A long-ago love letter from the Giants to Eli Manning, requited

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Eli Manning at the Super Bowl. (nfl.com)
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“He walks on the team bus and the whole team sees him and thinks, ‘We have a chance.'”—former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi on the importance of having a great quarterback

At this point, it’s hard to write something about Eli Manning that isn’t now obvious to the majority of the United States. He’s great, and he’s clutch.

Last night, when the Giants took possession of the ball down 17-15 to the Patriots with 3:46 remaining in the Super Bowl, Manning went out and did exactly what Giants fans have come to expect of him.

On the first play of the drive, he threw a 38-yard strike down the sideline to Mario Manningham that an ordinary person would have had trouble placing any better from two yards away. Several plays and a nervous Tom Brady-launched Hail Mary later, the Giants were champions for the second time in five years. If the previous title was defined by a disbelieving glee among Giants fans that Manning had somehow pulled it off, this one was marked by a thankfulness that the circumstances had lined up to give him a chance to do it again.

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At least as far as the Giants are concerned, his story begins with Ernie Accorsi’s scouting report.

Most Giants fans have come across this by now. It’s being emailed and passed around message boards in the way that family members might share newly discovered, old-timey love letters between their matriarch and patriarch.

Accorsi’s hand-written, all-caps report, composed when Eli was a junior at the University of Mississippi, is a love letter of sorts, too—from an aging general manager who has never won a championship to a quarterback he believes can fill that hole in his football soul.

The report begins with common enough scout-speak: “Excellent arm strength under pressure … Good touch. Good vision and poise.”

But as it continues, an emotional momentum builds, and Accorsi’s tone of objective assessment gives over to a rhapsodic one:

“In my opinion, most of all, he has that quality that you can’t define. Call it magic ... If he comes out early, we should move up to take him. These guys are rare, you know.”

Thanks to the horrible season the Giants were having while Accorsi was writing the report, they had a chance to do just that. During the next year’s draft, they traded what was considered a king’s ransom of draft picks to move up from the number-four pick to the number-one pick, and took Eli. (Eli helped the Giants’ leverage by refusing to play for San Diego, a bratty move, yes, that nobody really speaks about or examines anymore). Giants fans, who had mostly endured a steady stream of mediocrities at quarterback for the previous decade, finally had a guy who maybe could one day walk on the team bus and give his teammates the feeling that they had a chance.

It’s tempting to fall into the trap of the redemption narrative, which must begin with some sort of crisis. But the truth is that, excepting a poor rookie year that even New Yorkers were smart enough to reserve judgment on, Eli was actually pretty encouraging early on. He led the Giants to a division title in 2005, his first full year as a starter, piloting an offense that scored the second-most points of any Giant offense to that point. A continued upward trajectory seemed inevitable. It was nice to have a real quarterback.

But then, for nearly all of the next two years, his progress stalled. He didn’t "regress," to use a modish term for describing the career development of young New York quarterbacks, and he was never below average. But he was stuck in neutral.

He couldn’t shake certain bad habits, like his infamous (to Giants fans) predilection of responding to a pass rush by heaving a prayer off his back foot that was just as likely to be answered by an opponent as a teammate. He seemed to be in a fog sometimes, one always marked by unassertive movements and sloppy mechanics. Granted, he played well in the clutch, but at a certain point Giants fans couldn’t help but note the flip side of this: If he could play so well when the chips were down, why couldn’t he play like that more often?

All of this played into unflattering contrasts with his superstar brother, Peyton. Peyton was Type A and aggressively assertive, qualities many people assumed quarterbacks needed; Eli was laid-back and introverted. Peyton had a close-cropped haircut that conveyed no-nonsense meticulousness; Eli had a tousled look that conveyed the opposite. Peyton advertised how obsessively he studied game film and honed his mechanics; Eli didn’t advertise his work habits, and his throwing motion was loopier than Peyton’s, and therefore more prone to inconsistency.

But then came the 2007 postseason, which was marked by the happy combination of excellence and luck that championships are made of. Eli brought home a ring, and he’s basically been a made man ever since. No, he wasn’t Peyton, or even a great quarterback, but who could quibble with a guy who was drafted to bring a championship and who delivered it in such spectacular fashion? Accorsi, who had stepped down as general manager before that season, was vindicated. If the 2007 postseason didn’t bespeak “magic,” then what did?

But maybe that was the problem. Maybe 2007 was dismissed as something magical, something flukish, something David Tyree—the no-name who caught Eli’s desperation heave that extended the Giants’ game-winning drive in that Super Bowl—would call “only-God kinda stuff.” Maybe Eli still needed to show what Eli kinda stuff was.

He’s gone about doing so ever since. In 2008, he had the best year of his career to that point, his stats going from average (75.6 rating from ’05 to ’07) to good (86.4). The next year, despite a mediocre Giants season, Eli was even better, with a 93.1 rating. He took a step back last year but took two forward this year. If people wanted to say that luck or Tyree or God won the Super Bowl for the Giants in 2007, they now have to admit that Eli won it in 2011. He’s firmly excellent now, with a good chance to be historically so, and has the numbers and rings to prove it.

And Giants fans are fully aware of how lucky they are to have him. These guys are rare, you know.

Read more of Greg Hanlon's articles about New York football players here.