Friday, February 10, 2012

Eli to Canton: The Math

It's been a week since the Super Bowl and I still wake up each morning with a smile on my face.

A wise man (my buddy Rob) once noted that being a sports fan is a losing proposition. Even Yankee fans end more seasons in heartbreak than not, and for fans of normal teams it's an endless cycle of disappointment punctuated by the occasional glorious title. (Or as Rob put it: "I'm 3-90, lifetime!")

Well, Giants fans have been blessed with two very special championships in 4 years. Sure, all titles are special, but these had a little extra seasoning. The combination of their serendipity, the closeness of the games, the quality of the opponents*, and the class of the organization...I'm getting weepy just thinking about it.

* Combined records of the 8 teams the Giants beat on the way to its 2 Super Bowls: 108-26. Six of the eight teams were 13-3 or better in regular season.

I'm not going to do any game analysis here - it's all been done to death. I really want to make two quick points, and then have an extended discussion about Eli Manning's Hall of Fame chances.

First, the two quick points:
  • Underrated star of the postseason was Hakeem Nicks. He had a spectacular season (76 catches/1186 yards/7 TDs in only 14 games). But he was overshadowed by the even more spectacular Victor Cruz (82 catches, 1536 yards, and 9 TDs in 14 games, with a crazy-good 18.7 average). Cruz deservedly became a New York folk hero, but Nicks lit up the postseason: 28 catches, 444 yards, and 4 touches. In the combined 18 games, he passed Cruz in catches and TD catches. Nicks got way less love than he deserved*.
* Bonus video coverage: I think this catch was a much harder grab than the Manningham catch. And if you've never seen this highlight from a catch he made at North Carolina, check it out. It's as amazing as the Tyree Helmet Grab).
  • I'm hoping the phrase "I can't throw the ball and catch the ball" catches on, as a general phrase for "I can't do everything." (I know, the original phrase was "My husband can't..." but I don't have much use for that.)

Now, on to Eli's Hall of Fame chances.

A Canton Career?

A lot of ridiculous nonsense has been spouted by people in the past week. Indeed, I believe that any writer*, announcer, or pundit of any kind who argues that Eli has now surpassed Peyton in greatness should immediately have their credentials stripped from them.

Peyton has won 4 league MVPs. Guess who has more? NOBODY! He has won more MVPs than anyone who has ever played the game. He's 3rd all time in passing yards. He's 3rd all time in touchdowns. He's thrown 125 more TD passes than Joe Montana. He's been in 11 Pro Bowls. He's one of the greatest of all time, and even Eli's most devoted supporters (of which I'm one) know he is not that.

* A special award for outrageous stupidity should go to Foxsports Jason Whitlock. On Showtime's Inside the NFL he made his unsupported-by-facts "Eli will surpass Peyton" argument. After Phil Simms and Cris Collinsworth (who clearly knew they were dealing with a moron) pointed out how the Colts crashed without him this year, he argued that was Peyton's fault, too, since he built the team around himself. How does this dolt have a job as a professional sportswriter and I'm writing this blog that only you are reading?

Eli may not be on Peyton's level, but he's building a fine career on his own. Many folks have made the Eli to Canton argument, and they talk about the Super Bowls and the fourth quarter comebacks and his unruffled demeanor. But you see, when you're talking Halls of Fame - football, baseball, basketball, whatever - it's essentially a math problem. You look at the numbers, do some projections, and voila' - you can make a pretty good guess at their chances. And guess what: Eli has a damn good chance of making the Hall of Fame.

Here's my methodology for projecting Eli Manning as a Hall of Fame candidate:

  • I looked at the last six QBs elected, all of whose career started in the 80's or later (Elway, Marino, Moon, Kelly, Young, Aikman)
  • I focused on six key metrics: passing yards, touchdown passes, interceptions, TD/Int ratio, SB MVP, and League MVP*
  • I projected the remainder of Eli's career. I assumed a 14 year career, which would actually be below average compared to the aforementioned 6 (all played 15 or more but Aikman [12] and Kelly [who wasted 3 seasons in the USFL]
  • I assumed, for Eli, an average of 3,500 yards and 20 TDs per year, over those six years. That is very conservative, I think, especially considering he went for 4900 yards and 29 TDs this year, and has two great young receivers
  • Finally, I added another calculation, showing a more aggressive projection. I assume 16 seasons, at 3,750 yards per and 25 touchdowns per. Again, this is below his numbers the past few years, and 16 seasons is reasonable
* I chose these stats because they are the ones most valued by Hall of Fame voters. Completion percentage, for example, is not valued by the Hall, or Chad Pennington (highest all time) would be writing his Acceptance Speech.

So how do those proections match up with those six? Using the conservative numbers, pretty damn good. Nearly 50,000 yards passing and over 300 TDs. More Super Bowl MVPs than anyone. Only Aikman has more titles, but he destroys Aikman in yards and TDs*. His yardage and TD numbers also blow away Young and Kelly, and of course his titles blow away Marino and Moon.

* You can make a good case Aikman doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. He was a pretty good quarterback on a team with a fabulous defense and the great Emmitt Smith.

His career would be most comparable to Elway - indeed, using my numbers, they would be nearly identical to Elway. Of course, Eli threw in a more pass-happy league than Elway. But Eli has one big advantage over Elway: his Super Bowl teams, especially this one, were built on his arm. Elway's Super Bowl teams were built on Terrell Davis' legs.

With these numbers (and they could be much better, if he plays like he did this year for a few years), he'd rank in the Top 10 of all time, maybe even the Top 5, in the two key Hall stats. Only 4 QBs in history have thrown for over 50,000 yards, and only 6 have thrown over 300 touchdown passes. Brady and Brees will likely join that group as well, but no other active quarterback is ahead of Eli's pace.

I thought the interceptions would hurt him more, but I was wrong. Yes, he led the league twice in picks, but again, using my projections, his career is a near-perfect match to Elway. And his TD/INT ratio is better than Aikman, Elway, Kelly, and Moon. (Again, Aikman's performance here is less than Hall-worthy).

And of course, he has the intangibles. He already has more 4th quarter comebacks than HoFers Staubach, Aikman, Griese, Dawson, Starr, and others. He'll likely pass Fouts, Bradshaw, Kelly, and Montana before he's done.

And finally, if you're wondering if he's just a beneficiary of the pass-happy NFL, the answer is "not really". Among active players, Peyton and Brady* are already all-time greats and Brees is cruising to Canton. But Eli is ahead of his 2004 classmates, Roethlisberger and Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers will suffer from a late start in his career. No other active player projects comfortably for the Hall of Fame right now.

* These two guys are playing for higher stakes right now: the chance to be known as the greatest of all time. But those quests took huge hits this year, as Peyton's assault on the record books was checked, perhaps irrevocably, and Brady...well, you know what happened to him.

Eli does have one big knock against him: Pro Bowls. He's only been to two so far. And in a conference featuring Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Matthew Stafford, it will be no easy task to make them in the years ahead. Of course, if he wins a 3rd Super Bowl he'll be a lock.

Of course, these are the conservative numbers. Use the aggressive numbers and you're approaching 60,000 yards and 400 touchdowns. Toss in another Super Bowl or two, and you have a career that Joe Montana would envy. Hey, a guy can dream, right?

Either way, the math looks good. Of course, in the violent world of the National Football League, health is the key. Eli Manning has been an amazingly durable player, but so was his brother. Eli needs to play a lot more football before he gets a plaque in NFL Hall of Fame. But at this rate, it's looking pretty darn good.

See ya in Canton.

Bonus Fun Fact for Jets fans who are sick of hearing about Eli: Sometime in the first game of next season, the announcers will inform us that Eli Manning has just passed Joe Namath in passing yardage

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