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The Hall of Eli

Eli Manning is retiring after 16 NFL seasons, and the debate over whether he belongs in Canton has already begun. But that misses the point of his legacy—and why his place in history won’t soon be forgotten.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There are exactly two opinions that people have about Eli Manning.

The first is that Eli, despite his famous name and high-profile gig as the QB1 in America’s biggest city, was not a particularly good football player. There is ample evidence to support this. Manning never led the NFL in passing yards, passing touchdowns, or completion percentage, but did lead the league in interceptions three times. He finished among the top 10 in passer rating only once (he was seventh in 2011) and is 19th among active quarterbacks in yards per pass attempt. He was never named first-team or second-team All-Pro. He made just four Pro Bowls—the same amount as Jeff Garcia, Boomer Esiason, and Drew Bledsoe. Although Eli ranks in the top 10 of some major all-time statistical leaderboards (he’s seventh in both career passing yards and touchdowns), that seems to be mainly a function of him starting every game for 13 seasons. Manning’s Giants went 117-117, exactly .500.

The second opinion is that Eli won two freakin’ Super Bowls. And he didn’t just win two Super Bowls—he beat the greatest dynasty of all time, twice, by leading a pair of iconic fourth-quarter drives. Manning’s throw to David Tyree to defeat the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII ranks at or near the top of every list of the NFL’s greatest playoff moments. Then he beat the Patriots again in Super Bowl XLVI. On the biggest stage, against the best team, Eli reigned supreme.

There is no reconciling these two viewpoints. Eli is either an average player overrated for his Super Bowl glory, or a hero whose pedestrian career is rendered irrelevant by his brilliant accomplishments. In one view, Eli is a god. In the other, he is a mortal, and not an especially impressive one.

When news broke Wednesday that Manning is set to announce his retirement following 16 years in the NFL, the conversation immediately turned to whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame. On the one hand, only one modern-era quarterback has been inducted into the Hall with fewer Pro Bowl appearances, and that’s Terry Bradshaw. On the other, only one quarterback with two Super Bowl wins—Jim Plunkett, who, like Eli, never led the league in any meaningful stat other than interceptions—has ever been left out. The debate is split 50-50:

I don’t think that Eli’s lackluster statistics invalidate his Super Bowl rings, or that his Super Bowl rings elevate his lackluster statistics. Both sides combine to form one fascinating legacy that needs to be remembered. I don’t know whether Manning belongs in the Hall of Fame. I do know that he is the first inductee in the Hall of Eli, a place we’ll build to celebrate the not-necessarily-great players who, for a few brief moments, managed to be the greatest in the world.

Actual greatness in sports can be boring. Hey, Alabama won a national championship because it had the best players! Hey, Bama won because it had the best players again … and again … and again. I know that Roger Federer has a bunch of Grand Slam victories and that Tiger Woods has a bunch of major wins, and I don’t feel like I need to know the exact numbers. The experience of 21st-century football fandom would not be significantly different if the Patriots had won five or eight Super Bowls instead of six. We celebrate greatness, and we should, but the story of greatness is often the story of monotony. It starts with unseen monotony—practice, practice, more practice—and ends with on-field monotony, a superior athletic product dominating weaker competition for years on end. The greats eliminate failure and produce only success.

Eli Manning never eliminated failure. He somehow leads all NFL players since 2000 in interceptions (244) and fumbles (125). He was the worst at both ways a quarterback could lose the ball. It would be tough to identify a period of his career that could be classified as the good part. In the 2007 season that led to his first Super Bowl, he threw 23 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. Two years after winning his second Super Bowl, he tossed 18 touchdowns and 27 picks. (He kept starting for five years after this.) He recorded at least 10 interceptions in every season he started, and lost at least 10 fumbles four times—when he was 26, 28, 34, and 36. He never learned, and he never improved.

There are, of course, two portions of his career in which he was excellent. During his first Super Bowl run he threw six touchdowns and one interception, orchestrating the game-winning drive against the first 18-0 team in NFL history; during his second Super Bowl run he threw nine touchdowns and one pick, averaging more than 300 yards per game and once again ruining the Patriots. That guy who threw all those interceptions did this:

On one play, Manning threw a pass that should have been such an easy interception for Asante Samuel that the Patriots cornerback dropped it. On the next play, Manning broke loose from a horde of defenders, randomly hurled the ball as far as he could (about 40 yards, because he’s Eli), and watched as a special-teamer with five catches on the season came down with it over three-time All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison. Was this a good throw? Honestly, probably not. It’s the equivalent of the Matt Saracen throw from the Friday Night Lights pilot, a heave that inspired everybody to suggest he’d closed his eyes before letting it go. But it worked, and now has become legend.

Four years later, in roughly the same situation against the same opponent, Manning made this throw. It is a very good throw. Basically perfect:

There is a world where only the greats become champions, and it is much less interesting than the one where The Interceptions Guy takes a turn on the throne. Before those Super Bowls against the Patriots, Manning would toddle into a phone booth and change into his superhero suit. Then he’d change out and forget to do laundry for a few weeks, and his cape would get lost in a massive pile of clothes on the floor. That’s his legacy: He was a mundane guy who had the ability to become a radiant supernova, and then would go years without showing any evidence he was the supernova guy from before.

This is why we must build the Hall of Eli. There will be a 10-foot-tall statue of him fashioned in this image, preferably out of marble. The David holds his slingshot; The Eli will hold a sand bucket.

This is the image that truly captures the essence of the doofus who repeatedly dunked on the greatest dynasty in football history. He was the second-best quarterback in his family, and the second-best quarterback in his draft class. He was not a particularly accurate passer, nor did he have a particularly strong arm. He routinely threw the ball to the opposing team. Four kickers and three punters ran faster 40-yard dash times than he did at the 2004 draft combine. He was famous for making faces that gave off the impression that he was deeply unhappy to be playing football, and starred in an SNL skit about how he was too awkward to celebrate. (“When people think ‘Eli Manning,’ you want them to imagine you making a sandwich, dropping it, and then eating the sandwich off the ground?” “That would be ideal.”) And yet the kings of the sport crumbled into ashes before him.

The Hall of Eli is where we will worship the mediocre who became champions. (Nick Foles will get in on the first ballot.) We will not contort ourselves into pretzels arguing that these players who won titles were great. Instead, we’ll celebrate the failures and weaknesses of athletes who briefly brought the world to their feet. I don’t want to debate whether Eli is a god or a mortal. What makes Eli so wonderful is that he was both.