Commentary

Eli Manning quietly elevates himself to 'franchise QB' status

Whether his critics like it or not, Eli Manning did enough good things in three playoff games to get the Giants to the Super Bowl -- and to be considered a franchise quarterback, John Clayton writes.

Originally Published: January 22, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Peyton Manning is the definition of a franchise quarterback.

The reason is pretty simple. General manager Bill Polian built the Indianapolis Colts franchise around him. Manning not only changed the fortunes of the Colts, but he changed the standard of quarterback play around the NFL. He came into the league in 1998 when the quarterback position was in the abyss. Some teams held on to aging quarterbacks too long while others rushed NFL Europe quarterbacks into starting jobs.

In his fourth season, Eli Manning achieved franchise quarterback status through his game management in three road playoff games. His achievements aren't to be confused with his brother's. Eli didn't revolutionize the game like his brother. Those accolades ride with only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, two talents who achieved Hall of Fame credentials before their 30th birthdays.

Nowadays, a franchise quarterback is the man behind center who annually gives a team the chance to not only make but also win in the playoffs. Whether his critics like it or not, Eli Manning did enough good things in three playoff games to get the Giants to the Super Bowl.

His numbers weren't great but they were good enough. He completed 62.4 percent of his passes and had an efficient 99.2 quarterback rating in three playoff games. Unlike his brother, Eli Manning didn't revolutionize the game. He just managed it. He was more in the Jake Delhomme-Ben Roethlisberger mode, running an offense that ran the ball more than it passed.

"Everybody [else] is all surprised," New York Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer said about Manning's arrival as a Super Bowl quarterback. "I don't think anybody in this locker room is surprised how well he's playing. Everybody knew he could be that type of quarterback. Now, he's living up to everybody's expectation."

Peyton Manning and Brady might be the standard, but they stand apart from the rest. When the Giants traded with the Chargers in 2004 to get Eli, they knew he wasn't his brother. In their eyes, he was the most talented of the quarterback troika of Eli Manning, Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers. As it turns out, this trio won more playoff games (10) in its first four years than the six first-rounders taken in 1983 -- headed by John Elway and Dan Marino -- who won eight playoff games in their first four years.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Todd Rosenberg/US PresswireWith Eli Manning pointing the way, Amani Toomer (81) and the rest of the Giants have rallied behind their young quarterback.

Though Eli Manning's performance faded in the second halves of the 2005 and 2006 seasons, he put the offense in position to make the playoffs every year. In his past three seasons as the Giants' starting quarterback, Manning has run an offense that has averaged between 22.2 and 26.4 points a game, playoff-worthy numbers. As a result, the Giants have made three consecutive trips to the postseason even though Manning didn't get credit for being in the driver's seat.

Sunday's victory over the Packers was an example of how he's grown and how much more flexible he is as a signal-caller. The way he worked with Plaxico Burress for an 11-catch, 154-yard game is a classic example of that. It displayed his ability to read and react to defenses.

The Packers made it somewhat easy. Packers cornerback Al Harris stayed in the face of Burress at the line of scrimmage playing bump-and-run man coverage. Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride gave Manning the ability to work a passing game with Burress against Harris. The game was a simple one-read, two-result route called a fade stop.

"We hit a couple of what we call fade stops," Manning said. "Plaxico goes outside and just makes a read. If he gets on top, you throw the read. If not, you throw it up high and let him use his body."

The fade stops required patience and accuracy. Manning had to be patient enough to give Burress time to see if he could run a fade and get his body even or behind Harris. With Burress' 4-inch height advantage over the 6-foot-1 Harris, Manning simply had to put the ball high enough for Burress to pull it out of the air.

The stop routes required more precision. Manning had to get the ball to Burress' inside shoulder.

"At the line of scrimmage, he [Harris] was hard to get off the line of scrimmage, hard to beat, and he doesn't really have great speed," Burress said. "When we didn't get the ball high, we'd throw it back shorter."

Those plays to Burress gave Manning the base of an offense that would work under the conditions. He completed 11 of his 21 passes to Burress, but the amazing part is how accurate and how efficient he was with that play. Opponents know Burress is Manning's go-to receiver. In three playoff games, he's completed 16 passes for 197 yards in the 21 times Burress has been targeted, a 76.1 efficiency rate. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys, Burress was double-teamed in zone defenses, so Manning had to focus his passing offense elsewhere.

When you go out and have success, your confidence continues to grow and when your confidence continues to grow, you play with a swagger. When you play with a swagger, you think you're the best thing on the field.

--Plaxico Burress on Eli Manning

Manning has found the open target or found a way to get the ball to the right target in the three playoff games.

"I don't think he made the turn; I think he's always been there," Burress said of his quarterback. "When you go out and have success, your confidence continues to grow and when your confidence continues to grow, you play with a swagger. When you play with a swagger, you think you're the best thing on the field."

Manning's swagger is less pronounced than his brother Peyton's. He's a quiet leader, which has caused outsiders and even insiders such as Tiki Barber to question his leadership. Peyton is a true field general. Eli is more of a facilitator, getting his offense's parts to work without much fanfare.

"He manages the game," Toomer said. "I think he really understands what he has to do. He really is focused. That focus doesn't waver no matter what. People get on him because he doesn't show intensity. He's a steady, intense guy, but he's not going to get flustered. You can see after we won the game [the NFC championship] he wasn't jumping up and down. He still had the same smile on his face."

Though this is his fourth season, Manning has arrived and should get only better. The Giants' offense is pretty basic. The Giants run primarily a two-receiver offense. When they go to three receivers, Manning completes about 58.9 percent of his passes and had 14 of his 23 touchdown passes this season. He's a 57.8 percent thrower from shotgun.

Those aren't great numbers, but they are good enough. The Giants have been a playoff team for three years, and now have advanced to the Super Bowl.

"I think his game turned in our eyes last year when we played the Eagles early in the season and we came back to win the game in overtime," Toomer said. "I think that was the one that showed us as players. He really stepped up. He made some great throws. That when I thought, 'This kid's got something.'"

Now, he has his first trip to the Super Bowl.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer