Super Bowl XLVI: Eli Manning And The Meaning Of 'Elite'

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 05: Quarterback Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants poses with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Giants defeated the Patriots by a score of 21-17 in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Eli Manning and the New York Giants are Super Bowl champions again, and after a year of questions about what it means to be "elite," Manning finally gave everyone an answer on Sunday night.

The difference between good and great is invisible sometimes. Tom Brady was great for most of Super Bowl XLVI, but we'll remember him as having a "good game." Eli Manning's been good for most of his career, but with two Super Bowl wins, he's now great, and there's "no doubt about it." On some level, all this comes down to luck.

The difference between Eli Manning and Tom Brady in Sunday night's Super Bowl had almost nothing to do with Tom Brady or Eli Manning. Brady was flawless through the middle of the game, but then had a few throws down the stretch that weren't quite perfect, and his receivers couldn't quite make the catch. Eli was nearly flawless himself, but he needed help to get there.

The Giants fumbled three times Sunday night; on the first, the Patriots recovered but had the play called back because they had 12 men on the field. The Giants drive continued and a few plays later they scored one of their two touchdowns on the night.

On the last two fumbles, the ball bounced right back into the hands of another Giants player. In 2008's Super Bowl, Eli Manning fumbled twice, only to have the ball bounce back to the Giants. These aren't plays either team can control. On some level, it all comes down to luck. Sorta.

Because as lucky as Eli's been, he's also been really, really good. You can't have one without the other. Luck doesn't matter if Eli doesn't deliver on the Giants' final drive in 2008, or Sunday night in Indianapolis. He was perfect down the stretch in both games, and he's been perfect often enough that his teammates can count on him. That's what a good quarterback does for a team. He lifts everyone's confidence, because they know if they put him in position, good things will happen.

Bruce Arthur wrote a fantastic column from Indianapolis on Sunday, and it included this quote from Justin Tuck: "We all envisioned it kind of going this way," said Tuck. "We all envisioned it that it was going to be a fourth-quarter game. We said it at halftime — it’s going to be a fourth-quarter game. I mean, Eli’s driving, Manningham makes the catch, Bradshaw runs up the middle: it was almost relaxing. As crazy as that sounds, I’m sitting on the sideline smiling, just like, we’ve seen this before."

Lucky or good, Eli Manning's been so consistently successful that his teammates were relaxed and smiling as the Giants calmly drove down the field and drove a stake through New England's heart. I'd love to gloat today, because this is pretty much exactly what I predicted:

In that [2008] Super Bowl, we kept expecting Brady to save the day. We waited and waited and waited, expecting him to turn it on, only it never happened. And his career changed. We stopped looking at Tom Brady like he's Football Jesus. We stopped expecting miracles.

With Eli? Put it this way: It'd be more surprising to see Tom Brady go into superhero mode and shred the Giants in the fourth quarter than it'd be if Eli did it to the Patriots. Maybe we're not "expecting" miracles from Eli, but they've definitely stopped being surprising. So, here's to betting that Brady's coronation turns into one for the little brother.

Except that Brady did look like Football Jesus for a big chunk of Sunday's Super Bowl. Until Justin Tuck sacked him and slammed him into the turf, Brady was 20-of-24 for 200 yards, and two of those passes had been batted down at the line. It doesn't get any better than Tom Brady's performance for 90 percent of that game. If the Tuck sack hadn't driven him into the ground at that angle, if Brady doesn't have his shoulder slammed into the turf, maybe he's still that close to perfect down the stretch. And a day later, maybe we're talking about Tom Brady as the greatest QB of all time.

Instead, he was just a hair off on the Patriots' final drive, difficult catches bounced of the hands of Wes Welker and Deion Branch, and the stage was set for Eli Manning to win the game.

And Eli did. His receivers helped with some incredible catches, just like Plaxico Burress and David Tyree helped in 2008. But both times it was Eli who delivered the balls that the Giants needed. Now he's America's new football hero, and it'll be tempting to pick holes in his game and/or the narrative that gives Eli all the credit for proving his critics wrong. This is fair.

This is also stupid. What's the point of trying to prove that Eli's success means less for his legacy than someone like Tom Brady? Like Brady wasn't lucky that the Rams had three turnovers in 2002? Or that John Kasay's kickoff sailed out of bounds? Or that the Eagles fell apart down the stretch in the Super Bowl? Or it didn't help Brady's cause to have Adam Vinatieri making killer field goals in every one of his Super Bowl runs? Maybe Brady's got better numbers than Eli, but everybody needs lucky bounces and great teammates to be great at anything. That's what makes sports so agonizing sometimes. You can be great and deserving and still lose. That was Brady Sunday night.

As for Eli, starting back in August and continuing all year, he's been hounded by the questions about whether he's truly "elite" among NFL quarterbacks. It's nonsense, but so are a lot of our sports arguments, so let's just answer that question once and for all:

  • Elite is success that nobody can deny.
  • Elite is making the plays when your team needs them most.
  • Elite is doing it so often that your teammates can sit smiling and relaxed on the sidelines as it happens again.
  • And yeah, elite players need great teammates.
  • Luck matters, too.

As far as that last point's concerned, it was Don Shula who once said, "Luck means a lot in football. Not having a good quarterback is bad luck."Sunday was our latest reminder.

Next to Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and every other "elite" quarterback, the Giants are lucky to have Eli Manning, the quarterback who's always been good enough to turn a few lucky bounces into greatness. Isn't that what makes anyone "elite"?

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