If it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that he plays for the team that will try to beat the Giants in the Super Bowl on Sunday, Tom Brady would be the perfect New York quarterback. He’s handsome. He keeps a pad in the West Village. He dates a supermodel. (And not just any supermodel but the supermodeliest supermodel, Gisele.) He’s suave enough with his pocket squares and dapper duds to land on the cover of GQ, and he’s the closest thing in the NFL to glamorous. Remember Broadway Joe Namath and his famous fur coat? Tom Brady could rock a fur coat.
But Brady, of course, is not the Giants quarterback. He plays instead for the silver-helmeted, geographically indistinct New England Patriots. The Giants’ quarterback, of course, is Eli Manning, the anti–New York hero. Which is not to say he’s against New York, but rather that he’s nothing like any kind of New York hero that we’ve been trained to recognize.
The narrative arc of Manning’s career thus far (he was drafted first overall in 2004 and started his first game that November) has been characterized by one emotion—frustration, primarily at the fact that his career hasn’t conformed to any recognizable narrative arc. Sports is built on familiar stories: the hotshot rookie, the gutsy overachiever, the hobbled veteran back for one last stand. And Eli arrived in New York with a backstory rich with potential narrative grist. His father, Archie Manning, was a star quarterback in the NFL (and such a legend at Ole Miss, also Eli’s alma mater, that the speed limit posted on campus is 18, in honor of Archie’s jersey number). Eli’s older brother, Peyton, went first overall to Indianapolis, is a two-time league MVP, won a Super Bowl, and is a certain future Hall of Famer. So Eli came gift-wrapped in a classic sports conundrum: ability versus character. In this corner: ability! He’s heir to a quarterback dynasty. He can chuck a spiral 50 yards from his back foot. Ernie Accorsi, the Giants’ aged former G.M., in a scene right out of a scratchy Knute Rockne film, traveled down to Ole Miss to watch the kid with his own jaundiced eyes and was so impressed that he scribbled in his notebook, “Has the quality you can’t define, call it magic.”
Call it magic. But then there’s the question of character. He’s got the arm—but does he have the guts? Can you possibly grow up as the son of one famous quarterback and the little brother of another and not be a massive head case? Would he flourish or implode under the searing glare of New York’s demanding fandom, after the Giants paid a king’s ransom to acquire him?
So far … well, neither, really. He’s refused to star in either story line. He’s enjoyed occasional stretches of proficiency, reliably followed by epic incompetence. This frustration has been compounded by Eli’s personality, or lack of same. He is famously inscrutable, affectless, even, some whisper, uninterested. He is, saints preserve us, an introvert. “I’m not the guy who runs down the field with his finger up in the air like I just saved the world,” he once told a reporter. “I used to score 25 points in a high-school basketball game; then I’d have two points the next game,” he said on another occasion. “I’m not a guy to force things.” In other words, we’re not exactly dealing with Michael Jordan’s patented brand of teammate-berating, win-at-all-costs passion. Eli just isn’t a fire-in-the-belly kind of guy. More like a well-balanced breakfast in the belly. And off the field, he’s just as disappointing. He talks to his mom on the phone nearly every day. He can’t even get stalked properly. When paparazzi caught Brady in the Village in a medical boot, it touched off worldwide headlines. Meanwhile, a Gawker Stalker had this to say about Eli, seen leaving a steakhouse: “Looked like average guy. Very boring!” Eli doesn’t date supermodels. He lives with his college sweetheart in Hoboken. You may understand nothing about football, or sports, but surely you understand this: When you’re the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and you move to New York City, you don’t live with your college sweetheart. In Hoboken.
As a result, as recently as six weeks ago, people were ready to run him out of town. It’s not so much that we fear he can’t play—the jury’s still out on that one—but that we’re frustrated he won’t play along. No fire, no fur coat, no Gisele: This story’s too confusing! Let’s just skip to the end. Like, who does this Eli Manning think he is? Or, more important, what are we supposed to think of him? And how exactly does this poker-faced yokel ever expect to become a hero worthy of New York?
Well, he could win the Super Bowl, for starters. After an up-and-down season that seemed destined for a quick and inglorious finale, the Giants have tallied three straight improbable playoff victories. And each time, the story’s been the same. Eli was not terrible! He actually played pretty well! He steered the offense and stayed away from mistakes! His own dad offered up this not-exactly-peacock-proud endorsement after the Giants dumped Green Bay to head to the championship: “We’re not saying he’s Phil Simms or anything,” said Archie. “I just never thought he was as bad as some people thought he was.” Not as bad as some people thought. Hardly a coronation to the pantheon of New York sports stars.
Yet, having reached this point, Eli can’t lose. The team’s a tremendous underdog to the undefeated Patriots. If they fall, they’re a footnote to history, and everyone will shrug and look with new hope to next year. But if they win—well, then Eli will become a bigger hero than the efficient Phil Simms, bigger even than glamorous, amorous Broadway Joe. What’s more, he will represent the rise of a new kind of New York sports hero; hell, a new kind of New York hero, period. Wait—here he comes, splitting the field between character and ability—it’s unflappable competence! Unflappable competence up the middle, galloping into the lead!
Don’t take my word for it. Let’s examine the story, as told in tabloid headlines, all taken from the Daily News:
SHOULD HAVE PASSED ON ELI: DEAL STANDS AS BIG BLUE BOO-BOO (November 17, 2006)
WHAT KIND OF MANN IS HE? ELI’S STRUGGLES FUELING QUESTION OF GIANT MISTAKE (January 14, 2007)
SERIOUS PLANS FOR BIG UPSET. SIMMS: ELI CAN MANAGE, SCALED-BACK ATTACK FITS QB (January 11, 2008)
That’s right: Eli can manage. That’s the big twist that no one saw coming. This story’s not about character or ability; it’s about the triumph of risk-averse management. And Eli’s timing couldn’t be better, not just for the Giants but for New York. Not to get all world-historical about it, but in the midst of a chickens-home-to-roost economic spiral and the darkening shadow of recession—not to mention a number of knotty, ongoing overseas entanglements—this isn’t a bad time to locate and celebrate managerial proficiency. You know: the competent caretaker over the inveterate renegade; the safe bet over the all-or-nothing gamble; the sensible breakfast over the budget-blowing prix fixe. Even Eli’s inscrutable, What Me Worry? demeanor no longer seems maddening. Now it’s endearing. It’s inspiring. All hail the steady hand! Eli’s no longer a frustrating riddle. He’s the perfect New York hero for these times.