[Warning: Unless you are interested in football statistics, you might want to skip this one...]
One's opinion of just about anything – a restaurant, a vacation, a book – is largely shaped by expectations. This is especially true of athletes. We create expectations for them, based on their salary, their potential and other factors, and then measure them by those expectations. Further, since we root for teams in a way that we don’t root for restaurants or books, we care far more about whether they succeed, which further impacts our expectations.
Take Eli Manning. It is possible that no athlete in recent memory has been burdened with greater expectations. The combination of being a quarterback, a #1 pick, a Manning, a New Yorker, and a guy who forced his own trade before throwing an NFL pass have all combined to put a particularly high-powered microscope on him.
And to judge by sports radio in New York, Giants fans do not like what they see. We are in the middle of his 3rd full NFL season and much of Giants nation has already declared him as a man incapable of ever winning a championship.
What is most curious about this is that Giants fans absolutely revere Phil Simms. So it got me to wondering…just how does Eli stack up against Phil, and other Giants QBs through the years. Let's take a look, shall we?
TD PassesEli threw 24 TD passes in 2005 and 2006, and is on pace for 21 in 2007. Simms career high was 22. In fact, when Eli threw 24 in his first full season as a Pro, it was the first time in 40 years a Giants QB had thrown that many TDs. Eli has now done it both of his full professional seasons.
InterceptionsEli threw 18 INTs in 06, one more than 05. He has 17 so far in 07. In Simms’ last few seasons, he kept the picks down; but from 1979-1987, nearly a decade, he averaged 19 interceptions per 16 games. In 1986, the season that vaulted Simms to the Giants’ pantheon, he threw 22 picks (against 21 TDs).
Is Eli inaccurate? His completion percentage this year is 58.3% through 13 games. It has improved every year he’s been in the NFL. Phil didn’t get his completion percentage this high until 1990, his 11th season as a pro! (That is my first non-ironic use of an exclamation point in any blog posting, so pay heed)
The most important thing a QB does is lead an offense, and the most important thing an offense does is score points. How well has Eli’s offense done that in his short career? Better than any Giant offense since Nixon was in office.
The Giants scored 422 points in 2005. That is more than any Giants team coached by Bill Parcells, or since. More than the Super Bowl teams. More than the 94 team, which was Phil's best season statistically. And likely more than any of the putrid teams of the 70's.
In 2006 the total dropped to 355. But 355 still ranks as the 5th best season in the last 23 years (and likely, the past 40). In 1990, the Giants' second Super Bowl year, and Simms' best season until he got injured, the Giants scored 335 points.
This year…well, the Giants’ offense stinks this year, right? Well, not exactly. Through 13 games, the Giants have scored 290 points, and are on a pace to score 356 points, on par with last year.
Eli does share one thing in common with his older brother: for at least part of his career, his defense sucked. While Eli and Co. were putting up 355 points in 2006, his defensive teammates were giving up 362 points. The Giants have only given up more than 362 points once since 1983. This year, the defense has tightened significantly, and the Giants are 9-4.
In 2005, Eli took his team to the playoffs. In 2006, Eli took his team to the playoffs. In 2007, Eli will take his team to the playoffs. Questions?
Yes, you can argue the Giants backed in to the playoffs in 06 with an 8-8 record. But remember, that season Big Blue played the 3rd hardest schedule in the NFL; lost their left tackle (2nd most important position on the team) and most dependable wide receiver to injuries, had a terrible defense, and according to the same fans who fulminate about Eli, were poorly-coached.
In 05 Eli was terrible in the first round playoff loss. But in 06, he improved markedly, leading a tremendous touchdown drive in the 4th quarter to tie it. Will he take another step this year, with a first round win against Tampa or Seattle?
Do Giants fans remember that game-tying playoff drive last year? 2nd & 30, down 7 points, in the 4th quarter, in a playoff game, at Philadelphia of all places – and Eli completed consecutive passes of 18, 14 and 11 yards to Plaxico Burress, the last one in the end zone. How can you watch that and not think this kid has what it takes?
That was not his first, or last, 4th quarter comeback. His first win, against the Cowboys, in 04. The Cowboys again in 05 (blown by the D). The Broncos in 05. The Bears in 07.
Obviously, these statistics doesn’t tell the full story. Indeed, I'm overstating the case a bit because I think Eli takes too far too much heat. But it does tell part of the story. And it's nearly indisputable that Eli is a much better quarterback through the early part of his career than Phil was, even if he doesn't yell on the sidelines quite as much.
On January 25, 1987, Phillip Martin Simms walked out onto the Rose Bowl field in Pasadena, California, and had one of the great games in the history of the NFL. There were two kinds of Giants fans that day – those who had given up on the 1981 first round draft choice, as he struggled through a very shaky career start, and a faithful few that saw a spark, and kept the faith.
Will Elisha Nelson Manning have a day like that? Which kind of Giants fan will you be on that day?
Note: Apples to apples
Many people, when confronted with these arguments, start talking about how the NFL has changed to more of a passing game, so comparing passing statistics across eras doesn't work. This is true if you go back to the 70's. But Bill Walsh and Don Coryell started changing things in the early 80's, and it shows in the statistics.
In the 70's, the 10 season passing leaders averaged 3,434 yards per season (including pro-rating for 14 year seasons). Only Dan Fouts in 79 passed 4000 yards. In the 80's, the average jumped to 4,587 in the non-strike years, which is actually higher than the average so far in the 2000s (4492). So yes, you can compare Eli to Phil and call it apples to apples.