this because I grew up a Red Sox fan, and we crowed often about our rivalry with the New York Yankees, which mostly didn’t exist—the Yankees always won in the end—until suddenly it did, when the Red Sox came all the way back on the Bombers down three games to none in the 2004 ALCS.

On the Mannings and rivalry

Peyton and Eli Manning. Image by sdk via flickr.

Around five in the evening on Sunday, in the back room of the Keg and Lantern in Greenpoint, a skinny man at the table next to me leapt to his feet and shouted, “Eeyah you fucking mouthbreathing cocksucker eeeyah!” He swung his arms wildly, stranded somewhere between punching the air like a boxer and beating his chest like a gorilla. After a moment he sat back down. “Mouth breathing, cock sucker,” he repeated, a little quieter but slower and more clearly, as if burnishing the phrase. The Patriots rapier of a defensive end, Chandler Jones, had just wrapped his impossibly long arm around the Giants quarterback, knocking the ball from his grasp, where another Patriot had pounced on it. It was the first quarter and New England was up, 10–7. They were undefeated, so far, on the season, 8–0, while the Giants were a mere 5–4. There was no reason for my colleague to be so worked up. It was just a regular season game. Or there wouldn’t have been, had the quarterback getting hit not been named Elisha Nelson Manning IV, Eli Manning for short.

Most rivalries, in sports as in life, are stories the losing side tells itself when the damage goes on too long. I know this because I grew up a Red Sox fan, and we crowed often about our rivalry with the New York Yankees, which mostly didn’t exist—the Yankees always won in the end—until suddenly it did, when the Red Sox came all the way back on the Bombers down three games to none in the 2004 ALCS. I’ve been on the other side of this, too, with the ostensible rivalry between the Patriots and the Jets, which also mostly didn’t exist—Pats are up 23 to 10 since 2000—until it did, when the Jets ruined a superb Patriots team in the second round of the 2010 playoffs. Same thing with the Ravens, who were 1–7 against New England until they beat them twice in 2012, including in the AFC championship game. Calling what defeats you consistently your “rival” is one way of keeping it from passing too far beyond your grasp. If the brothers Manning were one quarterback instead of two, this super-player would have a very healthy rivalry with Tom Brady. Instead, it’s been more like a triangle: Brady beats Peyton, Peyton beats Eli, and Eli, that gob-ventilating oral enthusiast, Eli beats Brady better than anyone.

Like many a dynastic patriarch, Archie Manning looks lucky from a distance. Up close things get more complicated. Born on May 19, 1949, Elisha Archibald Manning III grew up in Drew, Mississippi, a town of two thousand in Sunflower County. When he was 19, and a rising junior at Ole Miss, Archie came home to find that his father, Buddy, had shot himself in the chest. Elisha Manning Jr. had been a manager at a local farm machinery dealership, but business was bad, and he didn’t want to be a burden on his family. Archie considered leaving school, but his mother, Jane Elizabeth, insisted that he stay, and the next year Archie starred in the first nationally broadcast primetime college football game, throwing for 436 yards and running for another 104 but losing anyway, to Alabama, 33–32. After graduation, he married the homecoming queen, Olivia Williams; the two had been dating since they met at a freshman mixer.

The New Orleans Saints selected Manning second overall in 1971, after the then-Boston Patriots had taken Stanford’s Jim Plunkett first. In 1972, Archie led the league in passing yards as his team went 2–11. Manning played ten years for the Saints, went to the Pro Bowl twice and never had a winning season. His record of 35–101 is the worst of any quarterback with at least a hundred starts. He was sacked so many times it was said that Jack Youngblood, the Rams’ pass rusher Art Shell once described as a “hellacious terror” and “quick as a hiccup,” started to take it easy on him. When Youngblood was set to enter the Hall of Fame, something Manning was not invited to do, Manning suggested that he be the one to induct Youngblood, seeing as how “he wouldn’t have gotten in without having me to sack.”

The family was not done with football, but first there was a setback. Archie’s eldest son, Cooper Manning, was an all-state receiver bound for his father’s alma mater when he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal, and never played again. After receiving the news, Cooper wrote a letter to his little brother by two years, Peyton Williams, who had been his quarterback at Isidore Newman High School in New Orleans.

I would like to live my dream of playing football through you. Although I cannot play anymore, I know I can still get the same feeling out of watching my little brother do what he does best. I know now that we are good for each other, because I need you to be serious and look at things from a different perspective.

I am good for you, as well, to take things light. I love you, Peyt, and only great things lay ahead for you. Thanks for everything on and off the field.

Cooper had always worn number 18, and so Peyton started wearing 18 as a tribute after his brother’s diagnosis, and he was still wearing it this Sunday when he broke Brett Favre’s NFL record for career passing yards with 71,838. Favre took a video on his phone congratulating Manning from a tree stand where he was hunting deer. “You’ve interrupted me again,” Favre sighed. “Congratulations, man. You’re the best.”

And Peyton is the best. I have watched him for seventeen years, and I have never seen a more perfectly designed quarterbacking machine, so long as we limit quarterbacking to reading defenses and throwing the ball where it needs to be thrown quickly and accurately. Almost all of today’s quarterbacks are more mobile than Manning, but this makes him a more exciting player than most of his more fleet-footed successors. He has to throw the ball to be successful, and, at least until Aaron Rodgers showed up, he was better at this than anyone had ever been. He is a fourteen time pro-bowler and seven-time first team all-pro, and he holds the all-time records for career touchdowns, touchdowns in a season, career yards, yards in a season, wins, three-hundred-yard games, four-hundred-yard games, consecutive seasons with at least ten wins (nine), consecutive seasons with at least twelve wins (seven), and a host of other records that will quite possibly never be broken.

One play in particular stands out as emblematic. It was some regular season tilt, and the Pats had gone up early and stuffed Manning’s offense twice, leaving him with third down and a whole lot. It was the situation you’d want against any other player, but we all knew what was coming. Peyton looked out, surveyed the defense, shouted out his trademark string of never-ending audibles—codes consisting of proper names, colors, and nonsense that changed the play from what had been called in the huddle—moving guys around at the line. It’s a habit that earned him his nickname, “The Sheriff,” though “The Nanny” or “The Gym Teacher” might capture better the combination of controlling confidence and anxious fastidiousness with which Peyton dissects your defense alive. He looks like he’s playing against children. Anyway, on this occasion he took the snap, dropped back, and with three defenders in his face flicked his wrist like a magician snaps his fingers only twice as fast and with less wasted movement. The ball flew in a magnificent, algebraic parabola across the field, just past the outstretched hands of our ideally positioned safety, and into the arms of his receiver: first down.

But Peyton is a middle child and perfect only so long as the world is fair, which is often enough but not always, not even for a five-time league MVP who holds the record for comeback victories in the fourth quarter. After going 34–5 in high school, Peyton spurned the family alma mater Ole Miss for Tennessee, leading the Volunteers to a 39–6 record as a starter. It was in college that Manning revealed that he may have inherited more from his father than preternatural talent. Despite dominating the competition, Peyton was dogged by the curse of Losing Anyway. Like Archie, his career summaries are littered with sentences like “Peyton guided the team to a 30–14 halftime lead, then watched as Tennessee collapsed in the final two quarters, surrendering 48 points en route to a 25-point blowout.” Or: “Despite his inability to win the big one at Tennessee, Peyton was the talk of the 1998 NFL draft.”

Manning not only seemed to lose the big game more than he should, he was so dominant the rest of the time that he didn’t inspire much sympathy when he lost. No one was surprised when, in April 1998, Peyton was drafted first overall by the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots had been the last team to draft a QB first overall, taking Drew Bledsoe in 1993. Manning was selected after his chief competition, Ryan Leaf, professed disdain about playing in Indianapolis. Leaf ended up going second to San Diego and was out of football four years later after screaming at a cameraman and then throwing a football at the reporter who wrote about him screaming at the cameraman. As befitting a player who ended his career with fourteen touchdowns and thirty-six interceptions, he missed.

Meanwhile, the littlest Manning, Elisha Nelson, five years younger than Peyton, had just led Isidore Newman to the playoffs for the second time.

Eli was the baby by more than just birth order: with Archie traveling a lot for his second career as a public speaker, he spent more time with his mother, eating dinner out or going to the movies. Olivia ran the household with a quiet authority, staying calmest in moments of crisis. While Archie was a nervous wreck during their children’s games, Olivia kept her composure. ”If Peyton makes a mistake, Olivia will say to him, ‘Archie, that looks like a time you messed up. Don’t you say a thing to him. That’s my baby out there.’ And he takes it from her,” Olivia’s friend Lucy Hand told the Knox news in 1997. She passed this trait on to her youngest, earning him his nickname, “Easy.” “Growing up we would have been lost and clueless without her,” Eli told the New York Times. “She ran the household and was our biggest supporter.” Eli was a slow reader, so Olivia put in extra time teaching him, so he wouldn’t have to repeat the first grade. (Later, he would best his brother’s score on the Wonderlic, a predraft intelligence test, by 20 percent.) While Cooper and Peyton had clearly articulated ambitions in the family business, young Eli professed no interest in football, and so Peyton would terrorize him, holding him down and hitting him until he recited all the teams in the Southeastern Conference.

On weekends when Archie would travel with the older boys to various football-related competitions, Eli would ask to stay home with a babysitter, or go shopping for antiques with his mother. “The first couple of times it wasn’t because I wanted to,” Manning told the New York Times. “It was just because she wanted to go shopping and there was nobody to watch me, so I had to tag along. But after I went a couple of times, I started to enjoy it.” (In college, he’d decorate his apartment with specimens from Magazine Street in New Orleans.) In pickup neighborhood games, the local kids played Eli at quarterback once they figured out he had the strongest arm in his family.

By the end of the 1999 season, his second in the NFL, Peyton had turned the Colts around, going 13–3, making the Pro Bowl, and winning the division. But then he lost his first playoff game against the Super Bowl–bound Titans. In 2000, the pattern continued: Peyton once again made the Pro Bowl and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In 2001, Manning earned player-of-the-week honors when he passed for 421 yards against Buffalo in the second game of the season. At the same time New England was losing an ugly 10–3 game against the Jets where Drew Bledsoe was seriously injured, and a sixth-round draft pick from Michigan named Tom Brady took over and completed five of ten passes for 46 yards.

Fourteen years later, I will be honest and say that though I loved the Patriots dearly, I did not watch that Jets game, nor Brady’s first official start the following week against Manning’s Colts, who were favored by eleven and a half. Instead I slept in and then went to the gym, where I distinctly remember peering up at a television screwed into the ceiling as the early scores crawled across the bottom of the screen. At first I thought I had read them wrong, so I waited the full two minutes for the cycle to start over. But there it was again, clear as day: IND 13, NE 44. Huh, I thought, and went back to exercising, unaware that the greatest rivalry of my lifetime had begun.

As with Sox-Yankees, Brady-Manning was pretty one-sided in the beginning: it took Manning seven tries to beat Brady the first time, but they have gone 5–5 since. Still, even if Brady holds the lifetime advantage, the two have played so many good games that a kind of shorthand has developed. There was the David Patten game, where the Patriots receiver became the sixth player to throw, catch, and run for a touchdown in the same contest; the Ty Law game, in the 2003 playoffs, when the Patriots cornerback intercepted Manning three times. The Willie McGinest game, where the Patriots linebacker faked a leg injury to slow Manning’s offense long enough for the defense to recover and pull off a goal-line stand for the win. There was the Corey Dillon game, where the Patriots back ran all over the Colts in the second half of another playoff victory in 2004 to help hold Manning’s top-scoring offense to three points. There was the monkey-off-the-back-game: Peyton’s first victory at New England in 2005, and, later that same season, the Shootout, when Manning came back from a 21–6 halftime deficit to beat the Pats in the AFC championship 38–34. The deciding call was Peyton audibling to the perfect running play for the go-ahead score, Joseph Addai sneaking into the end zone untouched.

There was the game during the Patriots’s undefeated regular season in 2007 when they came back from ten down in the fourth quarter. The fourth and two game, in 2009, when Manning was so dominant that Pats Coach Bill Belichick chose to go for it on fourth and two from his own 28-yard line rather than punt the ball back to the Colts. The attempt failed, and Peyton went on to complete a thirteen-point fourth-quarter comeback to stay undefeated on the season. In 2010, James Sanders intercepted Manning to prevent a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. Then, after Manning moved to Denver, there was the Punt Return Game, where a fumbled Denver punt allowed the Patriots to prevail in overtime, and the 2013 AFC championship, where Manning beat the depleted Patriots to even his all-time playoff record against Brady at 2–2. Last year, Brady made it eleven wins to Peyton’s five in what might have been their last head-to-head matchup.

But most of this was still in the future when Eli Manning was drafted first overall in 2004. Eli’s college career took place in the family shadow and was less decorated than his brother’s: he won less, and his statistics weren’t as gaudy. Before the 2002 season, Archie asked Ole Miss not to push Eli as a favorite for the Heisman trophy, on account of the anxiety that similar expectations had inflicted on Peyton in 1997. Eli did manage one first for his family though. The Florida Gators had handed Peyton two of the most devastating losses of his college career, likely keeping the Volunteers from competing for a championship in 1996 and 1997. Down by four in Gainesville, Eli led a game-winning drive that left only a minute on the clock.

San Diego, still reeling from the busted Leaf pick six years earlier, had the first choice in the draft, but Archie, afraid that the Chargers were perennial losers like the Saints team who had drafted him thirty-two years earlier, made it clear that his youngest wouldn’t play for them. The Chargers took him anyway, and Eli stood awkwardly at the podium with the jersey like a good sport but refused to put on the hat. Later in the day San Diego general manager A.J. Smith, the so-called “Lord of No Rings” for his imperious manner and lack of championships, traded his rights to the New York Giants for quarterback Philip Rivers, who had been taken fourth, and a whole bunch of draft picks, which would make the Chargers contenders for years to come.

It was that Chargers team that would play the undefeated Patriots in the AFC championship in 2007, a ruthless, physical game that saw Brady break his foot and San Diego lose when safety Marlon McCree fumbled away Brady’s third interception, clearing the way for a matchup with Eli’s Giants in the Super Bowl. Eli’s career to that point had been uninspiring enough that in week nine of that year, after a loss to the Cowboys, Giants co-owner John Mara publically questioned whether the team could win with Eli calling the signals. Then Eli upset the Bucs in the wild-card round, and the Cowboys in the divisional. Even though he had thrown twenty interceptions during the regular season, he didn’t turn the ball over once.

In the NFC championship against the Packers, with the score tied, television cameras caught a shot of Archie holding his head in his hands. “For 90 percent of the game I was actually very calm,” he told the Times afterwards. “Then, in those last few minutes, something hit me.” Memories of so many close losses from his playing years: “It seemed like that was what was happening to the Giants, and it was hard for me to watch.” Olivia stayed calm as her son led his team to a winning field goal in overtime after his kicker had missed two previous attempts in the fourth. And she was still calm, two weeks later, when he was down by four at the end of the Super Bowl, after Brady had just driven the only eighteen-win team in history for its first lead of the second half. But then Easy took over, calmly throwing a series of ridiculous and often ill-advised passes off his back foot that nevertheless culminated with a touchdown throw to Plaxico Burress to put the Giants up for good, 17–14.

He simply wasn’t an impressive quarterback during the regular season. His statistics were mediocre; he threw too many interceptions. He hadn’t even been good in his previous two playoff games: throwing three picks in a 23–0 loss to Carolina in 2005, and tossing another in a loss to Philadelphia the following year. In both games he failed to break 200 yards passing. Even in 2008, as a defending champion, he lost to Philly in the first round, 23–11, when he went 15–29 for 169 with two picks and no scores. But when his older brother’s biggest rival needed to be stopped from completing the game’s first 19–0 season, Eli was there.

Whether its Eli-Peyton or Venus-Serena, sports-sibling rivalries dramatize the deeper competition between nature and nurture as explanations for why we are how we are. With the genetics almost equal, but not quite, and the upbringing similar, but not identical, the question of what makes someone successful in one situation and not another can receive a definitive answer, at least for a moment. Of course football isn’t tennis, though talking about quarterbacks can make it sound like it. There is a whole other side of the ball, and that is where Brady and Eli have often had something that Peyton hasn’t, and that’s a defense.

But, oddly, this too can be attributed to the way Peyton is perceived—during his twelve years with the Colts, the team spent six first-round picks on offensive skill position players. The Giants have spent three in Eli’s tenure, while the Patriots have spent three for all of Brady’s fourteen seasons. For some reason it seemed like sacrilege to deprive Peyton of weapons, while Brady could make do with whatever. Eli’s winning teams, too, featured massive investments along the defensive line, investments that made Brady’s life hell in the big game. But it’s because Brady and Eli are precisely not considered talents like Peyton that this strategy was available.

One of the greatest axioms of the sports statisticians is that there is no such thing as a clutch player. The reversion to the mean is their holy nostrum. Given enough games, given enough clutch situations, a player will revert to the mean.  And this has certainly been true of Eli, unless the Patriots or the Gators are involved. He had a chance to revert to the mean four years after beating the Patriots in that first Super Bowl. But he declined to do so. First he broke Brady’s NFL-record thirty-one-game home winning streak in November by going eighty yards in eighty-one seconds and throwing a one-yard touchdown pass to take the lead with nineteen clicks remaining. And then in the 2011 Super Bowl he beat the Patriots again on yet another improbable late-game drive, which featured one of the prettiest throws I’ve ever seen, a thirty-eight yard backbreaker to Mario Manningham

And that is how you end up gleefully screaming obscenities at the television in the back room of a bar on the Lord’s Day in November; Elisha will bring it out in you.

Peyton will undoubtedly retire with more wins, yards, touchdowns and Pro Bowls. He may be the better quarterback and his father’s favorite, Eli told Fox Sports Radio last year, but Easy dresses better and is the superior cook. Peyton is 3­–0 against his little brother, but his all-time playoff record is 11–13. By contrast, Brady’s is 21–8, good for a .723 winning percentage. Eli, at 8–3, is .727, and no doubt the Patriots feel about him the way that Peyton feels about the Patriots.

All told, either a Brady or a Manning has won seven of the past fourteen championships, and appeared in two others. Eli and Peyton combined have accounted for half of Brady’s playoff losses. Only four times since the start of the new century has Brady or a Manning not made it to a Conference Championship. It was there, after the Patriots had dispatched the Ravens in the divisional round last year, that all of us in New England hoped to face Peyton’s Broncos for one final triumph. But then something horrible happened.

In the divisional round against the Colts, his old team, Peyton lost it in front of everybody. Passes that even a month earlier would have zipped across the field were suddenly taking their time, hanging lazily in the air as receivers had to break off their routes and try to keep defenders from catching them. He still had that unparalleled intelligence, could still direct traffic to the right spots, but he couldn’t deliver the ball. I had spent seventeen years calling lustily for all manner of foul things to happen to Peyton Manning, but now I couldn’t bear to watch his undoing. I had not realized how badly we needed him to go on being the best quarterback machine, even if our Brady was the greater player. Watching Peyton against the Colts, the same thought kept pushing itself into my mind, over and over: I’ll be dead someday.

The game was so painful that it was a real surprise when the Peyton decided not to retire in the offseason. But then the Broncos opened the season with seven straight wins behind the league’s best defense and a suddenly wily Manning was somehow getting it done at the helm of the game’s least efficient offense. It was the first time since 2002 his unit had been worse than sixth. Then two weeks ago they lost to the Colts, which set up Sunday’s game against the lowly Chiefs. Manning had broken Favre’s record by halftime, but was five of twenty for thirty-five yards and four interceptions, two sacks, and a fumble. In the third quarter, his team trailing 22–0, he was benched for a tall, handsome quarterback out of Arizona named Brock Osweiler.

Back in New York, things were playing closer to script. With six minutes to go, the Patriots were clinging to a one-point lead, and had just had a one-yard rushing touchdown called back on a holding penalty when the announcers flashed a graphic showing that Brady had thrown nineteen red zone touchdowns this season. On cue, Brady threw an interception, giving Eli the ball on the one. In the back room it was like someone had died; they even turned down the lights. Without even seeming to think about it, Manning drove his team ninety-five yards before a close call on a dropped touchdown led the Giants to settle for a field goal to go up two. Brady had just under two minutes to get his team in field goal range, and after rookie Giants safety Landon Collins dropped an interception, Brady managed to convert a fourth and ten. Three more short completions later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked a fifty-four-yarder to put the Pats back up by one with one second remaining. On the ensuing kickoff, the Giants managed multiple laterals until someone stepped out of bounds and the game was over. Everyone was screaming and clapping. On-screen, the Patriots celebrated like they’d just won the Super Bowl all over again. Since the final game of the 2007 season, the Giants had been the only NFL team Brady hadn’t beaten.

After Sunday’s games were over, it was reported that Peyton had been battling foot problems for weeks. “I know he has been dealing with some injuries and stuff,” Eli said, ever sanguine. “I kind of heard about the game yesterday, but I haven’t talked to him today. But he will be fine, bounce back, and hopefully get healthy. Hey, they are 7–2 and in a good spot. I would take 7–2 with one four-interception game right now, so that is the way it goes.” Later on Monday, Broncos coach Gary Kubiak announced that Brock Osweiler will start next week’s game. The Patriots travel to Denver the week after that, for what, barring a meeting in the playoffs, we had all imagined would be Brady and Peyton’s last dance. I hope the Sheriff can make it.

This is the third installment of Stephen Squibb’s football column. Read more here.

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