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The Last Manning on Earth

Like any youngest child, Eli has always been well aware of his place in the world. Now, with Peyton retired, that place is at the center of the NFL’s single-Manning formation.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of the nicest things that anyone has said lately about New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning came, as these things always do, from the singer Jewel during a recent Comedy Central roast of Rob Lowe. “Peyton Manning is here,” she announced, by way of introducing the newly retired quarterback, “because Eli is still out there making his dad proud.”

When the NFL season kicks off Thursday, young Eli will officially be the only Manning kid left on the playground, the only one still pedaling his bike along that familiar paper route. He’ll officially be the last Manning standing, and if you’re one of the many Americans who treat football as the nexus of the universe, you could say he’s the last Manning on earth.

Being last is part of the pleasure and pain of being the youngest, a familial role that has as many drawbacks as it has perks. Sure, you may not have to agitate for car ownership, but there’s a good chance you’ll be tossed the keys to a beater instead. After years of being overlooked, you might finally get some true, undivided attention — right around the time that you’d much rather escape parental scrutiny. The tough, chill demeanor sprung from a childhood of being shaken upside down by marginally older goons is useful in navigating life, and particularly comes in handy for forever surviving being the butt of all family jokes.

It’s satisfying to chuckle about the now-famous tidbit, shared by The New York Times a week before the Super Bowl in 2008, that Manning liked hanging out with his mother in New Orleans antique shops rather than watching his brothers play high school sports. But think about having Peyton Manning — a guy who went to college not knowing how to use a can opener — as your older brother, and you can see how doing the exact opposite of whatever he was up to might have significant appeal.

And in a small way, that’s what Eli has been doing ever since. Sure, the Manning brothers were NFL quarterbacks at the same time for the better part of 11 seasons, and they both have two Super Bowl wins; it’s not like Eli struck out and joined the Peace Corps or started an HGTV fan blog. (One can dream.) But where Peyton was always polished, Eli is almost intentionally awkward; where Peyton sometimes seemed to be play-acting the part of army general, Eli has always seemed more interested, temperamentally, in fiddling with G.I. Joes.

In a league surrounded by skilled marketers and handlers anxious to ascribe gutsy heroism to any ordinary drive, it’s noteworthy that even legitimately big-time plays by Eli have often appeared borderline accidental. But he has never seemed to mind any of this. It doesn’t seem to have ever even occurred to him to mind. And why should it?

The New York Giants will open this season against the Dallas Cowboys; they’ve done so eight times before and lost every damn game. Each occasion is special and memorable in its own way, of course, but for the New York City tabloid-industrial complex (and for Giants fans who like to imagine themselves as somehow beaten down despite having celebrated two recent Super Bowl wins), last year’s contest might have been the best of the worst. “THE $84M DOPE,” the New York Post would scream of Manning, who had signed a new contract not long before the season began.

After seeing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead sliced like butter by a hot knife — which was also how then-coach Tom Coughlin described a Cowboys scoring drive against his defense — the Giants got the ball back and proceeded to engage, for the game’s final minutes, in a sport that optically resembled American football but followed almost none of its generally accepted principles.

Manning has made his fair share of bad throws and dumb decisions over the years, but he’s otherwise demonstrated that he is largely capable of organizing and executing effective offensive sequences. (How’s that for a killer résumé line item?) For whatever reason, though, this core competency of his was not to be found late in the season opener in Dallas.

Of his many unforgivable errors near the end of the contest, the worst was the decision to throw the ball through the back of the end zone and stop the clock for the Cowboys, rather than take a sack and let time tick. “One hundred percent on me right there,” he admitted after the 27–26 loss. (The game’s lone bright spot was that the next afternoon, Eli Manning had the first and perhaps only interesting radio appearance of his career.)

The game played into the common perception of Manning as bumbling and daffy that has dogged him throughout his career. Part of this caricature has become deliberately, lightheartedly overblown — it is thoroughly satisfying, after all, to scroll through pictures of Eli clutching a tiny pail on the beach or messing around with puppies like some big ol’ toddler, and then extrapolate all that into mental fanfic about said toddler just wantin’ to play some good football.

But the same traits that have contributed to Manning’s successful career have also so often been what have cast him as not being fully in control of it. Athletes across all sports love to talk about never getting too high or too low as some sort of unattainable grail to forever strive toward, but when a competitor comes along who naturally maintains an even keel, as Manning pretty much always has, it’s easy to mistake it for a lack of awareness or autonomy. Eli lacks neither.

By the time the Giants lined up against the Cowboys for their second game last season, a 27–20 Giants win in Week 7, Tony Romo had been sidelined by a broken collarbone. He won’t be taking snaps when the two teams kick off their seasons this Sunday, either, after breaking a bone in his back this preseason.

Romo’s injury history is depressing, and it’s also a reminder of Manning’s surprising durability. One of the quickest ways to appreciate Eli Manning is to glance at a handful of Wikipedia pages regarding NFL starting quarterbacks over the years. Since the first season Manning suited up for the New York Giants, in 2004, the team’s crosstown cousins, the New York Jets, have started 11 different humans at quarterback. Ditto the Giants’ NFC East rivals, the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles, who will both be introducing no. 12 this weekend. Manning, meanwhile, started seven games in his rookie season and hasn’t missed one since. (That he’s done so behind some truly mediocre offensive lines over the years is all the more impressive.)

And yet you rarely hear him referred to as any sort of iron man. Manning is responsible for a few truly gross losses, but also for a handful of absurd wins. Quarterback ages will always skew higher than the NFL average, but Manning, at 35, is basically entering old-man territory in an NFL that has grown younger by the year. (As with Peyton, it’s always been hard to calibrate Eli’s age properly, although for very different reasons: While Peyton had the air of a dad while he was still a college kid, Eli, father of three girls, has always scanned as the youngest of three boys.) An entire generation of quarterbacks has not only come up behind him — it’s learned from him. Dallas’s starting quarterback in Romo’s absence, 23-year-old Dak Prescott, was a longtime camper and counselor at the Manning Passing Academy. Throwing a football has always been the family business; it’s just that now there’s only one person left manning the store.

Uncertainty surrounding a quarterback can envelop a team in years of confusion, dysfunction, false starts, and sudden stops. The Giants haven’t lacked for these things, of course; they have employed, variously, the guy who shot himself in the leg, the guy who blew up his hand, and the monster who allegedly beat up his wife. Injuries prematurely ended the career of running back and first-round draft pick David Wilson; it remains to be seen whether Victor Cruz, once Manning’s top target, will ever dance the salsa in the end zone again. You can quibble over whether you can spell elite without Eli (literally, you can’t!) and you can argue that Manning should or should not wind up in football lore alongside his father and, one assumes, brother. But however you gauge Eli, he’s saved the Giants from any uncertainty at the quarterback position.

There’s a comical disconnect when you view Eli as a locker room elder statesman, though: Imagine someone explaining to him that his star wide receiver was recently the subject of a kerfuffle that involved an online newsletter, a woman in a tuxedo, and a marshmallow. When young Giants running back Orleans Darkwa pulled some strings this summer to boost Manning’s middling player rating in Madden from an 81 to an 83, he didn’t even bother to let the quarterback know. “He doesn’t care,” said Darkwa, who is 11 years Manning’s junior. “I didn’t even bring it up to him.”

Entering this new NFL era of the single-Manning formation, it’s helpful to reminisce about what happened in Peyton Manning’s final game. When cameras zoomed in on the reactions taking place in the Manning family’s Super Bowl suite, it was easy to fixate on an expressionless Eli and project one’s own family drama onto his blank face. He was jealous of Peyton, perhaps: Now he didn’t have two championships to his brother’s one. He didn’t know what was going on, maybe, just like he hadn’t in last season’s Dallas game.

But look more closely and it becomes clear that he and his mother, Olivia, are exchanging a no-look celebratory mid-five with the synchronized nonchalance of a longtime doubles tennis team, or at least of a mother and son who must absolutely dominate estate sales and family games of Pictionary. Don’t misunderstand what you think you see from Eli Manning: Like any youngest child, he’s always been well aware of his place in the world, and he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Now, somebody pass him the chips.