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Eli Manning's face is not always beautiful. When the Giants are winning, which is often, it is unremarkable -- perhaps blandly handsome on a good day, if we're being kind. But oh, when the Giants lose! When they lose, Manning's face becomes a wonder of the world -- a streaking comet of befuddled disappointment, a prismatic sunset of confusion fading in the west.
Why do the failures of Eli and his brother inspire such glee? It can't be as simple as schadenfreude: I have no particular animosity toward either Manning brother, nor a passionate distaste for their present teams (I do dislike the Colts, but mostly because of their consistent excellence with Peyton under center). But there's something about Manningface -- Peyton's scowling frustration at imperfection, Eli's slack-jawed melancholy -- that fits their inescapable narratives. Narrative provides context, context gives us details, and in the details is beauty.
The campus speed limit in Oxford, Mississippi is 18 miles per hour, which would be an odd way to commemorate Archie Manning's jersey number if it were anywhere besides the insanity bubble of the SEC. The Manning patriarch is a legend at Ole Miss, and his career arc -- college greatness followed by a decade of losing with the Saints -- has shaped his sons' narratives even as their achievements have surpassed and dwarfed his own.
That much I know. The rest of the story I've constructed from their on-field performance and my imagination: Peyton, the eldest son, the perfectionist, chose Tennessee instead of Ole Miss to escape his father's shadow and create his own legacy. His enormous forehead hints at a larger cerebellum, which, when coupled with his low-level Asperger's, gives him the single-minded focus that made the Colts a dominant force in the AFC for more than a decade and continues now, at age 36 with a new neck, with the Broncos.
In a loss, his face is a calculator dividing by zero: you can see his fury at humans imperfectly operating a perfect system, an engineer's distaste for unseen variables. It's the third act of any sci-fi film pitting humans against robots -- things looked dicey for a while, but humanity prevailed. It always does (except in in Super Bowl XLI, but that's what happens when Rex Grossman leads humanity).
And now Eli: momma's boy, the coddled baby -- of course he chose Ole Miss. (That's what Dad would want, right?) He was drafted #1 overall, but that seemed more a hope that he'd be like his brother than any realistic evaluation of his talent. And for a while, it was true: while Peyton worked on perfecting the quarterback position, doofus Eli was tossing 20 interceptions a season. And then he won two Super Bowls over favored Patriots teams. After that, even the most cynical Giants fan could overlook the halves where Bad Eli threw three or four picks, because Good Eli always showed up by the fourth quarter.
But on the occasions when Good Eli shows up too late (or not at all):
It is a young boy's face grafted on to a six-foot-four man. Even now, at 31 years old, the stubble he occasionally grows only makes him look pubescent. With his helmet off, his hair is mussed like a ten-year-old's, and I find myself wanting Olivia Manning to go to him and comb his hair, maybe lick her thumb and wipe the dirt from his face.
When the Giants lose, the childlike disappointment in Eli's face returns him to my expectations. For as long as that hangdog expression lingers, he is no longer Elite NFL Quarterback Eli Manning, but the dim-witted younger brother who rose to prominence because of his family members. It's the sports version of Flowers for Algernon: the experiment worked, but Charlie Gordon is doomed to regress to his old self.
All of this is only true in my head, of course. Eli and Peyton Manning are real people, not two-dimensional caricatures for me to shoehorn into narratives. But the narratives make Manningface beautiful. I wouldn't watch football any other way.
In this week's Uffsides podcast, I spoke to Courtney Hall, a former All-Pro center for the Chargers who was a captain on the 1994 team that went to Super Bowl XXIX (and later got law and MBA degrees from the University of Chicago to pave the way for a career in finance). It was a lively and fun interview for me, but I think the highlight is remembering that Kathie Lee Gifford sang the National Anthem before the game. Listen to the boos rain down when her husband introduces her. It's fantastic.
(GIF via Deadspin)
Do not think about Jerry's balls do not think about Jerry's balls do not think about Jerry's balls
[thinks about Jerry's balls]
No, but barely. The Cardinals-Jets game on Sunday had to have been the ugliest game of the 2012 season -- maybe the ugliest game in year. Maybe ever. Maybe it wasn't even football, I don't think we'll ever know for sure. The first half possessions went, in order: punt, interception, turnover on downs, missed FG (off the upright), punt, interception, punt, punt, punt, interception, interception, missed FG (off the other upright), punt, punt, and -- finally -- a field goal as time expired that was only made possible by a 40-yard gain on a fake punt. WOOF.
Think about this: Cardinals starter Ryan Lindley went 10-for-31 for 72 yards and an interception -- and Mark Sanchez had a lower passer rating. Sanchez was benched for Greg McElroy, who won the game (Tebow was inactive), and yet Rex Ryan is standing by Sanchez.
It's all a glorious mess, and one of my favorite story lines of the 2012 season. It should be noted, though, that I also like looking at car wrecks.