I was flipping through channels Sunday, trying to cope with my football withdrawal, when I discovered the NFL Network was thankfully running a marathon of Super Bowl highlights. As I sat entranced by some of the championship games from my childhood, the one that stood out was Super Bowl XXXII between John Elway's Broncos and Brett Favre's Packers.
Favre significantly outplayed Elway, except for one famous eight yard scramble with a helicopter finish. Still, Elway won his first of two Super Bowls, while Favre never got back to the big game and retired with just one Super Bowl victory.
Choosing who had a better career between Favre and Elway is a tough debate, determined largely by each quarterback's 52 teammates in that single game. This, naturally, made me think of Eli Manning.
Manning's legacy was a hot-button issue in the weeks leading up to and following the Super Bowl, particularly because Giants fans already spent an entire season arguing that he is an "elite" quarterback, as if the term was anything more than just an arbitrary, immeasurable status.
No players in any sport are evaluated based on championships as much as NFL quarterbacks. But is it fair to judge a quarterback's entire career on that one criteria?
Regardless of who wins, I often cringe at the Super Bowl post-game coverage and the annual heaping of praise that takes place in the following 24-48 hours.
Last year some pundits (and some Packers fans) tried to make the argument that Aaron Rodgers had already surpassed Favre after just three seasons as a starter, despite Favre's three MVPs and multiple league records. Well, Rodgers did look good this Super Bowl Sunday, but unfortunately for him it was as a commentator after melting away with a one-and-done playoff run for the second time in three years.
Nothing against Rodgers, who backed up his Super Bowl run with a spectacular MVP season, but it's premature to declare any player an all-time great when he's barely into the prime of his career. While many were right about how good Rodgers is, the reality is that he's still chasing Favre's accomplishments. It may take a few more disappointing playoff exits for people to realize that, but some of those are bound to come.
The question was raised immediately whether or not Manning, with his two Super Bowl rings, is now a Hall of Famer. Within 48 hours of the Super Bowl, everybody seemed to have an opinion. After digesting it for a week and watching summaries of 10 other Super Bowls, my honest answer is... we don't know yet. He's only 31, and many quarterbacks (like Elway) shape their legacies much later in their careers. There's a reason players aren't eligible for the Hall of Fame until five years after they retire.
By virtue of his two titles, Manning has now officially outclassed many players with long, successful careers but no titles. But had a few balls bounced differently in just a handful of games throughout history, his career may have been no better than guys like Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair and Drew Bledsoe. I watched all three of them play and lose Super Bowls during my highlight marathon, and analysts would have gushed that each of them was on a Hall of Fame trajectory if they'd been clutching a Lombardi trophy in a cloud of confetti. Yet like Favre and Elway, their teammates had as great an impact on their losses as they did.
So Manning is now paradoxically Mr. Clutch on the road in the playoffs despite a career record of 27-36 in the second half of the season. That includes pedestrian marks of 3-5 this year and 4-4 the year of his previous Super Bowl victory.
On one hand, he just nearly threw for a 5,000 yard season. On the other hand, he's never been in the top three in the league in completions, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns or passer rating. He's made the Pro Bowl two times, the same amount as non-Hall of Famer and Super Bowl champ Brad Johnson. And had one fumble or Hail Mary bounced in a different direction, all of the debates would have instead been about whether or not Tom Brady is the best quarterback of all-time. So Manning has two rings, but it's laughable to think that Eli has had a better career than, say, his older brother Peyton.
It's possible that over the next six years he'll set some records, or lead the league in a few categories -- the type of lines the all-time greats have on their resumes to go along with their titles. It's also possible that he won't.
I know that some day in 15 years I'll be on my couch watching replays of Eli Manning in the Super Bowl. What I don't know is how the next handful of seasons will determine his place in history. But unlike many people I heard from in the direct aftermath of the Super Bowl, I'm comfortable waiting a few years to make up my mind.