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The Big Easy
S.L. Price
December 17, 2012
CALL HIM A HANGDOG HERO, A SAD-SACK SUPERMAN, KID BROTHER TO A LEGEND—BUT WOULD YOU BET AGAINST ELI MANNING WHEN IT'S ALL ON THE LINE IN FEBRUARY? THE MVP OF TWO SUPER BOWLS, A SCION OF FOOTBALL'S FIRST FAMILY AND THE ULTIMATE GAMER, THE GIANTS' QUARTERBACK HAS FORCED US TO RETHINK WHAT WE EXPECT IN A STAR
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December 17, 2012

The Big Easy

CALL HIM A HANGDOG HERO, A SAD-SACK SUPERMAN, KID BROTHER TO A LEGEND—BUT WOULD YOU BET AGAINST ELI MANNING WHEN IT'S ALL ON THE LINE IN FEBRUARY? THE MVP OF TWO SUPER BOWLS, A SCION OF FOOTBALL'S FIRST FAMILY AND THE ULTIMATE GAMER, THE GIANTS' QUARTERBACK HAS FORCED US TO RETHINK WHAT WE EXPECT IN A STAR

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You want to win, right? Then you'll to have to reimagine how a quarterback should be. That's obvious now. This won't be easy if you grew up with Tittle's bloodied head or Namath's nightclub grin, with Montana's ice-cool gaze or Marino's red-faced rage; if you buy the football-as-war thing and envision a QB as some glory-eyed field general, Patton in cleats, beloved and feared and renewing one of the last archetypes of American manhood with each last-second miracle.

Eli Manning stays on his feet ... airs it out down the field.... It is ... caught! By Tyree!

Because that's the essence. That's what we talk about, really, when we talk about The Quarterback. Is he clutch? How does he fare in the ultimate moment, when 100 million fans are watching and an unforgiving city demands success? Nothing else matters. Which brings us to the wondrous and puzzling boy king of New York.

Oh, my God ... I don't know how he got out of there! I thought he was on the ground, and then he came out of the pile and just slings it!

Giants quarterback Eli Manning owns a middling career passer rating and is, in the words of his former center, Shaun O'Hara, "one of the most unathletic quarterbacks in the NFL." He lacks Tom Brady's glamour, Drew Brees's accuracy and big brother Peyton's near-oppressive aura of authority. Yet after last February's Super Bowl title—his second in five seasons—after a year in which he set the NFL record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes and 10 road wins and tied the alltime mark with eight game-winning drives, it's clear that, at 31, Manning is the best quarterback alive if you want to win a title; the best ever to play for one of the most iconic franchises, the best, in fact, to take Manhattan, better than Charlie Conerly, Phil Simms and even sexy, storybook Broadway Joe.

Thirty-nine seconds left.... Manning lobs it.... Burress alone. Touchdown, New York!

This is, in many precincts, sacrilegious talk. The Big Apple likes its heroes (and villains and fools) larger than life. Manning is the opposite, country twang and all. His body language falls somewhere between mumble and sigh. Where his passing peers project macho cool, Eli appears to have just rolled off a couch, blinking and bed-headed, to take the snap. His hype-deflating demeanor on camera—even the cellphone that snapped him gazing at his flooded Hoboken, N.J., apartment lobby following Hurricane Sandy—can leave one doubtful that this guy knows whether he's just won, lost or been hit by a natural disaster.

Four-man rush. Eeee-Li, throwing into traffic on the sideline ... and they rule it a catch by Manningham!

An absolutely picture-perfect throw. The window on that thing is about THIS big. That's why he was the Super Bowl MVP.

Pro football has never quite known what to make of him, and God has laughed at every try. After three years of playing alongside him, Tiki Barber in 2007 called Manning's leadership "comical." Five months later Eli guided the mercurial Giants 83 yards in the final 2:42 to beat the 18--0 Patriots for one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history. Pundits giggled when, in response to a radio host's prompting, Eli described himself last preseason as "elite." So in February—in Peyton's old Indianapolis stomping ground—he drove the Giants 88 yards to win his second Lombardi trophy. And a month ago, in the midst of a three-game touchdown drought and speculation about a "dead arm," Simms declared that Manning was, indeed, not an elite quarterback. Thirteen days later Eli fired three touchdown passes to beat the streaking Packers and break Simms's franchise career record of 199.

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