By Jason Keidel
The world west of the Hudson River may not be so acutely aware, but there still are two NFL teams in the Big Apple, though recently neither has made news worth crossing the George Washington Bridge.
And while the Jets are deep into their ancestral refrain as gridiron doormats, 47 years since their last Super Bowl appearance, and 40 since they last had a quarterback who could get them back there, they do share a building with an authentic NFL club.
The New York Football Giants.
There’s a revival going on, growing from the Meadowlands swamp. To frame their contrasting places on the pro football totem pole, the Jets are 4-10, while the Giants are 10-4. With a win tonight at Philadelphia, the Giants would assure themselves a playoff spot, and keep a faint heat on the 12-2 Cowboys for top spot the NFC and top seed in the conference. But perhaps they don’t need or even want all that. Twice in the last ten years the Giants shocked the media and the masses, and neither time were they the top seed, or even close to it. And the last time the Giants made the playoffs, they won the Super Bowl.
Indeed, there’s a familiar feel to this one, a Big Blue hue of subtle resurgence. And while Ben McAdoo is the leading this surge, it’s looking like those Tom Coughlin teams of 2007 and 2011. It begins with defense. Only the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots have surrendered fewer points than the G-Men (250). And while the pundits tossed the doomsday cliches around when Jason Pierre-Paul was lost for the season, the Giants have actually gotten better.
Over the last seven weeks, the Giants have allowed just 14.9 points per game, and an average passer rating of 70.9, both tops in the league. And they’re buoyed by the rise of Landon Collins, the only NFL player with at least 100 tackles, three sacks, and three interceptions (according to NFL Network).
And it’s capped by solid play at quarterback.
Solid. Eli Manning is the face of solidity, security, and consistency. Yet fans are still trying to understand the understated QB. He may have the prototypical QB’s physical contours, but not emotional dimensions. He doesn’t assume Coughlin’s throaty, red-faced, drill instructor’s disposition. So often we see him, after an interception, with that confused gaze toward the sideline, and his typical, single-shoulder shrug. You must measure Eli by sight, not by sound.
Though Manning’s mannerisms make fans scratch their collective heads, it gives a false impression. That he’s not all that amped, aware, or bright. You don’t back into two Super Bowl MVP awards. Watch the David Tyree play. Or watch the Mario Manningham pass. Both reflect talent and toughness that are hallmarks of any great NFL player.
Eli performs in front of two montages that often marginalize him. First, the aforementioned, Southern, low-key regularity, with folks confusing his decency for servility.
The other is a more daunting and haunting chatter that will always accompany his legacy. The fact that he’s not the best passer in his own family, that another Manning is widely regarded as an eternal member of the Mt Rushmore of quarterbacks. The odds against any young male winning a Super Bowl have to be microscopic. The odds against two brothers hoisting a Lombardi Trophy are nearly incalculable.
As if Eli’s MVP is somehow less important or impressive. As if Eli’s Hall-of-Fame bust – and yes, he’s sure to have one – will be tucked away in the kid’s room, while Peyton’s hardware is for the varsity.
Since Eli won’t throw for 70,000 yards and 500 touchdowns, he somehow fades or fails in relief. But Eli Manning is the greatest quarterback in the history of Giants, the NFL iteration of an Original Six franchise, a team with 707 NFL wins, trailing only the Bears and Packers all-time. Lawrence Taylor will always be the Founding Father of the modern Giants. But Eli Manning will retire as the owner of every salient statistic in Giants history.
Mathematicians tell us there are often several solutions to a single problem. Sports have taught us that you can win with offense or defense. But for some reason, if you’re too cool you’re too weak. As if you can’t be laconic and iconic. We see Tom Brady gleefully screaming at the fans, as if he wants to leap up into the stands and bang around a mosh pit. Brett Favre is probably loved more for his demeanor than his dominance. He was the QB in chaps, the cowboy, the gunslinger, who throws five touchdowns on the Frozen Tundra on Sunday then mows his wet, Mississippi lawn on Monday.
But Eli Manning is perfect for the media fishbowl of New York City. The idea that he must also keep pom-poms in his locker is a bit myopic. Indeed, another iconic Big Apple athlete won championships with a more muted approach to leadership – Derek Jeter. Yet we never heard baseball fans demand a more demonstrative posture from the Yankees shortstop.
Winning is its own billboard. As long as the Giants – who beat the first-place Cowboys and Lions in consecutive weeks – keep stacking wins, they’ll have to find another moniker for Eli Manning – winner.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.