Hall of Fame Debates: Eli Manning
It doesn't matter whether or not you think Eli Manning belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My opinion does not matter, either. You may be surprised to learn that the current opinions of many of the Hall of Fame voters themselves also don't matter all that much.
When it comes to the Great Eli Manning Hall of Fame Debate, Bill Belichick's opinion is the one that matters.
At some point soon, a few of the senior voters on the selection committee, the aristocracy of my industry who have built strong relationships with the NFL's most important individuals, will solicit Belichick's opinion on Manning's candidacy. They will do so privately and off the record, so Belichick will feel comfortable speaking candidly.
Belichick might tell them something like this: Golly, Eli was so ever-so-tough to prepare for! His regular-season statistics don't really capture how often he put the Giants in the right situation, got the ball to the right receiver, and did all the little things that make a quarterback truly great. I had to pull out all the stops in Super Bowl XLII and XLVI just to keep those games close, and he still got the better of us!
If Belichick provides this type of endorsement, it will sway the opinions of the skeptics and doubters on the committee, and Manning will sail into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
I think it's more likely that Belichick will say something like this: C'mon, you saw those games. The Giants defense killed us, not Manning! He was no harder to prepare for than Jake Delhomme or Donovan McNabb in that first batch of Super Bowls. He was a fine quarterback, but he's no all-time great.
If Belichick's testimonial sounds like this, Manning will get back-burnered until the Senior Committee takes pity on his candidacy decades from now.
Belichick's opinion is not the only one the voters will solicit when Manning's case is on the docket. Wade Phillips, Ron Rivera, Brian Dawkins, and others who coached or played on the defenses that often faced Manning will be consulted. Giants teammates and coaches will also be asked for endorsements, and siblings will no doubt provide theirs, though I don't think committee members need more evidence that Tom Coughlin really liked Manning or that Peyton loves him.
All of these expert opinions will be gathered privately, not on television shows or podcasts where Old Coach X knows he must politely endorse Local Favorite Y. The reason selection committee debates are kept private is not so voters can say things like "That S.O.B. denied me an interview back in 1997, so there's no way in hell I am voting for him," but so frank, off-the-record opinions by old coaches and players can be freely shared. If a former coach's brutal off-the-record takedown of some hometown hero somehow ended up on Pro Football Talk, no old-timer would ever speak openly to a voter again.
Voters will carefully consider the opinions of Cowboys, Washington, and Eagles coaches and defenders of the late 2000s and early 2010s. But when it comes to the guy who led the Giants to two Super Bowl victories against the mighty Patriots, Belichick will be the mega-influencer.
And that's how it should be. Would you vote against Manning if Belichick himself told you he deserved enshrinement? Almost certainly not. Would you vote for Manning if Belichick ripped him? Maybe if Phillips and others begged to differ, but maybe not when faced with 14 other worthies on a finalist ballot. The voters will treat Belichick's testimony the same way.
Since I can't text Belichick and ask him what he thinks—and would not be allowed to share his remarks if I could—a deep dive into Manning's iffy statistics, playoff accomplishments, and historical comparisons would be entirely missing the point. So let's go in a more fruitful direction.
Straw Man Massacre
Eli Manning Hall of Fame arguments may be the most superficial, ill-informed, and dismissive conversations on the Internet, and that's saying something. Most of the discourse boils down to a speaker/blogger/poster assuring us that while smart people know Manning is not Hall of Fame-worthy, those stupid voters can't wait to enshrine him on the first ballot because they are obsessed with RINGZ, or are biased toward big-market players or quarterbacks, or are simply dazzled by famous names, or for some other arbitrary/silly criteria.
Let me address a few of these straw man arguments before they find their way onto the comment thread.
First, no voter seriously thinks: "Two Super Bowl RINGZ? We have no choice but to vote him in!" Most voters do, however, think: "Leading a team to two Super Bowl victories against a generational dynasty deserves at least some discussion," and I agree with them.
I get the impression from past comment threads that some readers don't think Super Bowls should count for a hill of beans, that Terry Bradshaw is no more deserving of a bust than Ken Anderson or Archie Manning, and so forth. It's as if players should not be rewarded for their accomplishments, but for what they might have been capable of doing under some experimental set of neutral circumstances. Frankly, I find that line of reasoning pedantic, contrarian, and a little weird. If Anderson is in your personal head-canon Hall but Troy Aikman isn't, then I suggest not trying to break ground on an actual exhibit.
Next, there is no New York bias in the Hall of Fame voting. Let me repeat this because it's such an important fact that so many people get wrong: THERE IS NO NEW YORK BIAS IN HALL OF FAME VOTING. If there's a New York bias, it's news to Joe Klecko, Phil Simms, Mark Gastineau, Tiki Barber, John Abraham, Leonard Marshall, and Mark Bavaro, to name a few recent examples of borderline players who would benefit from such a bias.
The Giants of the post-merger era are represented on the field by Bill Parcells, Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Michael Strahan, and a bunch of guys like Fran Tarkenton and Kurt Warner who achieved greatness elsewhere. The Jets are represented by Parcells, Joe Namath, Curtis Martin, Kevin Mawae, and a similar set of Brett Favre/John Riggins characters. Do those lists suggest that either franchise benefitted from any sort of Big Apple bump?
I have no idea where the "New York bias" I am told about all the time on Twitter comes from. Maybe it comes from 20-somethings who just discovered Joe Namath's Pro Football Reference page and composed a scathing essay for some content farm about how he actually sucked. Maybe it's just sour grapes from Bengals and Falcons fans. At any rate, claiming a Giants or Jets player has some advantage is a great way to prove how little you know about the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Also, the "easier for quarterbacks" theory is also false. If anything, I think the criteria at quarterback is rather tough. Kurt Warner, whom I considered extremely qualified, got stuck at the finalist stage for two years. I'm less of a Ken Stabler fan, but he was an absolute superstar in the mid-1970s who waited 32 years to get in.
There are lots and lots of quarterbacks who were both successful and incredibly famous at their peaks who will receive serious consideration: Simms, Joe Theismann, Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Drew Bledsoe, Roman Gabriel, Boomer Esiason, Jim McMahon, John Hadl, Jim Hart, and so forth. Destined to join them are Tony Romo, Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and others of our era. Many of these quarterbacks became announcers or remained in the public eye in other ways after retirement. That added fame did nothing for their candidacies. Charlie Conerly quarterbacked the Giants for a decade, led them to a championship, became the literal Marlboro Man and married a freakin' sportswriter but never got past the finalist stage. The famous, well-connected, New York quarterback with ringz thing isn't a thing, folks.
If it's easier for a quarterback to reach the Hall of Fame than a guard, that's because quarterbacks are far more important than guards, and the fifth-best quarterback in an era makes a far greater contribution to his team and the league than the second-best guard (unless it's 1922 or something). I think the Hall of Fame accurately reflects this reality.
Finally, the criteria used by voters is diverse and complex. Debates among the Hall of Fame committee are not barroom arguments. Testimonials are huge, but stats also matter (Aaron Schatz and I have both been consulted now and then), as does a certain degree of dead reckoning. And while some voters do indeed use subjective rules-of-thumb like "signature moments" or "telling the story of the NFL" when evaluating candidates, such criteria are not used by all voters, are not popular among some voters, and aren't the hobby horses they're sometimes portrayed as.
For example, it will soon be time to choose among Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson, and others at wide receiver, and I think Steve Smith's broken-arm touchdown catch is a "signature moment" which exemplifies something which sets him apart from some similar wide receivers. Similarly, the effort to get Don Coryell into the Hall of Fame has been based around the fact that you cannot "tell the story of the NFL" without his contributions to modern offense, even if that's not quite the way it's presented. That said, no one is putting Nick Foles in the Hall of Fame for the Philly Special, and Alan Faneca wasn't kept out because his contribution to football's grand narrative was minor. There's nothing wrong with voters using framing devices to determine what makes one candidate stand out among many.
Now let's circle back to Eli Manning. He won't be inducted simply because he's a successful New York quarterback. No one on the committee will jam a finger up their nose and say "duhhhh, he won ringz so he must be good." Stats, of course, will not get him in: we covered that in the Matt Ryan discussion. Manning's "signature moment" is a fourth-quarter drive marked by a near pick-six and a miracle catch; I don't think close examinations of those Super Bowls will make anyone cape very hard for Eli.
That leaves the story of the NFL, which is the bin Manning's accomplishments really fall into. The only 2007-2011 Giants enshrinee right now is Strahan, who retired after Super Bowl XLII. It feels as though a team that won two Super Bowls in five years should have more than half a Hall of Famer.
Tom Coughlin deserves serious consideration. Coughlin isn't popular among folks under AARP age for a variety of reasons, some of them legitimate. But if you don't think Manning was anything more than a pretty good quarterback, you're almost forced to assume that Coughlin had to be an all-time great coach to coax ordinary Giants rosters through two playoff runs. Throw in Coughlin's success with the expansion-era Jaguars and I believe he's a strong candidate. He came across as a buffoon late in his career, but so did Al Davis and Mike Ditka, among many others.
Justin Tuck should have won one of those Super Bowl MVP awards, but he's not a serious Hall of Famer. Perhaps Jason Pierre-Paul gets two more rings with Tom Brady and assembles a case. Search all you want, but the only serious candidates representing both the 2007 and 2011 Giants are Coughlin and Manning. If we want the Hall of Fame to tell "the story of the NFL," whatever the hell that means, we probably need Manning.
I don't find that argument compelling. But I do believe it adds a reason for Manning to get onto finalist lists so the committee can scour their sources for expert opinions. And even if those sources are lukewarm-at-best about Manning's credentials (as I feel they will be), the "story of the NFL" rationale could propel him into Canton many years from now, when memories of just about everything but Super Bowls has faded and young 'uns are calling us dumb boomers for keeping such an obviously amazing player out.
The Five-Year Itch
The Pro Football Hall of Fame administration has been slowly tweaking the voting process for several years. Ex-players, coaches, and execs have been added to the selection committee, first as observers but now as at-large voting members. Some folks I have spoken to believe media members will be increasingly replaced by former NFL personalities in the years to come.
It's tempting to think that former players and coaches will make better voters than media members. I believe just the opposite is true. Tony Dungy and Bill Polian are current voters. With all respect for their careers, how much do you really trust their judgment when voting for candidates? What does their presence on the committee mean for Reggie Wayne and Ronde Barber, who played for them? If Wayne and Barber benefit, players such as Torry Holt and LeRoy Butler could get back-burnered as a result. And this is before we start to worry about a candidate who affirms or contradicts some coach-turned-moralist's worldview.
Adding more ex-players will actually result in a less-informed committee. Deion Sanders had no idea who Kevin Byard was one year after Byard led the NFL in interceptions, and Sanders is a freakin' television analyst. How much attention do you think Random Legend X is really paying to the current NFL? Do you really think they're watching and studying as closely as Peter King, Dan Pompei, Jarrett Bell, or Charean Williams? A former All-Pro isn't going to text 10 other All-Pros to ask their opinions. He'll go with his gut, which will sometimes mean shooting down a candidate who yanked his facemask once or gave up one touchdown he remembers. I've asked a few Hall of Famers about candidates in the past and heard things like "I don't think Ed Reed is a Hall of Famer" or "me and my teammates were far better than [insert recent all-time great position unit]." Old-timers offer these same opinions to voters, who curate out the fogeyism and act as a buffer between old grudges/favors and bad selections.
Instead of adding more old curmudgeons to the committee, the Hall administrators should be trying to clear the backlog of qualified candidates. That will generate more fan enthusiasm while addressing the credibility issues that come from annual high-profile "snubs."
I have proposed a simple fix both to voters (who have no power to change the process besides forwarding a suggestion to an administrator) and in past columns at other outlets. Let's call it the Five-Year Rule. Any fifth-time finalist is automatically put to a special vote. If a simple majority of the committee votes "yes," that individual gets in, and the new enshrinee does not count against that year's class of five. If a player cannot achieve a simple majority (which is unlikely), their case is remanded to the Senior Committee, where it's likely to marinate for quite a while.
To use last year's balloting as an example, Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca, and John Lynch would all be put to a separate vote. Most likely, all three would be inducted by simple majority. That would open up two more spots in the 2021 class, perhaps for Zach Thomas or LeRoy Butler, and clear Boselli off the 2022 ballot.
This simple fix would NOT open the floodgates for dozens of borderline candidates. It would lower the bar a bit. But despite the fact that many fans claim they prefer a "small hall," most intuitively want the bar lowered to the point where Zach Thomas doesn't have to wait four years.
My five-year rule would create a few classes with seven or eight inductees from the regular committee, all of them guys whom have been on the doorstep of induction for years. After a few years, the worst of the logjams would clear through, and the rule would only be applied to individual cases now and then.
My five-year rule would save the committee endless discussions about the same players. It also saves the candidates additional years of disappointment. It's important to remember that long-time finalists are human beings hoping to receive a major honor. Some are like Lynch and have plenty of other football-related things to do. For others, enshrinement could be one of the biggest things they are looking forward to in their lives, or it could help the family of a deceased player/coach preserve his legacy. Eight years of "close, but no cigar" is a rotten thing for longtime finalists, especially when the underlying issue isn't the individual's qualifications, but an arbitrary limit on inductees.
My five-year rule would eliminate the logjam and backlog discussions that I've talked about time and again throughout this series. It would make it easier to accept or reject borderline cases on their own terms immediately instead of shunting them to the back of the deli line. It would probably smooth the path to Canton for players such as Willie Anderson, Kevin Williams, Ronde Barber, Andre Johnson, and others we have talked about over the last six weeks.
It could even smooth the path for someone like Eli Manning. But for now, his path, appropriately enough, probably goes through Bill Belichick.