The Eli Experiment
By Michael Lewis
The New York Times – December 19, 2004
I. Eli's Joke
The day after Eli Manning was named the starting quarterback of the New York Giants, in mid-November, his father called him about tickets. Of course, Eli didn't call home with the news right away; his news, to him, was never newsworthy. Archie Manning, once an N.F.L. quarterback himself, learned of his son's midseason promotion from an ESPN reporter. The next day he had Eli on the phone.
“How did practice go today?” he asked. From Eli's end of the phone came only silence. A long silence — six, maybe seven seconds.
In those long seconds Archie could have written the headlines across the nation: “Eli Manning, Named Starter, Skips Practice.” If a life as young as Eli Manning's could be said to have a theme, this was one of them: his ability to cause other people to worry about him. “Everyone's always worrying about Eli,” says his old friend Merrick Egan, “and he doesn't need it.” “I think where it starts,” says his oldest friend, James Montgomery, “is that Eli kind of likes to toy with his dad.” When Eli was a star quarterback at the University of Mississippi, Montgomery recalls, Archie would drive up from his home in New Orleans to see his son play at the school where he once filled the same role himself. Ole Miss fans still speak of these visits as a Roman Catholic might speak of a trip by the pope. There are streets in Oxford, Miss., named for Archie Manning, halls devoted to his memory, ballads written and actually sung to commemorate Archie Manning. The speed limit on the Ole Miss campus is Archie's old number, 18. Archie played games in the late 1960's that they still talk about.
Yet so far as anyone could tell, Eli hadn't read his Scripture — hadn't even bothered to skim the Cliff Notes. Archie can recall Eli wanting to discuss his legendary performances only once: “When he called me after he got to Ole Miss and said he came across my stats in the media guide, and that they weren't very good.” If he was only feigning indifference to his father's achievements, he did it well. His two older brothers, Cooper and Peyton (who is the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts and was the league M.V.P. last year) obsessed mightily over their father's playing days. They watched old tapes, peppered Archie with questions, dragged him out into the backyard to throw the football. But Eli never exhibited even a faint curiosity about what his father had done and seemingly knew nothing about it.
On these visits to Oxford, Archie would always go by Eli's apartment, just to check up on things. “Being the rather tidy person he is,” Montgomery recalls, “Archie would just kind of subconsciously start to clean up Eli's apartment. You know, organize the magazines, straighten out all the papers and pens on Eli's desk.” And what Eli would do, just for kicks, is quietly follow his dad around the place and reverse the process. Dropping the same magazines back onto the floor, messing up the same papers, etc. “The funny part was,” Montgomery says, “his dad would clean the same magazines up about two or three times before finally noticing that he'd already done it.”
Twenty-three years of this treatment and Archie was little better than his youngest son's lab rat, responding to electric shocks, grabbing for the cheese. To Archie it was possible, just, that his son, the day after he was named the starting quarterback of the New York Giants, forgot to go to practice. To him, Eli himself seemed worried that he might have skipped practice. It was a simple question: how was practice today? He awaited the answer.
“We don't have practice on Tuesday,” Eli said finally.
Was it one of Eli's private jokes? You never knew. Most of Eli's jokes, like most of Eli's thoughts, were private.
II. Plato's Cave
Q: When did you make the decision to start Eli?
A: Is that important, really? Maybe it was on the couch at 3 a.m. this morning, maybe. Maybe that was it.
Throughout the week leading up to Eli Manning's first game as a starter, reporters pestered the Giants coach, Tom Coughlin, about the reason for replacing his quarterback, Kurt Warner, with a rookie. And all week Coughlin treated the question with contempt — and it's hard to imagine that anywhere else in the N.F.L. is there a coach with such a gift for contempt for the sort of questions journalists ask football coaches. But the truth is, when he made his decision, he might well have been on a couch at 3 in the morning. The previous Sunday the Giants, then 5-3 and still hopeful, were stifled by a bad team, the Arizona Cardinals. Warner was sacked six times, several times on first and second down, by a previously undistinguished Cardinals defensive line. The sports pages the next day — with a couple of interesting exceptions — vilified the Giants' offensive line. How could these bums allow a bunch of mediocrities to sack a former N.F.L. M.V.P. six times in a single game?
Anyone who watched the game on TV might well have come to the same conclusion: these fellows on the Giants line appeared to be perfectly incompetent. Poor Warner was doing all he could. But Coughlin wasn't sure. He went into the office in the wee hours of the morning and studied the game tapes. The general manager, Ernie Accorsi, was already there when Coughlin arrived; he had spent the night on the maroon leatherette sofa in his office. At a decent hour, Coughlin found Accorsi and asked, “Have you seen the tape?” Coughlin had timed every pass play — all 37 of them — and discovered that 30 times Warner held the ball for 3.8 seconds or more. (Depending on how many steps the quarterback drops back to pass, 1.2 to 3 seconds is considered the norm.) Often Giants receivers were open and Warner wasn't seeing them. The quarterback was more to blame for the sacks than the people assigned to protect him. And one thing Coughlin had noticed in practice about Eli Manning was that, unlike most rookie quarterbacks, he made decisions quickly and got the ball away before the defense could kill him.
And so, on Nov. 21, 2004, against the Atlanta Falcons, the fans are expecting, if not the full answer, then at least the beginning of a response to a big question: is Eli Manning worth it? To get Eli, who was actually drafted by the San Diego Chargers, the Giants handed him a contract worth as much as $54 million and gave the Chargers two future draft picks. (Peyton Manning received a $48 million contract when he signed with the Colts.) Giants fans are understandably worried that the kid might be overpaid. But because Eli Manning is the son of one legendary quarterback and the brother of another, the question they want to ask is more personal than usual. Yeah, he had a great college career, but did this kid get here on his own merits, or is he the N.F.L.'s first legacy admission? Did Ernie Accorsi — who was sitting up there in his glass box at Giants Stadium, tense as a snare drum, not wanting to speak to anyone — see something others missed? Or did he just commit the biggest blunder in the history of the N.F.L. draft?
The Giants players pretend that nothing special is happening, but they fool no one. If Eli Manning is a bust, their team is in trouble, for many years. Ernie Accorsi is in trouble. Tom Coughlin is in trouble. A lot of careers are suddenly on the line.
When an expensive rookie quarterback takes the field, he inevitably finds himself on the receiving end of skepticism. It's hard to think of another job at which applicants who seem so well qualified fail so spectacularly. Todd Marinovich, Tim Couch, Heath Shuler, Cade McNown, Akili Smith, Rick Mirer, Andre Ware, Art Schlichter, Jim Druckenmiller, Ryan Leaf: the N.F.L. draft is regularly punctuated by college quarterbacks selected in the first round who then flop in the pros. At no other position in pro football is so much money flushed down the drain. As the sums pile up, you can't help wondering: what do these people who work in the N.F.L. actually know about the ingredients of a great quarterback? They know that it helps to be tall. They know that it's important to have a strong and accurate arm. They suspect that it's important to be able to run a bit — at least well enough to avoid taking direct shots from the monsters coming after you. They know that it helps not to be stupid, though there is no agreement exactly what mental traits are the most important. A gift for geometry? For spatial relations? For making choices under duress?
And while it's hard to see how to fix the problem, it's not hard to see why it exists. Players of other positions face nothing like the quarterback's adjustment — an outstanding college lineman or receiver is likely to prove, at the very least, useful in the professional game. The quarterback experiences the most dramatic change because he is at the receiving end of the game's complexity. The pro game, every year, becomes more complicated, and as it does, the difference between it and the college game widens. (There are natural limits to how complicated college football can become. Players are allowed to practice only 20 hours a week, for a start.) When Archie Manning joined the New Orleans Saints, he recalls, “teams had maybe nine different coverages” — defensive alignments — “and maybe six blitz packages. They'd take into each game maybe four coverages and three blitzes. Against the Falcons, Eli will see that in the first series.”
When Archie played, the same 11 men came out to play defense, no matter the situation. When Eli plays, the Falcons will deploy 19 different players on defense, in an essentially infinite array of configurations — making it far more difficult to know which of his receivers enjoys a natural advantage, or which pass rusher is most likely to kill him. Over the course of the game, the rookie quarterback will see, in effect, endless change on the other side of the ball. Throw in the greater speed of the pro players — in the time the typical college quarterback has made up his mind what to do with the ball, the pro quarterback has been crushed under 600 pounds of man meat — and you have, for a rookie, big problems.
But maybe the biggest change in the life of the N.F.L. quarterback is in the cost of picking the wrong one. When Archie Manning signed with the New Orleans Saints in 1971 — the second overall pick in the N.F.L. draft that year — he was offered what was then an outlandish contract for a quarterback: $410,000 for five years. His rookie salary was $30,000. The combined value of the rookie contracts of his two sons is more than $100 million. And so when Eli Manning started a game for the first time, with his father on hand in an end-zone seat, there was something fairly new to football in the air — not just a competitive thrill; there was a financial frisson. For the price of a $65 ticket, a Giants fan might have the chance to see, in effect, $50 million piled up in the middle of the field and set on fire. Fox Sports had its full roster of 13 cameras at work: on platforms behind the end zone, on carts racing along the sidelines, on stands in the stadium's corners. A robot camera hovered over the field, suspended by wires.
The people, and the cameras, will follow every move Eli Manning makes. They will come away feeling as if they have achieved a fairly exact accounting of what Eli Manning did as a quarterback. And that is an interesting thing: an exact accounting is exactly what is not possible.
The millions of people watching the game on television — the beneficiaries of 13 camera angles and endless commentary from smart people, many of whom played the game — in a way have it the worst. The man who oversees the cameras, Richie Zyontz of Fox Sports, explains that “the guys who work the cameras are trying to make a nice picture. The risk is always that it's too tight.” Focusing on what grips a television audience — facial expressions, violence, emotion, pretty women — the camera will miss the subtleties of the game: the missed blocks, the badly run pass routes.
The naked eye, no matter how well trained, isn't much better. From the chaos on the field it isn't always obvious, even to official scorekeepers, who did what. The Indianapolis Star recently published an article showing that the statistics compiled by the Colts coaching staff — from the tapes of the games — were alarmingly different from the official records kept during the season. The scorekeepers, for instance, credited the Colts linebacker Cato June with 59 solo tackles and 15 assists; from tapes the Colts coaches know that Cato June had 49 solo tackles and 40 assists. If the human eye can miss something as central to the action as a tackle, how can it be expected to comprehend the dozens of things that occur away from the ball? Statistics — the answer in other sports — don't help all that much. Football statistics do not capture the performance of individual football players as cleanly as, say, baseball statistics capture the performance of individual baseball players. No player ever does anything on a football field that isn't dependent on some other player. The individual achievements of football players are often, in effect, hidden in plain sight.
But here's the other interesting thing: this hidden game can be seen, though not by the average viewer. Shot unceremoniously from two pillboxes on the stadium's upper rim, the videotape made by the Giants coaching staff frames all 22 players on the field. The view the coaches want is the view from the cheapest seat in the house. “When former coaches get into the broadcast booth, that's the first thing they want to see, the all-22, the eye in the sky,” Zyontz says. The coaches want to see that shot because they know it is the only shot that will enable them to figure out who did what — and assign credit and blame — on any given football play.
“After a game,” Coughlin says, “you obviously know what happened. But a lot of times you don't know why it happened.” If even the coach, who, during a game, is privy to overhead still photos of the action and countless conversations with players, doesn't understand who did what, what hope is there for a mere spectator? In some strange way, until you see the tape, you haven't seen the game.
Giants Stadium, on this afternoon of Eli Manning's debut, is Plato's Cave. The millions of people watching the game are inside the cave, staring at shadows on the wall. The shadows are distortions of the reality outside the cave, treated, erroneously, as the thing itself. No matter how he plays, some part of Eli Manning's game, like his personality, will remain hidden from public understanding. It may be a trivial part; it may be the telling part — the point is that no one can know for sure if the Giants have given their money to the right guy.
III. The $54 Million Crapshoot
The droop of his shoulders, the hangdog look, the soft and gentle face, the tendency to greet every question with a blank expression and a high-pitched note of uncertainty (“Ummmmm”) — everything about Eli Manning's outward appearance suggests indecision and youth. “If I was a cop and I saw him out driving a car, I'd pull him over,” says Shaun O'Hara, the Giants regular center. His picture has for months graced billboards around New York City, but Eli has been able to walk the length of the fancy part of Fifth Avenue with his mother — untucked red alligator shirt, unpressed chinos and sneakers without socks — without once being recognized. By nature he is very private, but what he's withholding from the public is unclear. “I'm Eli's oldest friend,” James Montgomery says, “and I don't think I've ever had a serious conversation with him. The last time he called we spent 15 minutes trying to figure out the last song in 'Teen Wolf.'”
The only thing that distinguishes Eli Manning, outwardly, from a slightly shy 23-year-old recent college graduate unsure of what he wants to do with the rest of his life is the way he plays quarterback. He offers new hope to introverts everywhere; such characters don't normally land in such exalted positions of leadership. This may be because conventional leadership skills are necessary for the role. But it may also be a matter of false selection. There aren't many introverts playing quarterback in the N.F.L. for the same reason that, until recently, there were not many blacks playing N.F.L. quarterback: they never get the chance. Shy, quiet kids aren't tapped by their Pop Warner coaches to play the position — unless, of course their fathers were famous N.F.L. quarterbacks. The biggest unseen edge that Eli possesses may be that he is expected to excel at the position. Because of this he will be given more time than most to do it.
In the nine weeks of the season leading up to his first start, Eli rode the bench and watched Kurt Warner play. Still, Coughlin kept him as busy as if he were actually on the field. The people in the video department would run off clips, organized by theme, of the N.F.L.'s top quarterbacks — Chad Pennington, Donovan McNabb, Tom Brady and, of course, Peyton Manning. And so every week Eli found himself watching and rewatching themed tape of his older brother: Peyton's footwork, Peyton's two-minute drills, Peyton's long pass plays. One afternoon in early November, I sat with Eli and watched a reel — it was edited to isolate the “red zone,” the turf within 20 yards of the opposing team's end zone. “A lot of good decision making is just eliminating what receiver you're not looking at,” Eli said, as he reached for the tape. His goal in life seems to be to not make a big deal of anything; or, rather, he makes a big deal about not making a deal. On the surface, he is a passive creature. By all accounts, he cooperates with his elders, is polite even when he doesn't need to be and hasn't a mean bone in his body. But at his core there is a truculence. He insists on detaching himself from the life story that was, in a way, written for him at birth.
When he talks about being an N.F.L. quarterback, his chief concern seems to be minimizing the drama of it all: “A lot of it is knowing who should be open. It's a process of elimination that starts even before you take the snap. A lot of it just comes naturally. It's hard to teach someone how to feel pressure, for example. You aren't really thinking about moving around in the pocket. You just kind of have to have a feeling for it.”
Into the machine Eli punched the tape and onto the screen popped his brother, trying to punch the ball into the end zone against the Tennessee Titans. Immediately you saw that Peyton's style of play, at least before the play began, was unlike that of any other N.F.L. quarterback's, an overwrought sequence of waving and pointing and hollering more commonly associated with conducting a high-school marching band than a pro football team. Opposing players scream at Peyton to shut up; writers suggest the N.F.L. reduce the time between plays so that Peyton has fewer seconds to turn the line of scrimmage into a soliloquy. “A lot of that's for show,” Eli said. “Here, look.” Peyton was waving and hollering and pointing again; it looked as if he was designing something very, very complicated. Then he handed the ball off to a halfback, who ran straight ahead for the touchdown. Eli chuckled. “All that noise and it was just a running play.”
He has watched his antic brother a million times. “Have you seen anything you hadn't noticed before from watching him?” I asked. Eli thought about it. “He complains a lot,” he said finally. “Here….” He rewound the tape and then ran one of the previous plays in slow motion. Peyton stuck the ball into a running back's hands, and the running back hurled himself onto a pile. But Eli still had his finger on Peyton, who receded into the distance at the top of the screen. When the back failed to score, Peyton threw up his hands and marched around in a huff. “He does that a lot,” Eli said.
Archie and Olivia Manning raised their sons to be well-educated members of New Orleans' upper middle class — nice boys, good people. Archie never intended for them to make careers in football, and he made a big deal of steering as far from their ambitions as he could and still remain intimately involved in their lives. Whatever he contributed to his children's success, he contributed inadvertently. Archie had a phobia that someone might mistake him for one of those Little League dads whose idea of fatherhood is to holler at the umps. (“I've never been embarrassed by my dad,” says Cooper Manning, a New Orleans investment analyst whose own promising football career ended for medical reasons. “Not a single time.”) He actually made a point of not learning all the bewildering changes to the pro game since he quit playing, in 1985, so that his sons would be more reluctant to engage him in conversation about football, as opposed to something else. And when the Mannings went looking for a school, they picked the one most likely to leave their children with something else to talk about. The Isidore Newman School (my alma mater) isn't, to put it kindly, a football school. Perhaps more effectively than any secondary school in a hundred-mile radius, it is capable of taking the raw material for an All-Pro quarterback and turning it into a high-priced lawyer.
A father agnostic about his sons' football careers, a school ill suited to encouraging them, a society, the New Orleans upper middle class, from which a member is about as likely to matriculate into professional football as into, say, Cosa Nostra: how did this combination of forces yield not one but two pro quarterbacks, both top picks in the N.F.L. draft? In countless ways, small and large, Peyton has explained his own case: he refused not to play in the N.F.L. Eli wasn't like that. He was detached; he had no obvious internal drama; if you didn't look extremely closely, you might even say he was indifferent. Even as he became perhaps the best high-school quarterback in the country, he never let on that football was critically important to him. He couldn't remember his father playing; he didn't bother to sit down and watch the old tapes. “Elway and Marino were Peyton's heroes,” Cooper recalls. “Peyton could probably have named every player in the N.F.L. I don't know if Eli could name a hero. I don't know if Eli could have named a player in the N.F.L. With Eli, it's all very internal. You have to dig a bit to see how it all works.” To which Eli replies, “I'm not the guy who runs down the field with his finger up in the air like I just saved the world.”
When Eli Manning submitted his brain to the N.F.L. for inspection, he relaxed his pretense that nothing much was going on inside of it. The N.F.L. actually requires that prospects take an intelligence test — which is, of course, surprising to everyone outside the N.F.L. As Charlie Wonderlic, the C.E.O. of Wonderlic Inc., which creates the N.F.L.'s intelligence tests, puts it, “Why in the world would you want to know how smart a football player is?” But you do want to know, especially when that player is a quarterback. The Wonderlic Personnel Test, given to all prospects, is identical to the test given to more than two million corporate employees each year. It consists of 50 questions. The taker is given 12 minutes to answer as many as he can. Here is one of the easier questions:
“FAMILIAR is the opposite of 1) friendly, 2) old, 3) strange, 4) aloof, 5) different.”
And here is a hard one:
“In printing an article of 24,000 words, a printer decides to use two sizes of type. Using the larger type, a printed page contains 900 words. Using the smaller type, a page contains 1,200 words. The article is allotted 21 full pages in a magazine. How many pages must be in the smaller type?”
The test has been used by N.F.L. teams for decades, but the emphasis placed on it has grown with the complexity of the game. (Archie Manning recalls, during his senior year, some guy affiliated with a pro team turning up at Ole Miss and handing out an intelligence test. “We all took it sitting on stools in the locker room, with no one watching us,” he says. “Two of the tackles cheated off each other.”) Teams use it to weed out players whose minds are simply inadequate to the task. The rule of thumb — on offense at least — is that the closer you are to the ball, the smarter you need to be. (Centers are the only players who routinely test as highly as quarterbacks.) The average test score for lawyers is 30 and for janitors is 15. The average test score for halfbacks, the lowest-scoring players, is 15, and for quarterbacks is 25. The head of scouting for the Giants, Jerry Reese, says, “If a quarterback's score comes in under 25, we worry; otherwise we don't pay that much attention to it.” Eli Manning scored a 39, putting him in the 99th percentile of last year's two and a half million Wonderlic test takers. His brother Cooper (he was laughing as he spoke) said, “I think the only guy who scored higher than Eli was a punter from Harvard who didn't make a team.” (Actually, Pat McInally, the Harvard punter who scored a perfect 50, did make it on to the Cincinnati Bengals.) Eli Manning's score was so high that when I mentioned it to Charlie Wonderlic, he suggested I recheck my facts and said, “There's not a job on the planet that requires a person to score at that level.”
But Eli Manning may be the only person in the history of the Wonderlic who can score a 39 and not recall his score. Wandering down a hallway in the Giants front office one day I asked him how he did on the test. “Ummmmm — I think I got a 41 or a 42 out of 50.”
“How did Peyton do?” I asked.
“Ummmmmmm — I don't think he did as well, maybe low 30's.” Then he smiled and said, “I think Peyton might have been above average.”
By all the tests that N.F.L. scouts use to measure college quarterbacks, Eli Manning compared favorably to his famous older brother. And yet the decision to take him with the first pick, and pay him great sums of money, was nevertheless regarded by many inside the N.F.L. as fantastically risky. A few general managers, and coaches, would have refused to make it. When the quarterbacks arrived at the 2003 N.F.L. combine — where the teams put the most highly touted prospects though their paces — the coach of the Carolina Panthers, John Fox, simply walked out. He took a principled stand against spending money and draft picks on a quarterback. No N.F.L. coach will say this, but a few actually build their teams on the principle that the quarterback need not be especially gifted, because he doesn't need to be terribly important. You don't need a god out there; you don't need Joe Montana or John Elway or Peyton Manning. All you need is one very smart coaching staff and a quarterback who won't mess up their intricate plans. Spend less of your money on a quarterback and you have more to spend on the people around him. Ask them to do more, and the quarterback to do less.
The coaches who approach the game this way — Fox, Brian Billick of Baltimore, Bill Cowher of Pittsburgh, Bill Parcells of Dallas, Bill Belichick of New England — define one end of the N.F.L.'s managerial spectrum: the end that argues that it's never worth the risk to pay a fortune to a quarterback unproved in the pros. Ernie Accorsi might well define the other. “There is no other position in team sports as important as the quarterback,” he says. “A great quarterback, unlike a great running back, cannot be stopped. And if you have a great one, you're never out of it. He walks on the bus and the whole team sees him and thinks, We have a chance.” The problem, from Accorsi's point of view, is finding the great quarterback.
IV. The Magic
It was absurd: a 61-year-old New Yorker hustling down to Mississippi on a fall weekend in 2002, just to watch a 21-year-old junior quarterback in the flesh. In the N.F.L., 61 isn't old; it's ancient. Just about everyone who was in the N.F.L. when Accorsi took his first job, in 1970, was gone. He'd retire soon; the long-term future of the New York Giants was of no practical consequence to him. But he'd seen something he couldn't ignore — a tape of an Ole Miss game. And what he'd seen in the Ole Miss quarterback, Eli Manning, got his blood racing in a way it hadn't in years. He wanted to see him play. He could have watched him plenty on television, but Accorsi had grown almost hostile to the way that football games have come to be televised. “You can't even see what's on the field, and you can't see the formations,” he said. “The camera is all over the place. On the sidelines. In the stands. On the coaches' faces. I had no idea what Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi looked like because all you saw back then was the games.”
He wanted to see what he wanted to see — every move Eli Manning makes — and he wanted to see “how he responds to the pressure of the game — how he responds to the crowd.” He arrived early to the field, to watch Manning warm up. He couldn't tell from the tape the strength of Eli Manning's arm; and he couldn't tell from warm-ups either. It was as if Eli were trying not to show what he had. Did that mean he didn't have it? Accorsi couldn't tell. He found his seat, not in the press box, where he wanted to sit, but out on the ice-cold photographers' deck. The opposing team, Auburn, was stacked with N.F.L. prospects. Ole Miss had maybe two, and one was Eli Manning. Accorsi watched as Auburn sprinted ahead, 14-0.
On a couple of occasions, Manning threw long. Running to his right, he drilled a pass, across his body, to the left side of the field maybe 55 yards. His arm was stronger than Ernie dared to imagine: the kid had a cannon, possibly stronger than his brother's arm. And then something happened: Accorsi felt it before he saw the scoreboard change. Manning was, improbably, keeping Ole Miss in the game; he was finding a way to win. Ole Miss had simply given up trying to run the football — at one point Auburn had outgained them on the ground, 230 yards to 10. And yet even without a ground game they were moving the ball through the air. Pass after beautiful pass found its mark. Eli Manning was doing the riskiest thing a quarterback can do, and everything about this game merely increased that risk. The pass rushers were always a split second from killing him; the defensive backs were all bigger and faster than his receivers; and, because Ole Miss had no running game, everyone in the stadium expected a pass. And yet he seemed to have a special ability to cope with risk. Accorsi — growing more and more excited — pulled out his notebook. In a later report, he wrote:
- Rallied his team from 14-3 halftime deficit basically all by himself. Led them on two successive third-quarter drives to go ahead 17-16, the first touchdown on a streak down the left sideline where he just dropped the ball (about 40 yards) over the receiver's right shoulder for the touchdown…called the touchdown pass (a quick 12-yard slant) that put them ahead at the line of scrimmage himself.
At one point late in the third quarter, Ole Miss found itself on the Auburn 15-yard line. The rush came so hard that it knocked Manning down as he took the snap. The Auburn line just hurled the entire Ole Miss line backward, and Manning went over like a bowling pin at the back of the stack. The play looked to be over; but a split end was running a fade to the corner of the end zone. As Eli fell, with his rear end maybe two inches off the ground, he threw the ball. A perfect spiral up and into the outstretched hands of the wide out that would have been yet another score if the astonished Auburn cornerback hadn't stuck out his hand at the last moment and deflected the ball.
This kid wasn't like any Accorsi had seen — not in a long time. He was tall — 6-foot-4 at least. He could throw the ball plenty far. He was decisive. He was poised — ridiculously so. He had exquisite feel for the game. But that sterile checklist didn't begin to capture what caused Accorsi to feel the way he did. “Forget all about the measurables.” he says. “When you're trying to find the difference between the great quarterback and the good quarterback, you have to feel it. The intangibles.” In his 32 years in pro football, Ernie Accorsi had a chance to draft this sort of talent once: John Elway. As the general manager of the Baltimore Colts, in 1983, he chose Elway with the first pick of the draft — only to hear Elway say he'd rather play professional baseball than play football in Baltimore, forcing a trade to Denver. Accorsi quit in frustration; as he put it, “If I'm going to lose my job, it's going to be over this, not some right guard.” And now here was this kid, a junior at a school that hadn't won anything, whom he had a shot of drafting. He wrote in his notebook:
- He has a feel in the pocket. In one case a linebacker coming off the blind side edge had him measured and he was going to get mashed. At first, I didn't think he felt it but he held it to the last split second, threw a completion and got hammered. Just got up and went back to the huddle….
I know it's just one look….But if I had to make the decision this morning, I would move up to take him. They are rare, as we know.
And here was where Ernie Accorsi, sitting on the cold photographers' deck, reached back behind him to feel a distant memory. Suddenly it is Dec. 28, 1958, all over again. He's 17 years old and his father has sprung for a trip from their home in Hershey, Pa., to Palm Beach, Fla. The Accorsis aren't poor, but they aren't rich, either. A trip to Florida is an indulgence; Ernie's supposed to feel grateful, and he knows it. But he doesn't; he feels frustrated. The next afternoon, which his father has planned to spend on the golf course with his son, the Baltimore Colts will play the New York Giants for the N.F.L. championship. The game will be televised nationally. His first love — the first love of every kid he knows; after all, this is 1958 — is baseball. But he's becoming more and more interested in football; more specifically, he's following the Colts; more specifically still, he's becoming obsessed with the Colts' quarterback, Johnny Unitas. Johnny Unitas isn't like any player of any sport Ernie has ever seen. Unitas has this rare ability to make the game conform to his will; every other player just seems to be an extra in Unitas's drama. Ernie wants to see that drama, played for high stakes.
And so, three days after Christmas, his father has created a conflict in young Ernie's heart. The second half will be played at exactly the same time father and son are meant to be on the Palm Beach golf course. But there's no way to tell his father that he wants to spend the high moment of this expensive vacation watching TV. Ernie resigns himself to playing the unhappiest nine holes of golf of his life. Arriving at the ninth green, he spies a shack and the glow of the television inside it. He shouts to the caddies inside, “Who won the game?” Back comes the answer, “They're still playing!” Ernie drops his clubs and runs into the shack, and sees the final plays of the N.F.L.'s very first sudden-death overtime game — a game that is now referred to, with little argument, as the greatest game ever played.
The score is tied, and in overtime. Unitas has taken the Colts down the field to the Giants 8-yard line. He gives the ball to halfback Alan Ameche, who takes it to the 7. Then Unitas does something only Johnny Unitas would dream of doing: he throws a pass into the flat, sideways across the entire field. His team is within field goal range — and a field goal will end the game, and give it to the Colts — and yet he throws the kind of pass that is most likely of all to be intercepted and, if intercepted, run back for a touchdown. For no obvious reason, he risks the entire game. Colts end Jim Mutscheller catches the pass, and should score, but slips across the frozen field and out of bounds at the 1-yard line. This play was, in football circles, “controversial.” After the game a reporter asked Unitas how he could do such a thing in such a situation: wasn't he worried he'd be intercepted? “When you know what you're doing,” Unitas said, “you don't get intercepted.”
The next play he comes to the line of scrimmage. Everyone in the place assumes he'll run left to move the ball in front of the goal posts for a field goal. The Giants have stacked their defense accordingly. Unitas raises his hands, as if he thinks he can quiet the enemy crowd, and calls a new play. Alan Ameche runs untouched over the empty right side and into the end zone.
It didn't matter that Accorsi missed the second half of the game. He can, and will, watch it later, on tape. Hundreds of times. In 1970, Accorsi will get his first job in pro football, as the press guy for the Colts. Johnny Unitas will still be the quarterback; within a few years, Accorsi will become perhaps Unitas's closest friend in the organization. For the next 30 years, as Accorsi rises to run the Colts, then the Browns and finally the Giants, he will telephone Unitas every Dec. 28 and say, “John, you know what today is?” And Unitas will never know, because that is Unitas's job — to shrug off as mere trivia one of the greatest clutch performances in football history. When Unitas dies, Accorsi will carry his coffin to the grave.
In his defining trait, Eli Manning reminds Ernie Accorsi of Johnny Unitas. Accorsi has never spoken to Manning; he has never even shaken the young man's hand. He doesn't know him as a person, only as a quarterback. But as he watched him very nearly beat a vastly superior opponent, Accorsi scribbled in his diary: “Has the quality that you can't define, call it magic.”
V. The Eye in the Sky
Q: Do you sense that it was a little premature to make the quarterback change?
A: No, not at all. That's not my sense at all, and it wasn't yours either. Short memories.
Three games was all it took for the press to ask Coach Coughlin if he wasn't, perhaps, a fool for bringing in a rookie quarterback. In his debut against the Falcons, Manning showed flashes of brilliance and nearly led the team to an upset victory. He was sacked just once; he moved the offense against one of the N.F.L.'s better defenses. In the second half, he threw his first touchdown pass, to the Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey. But in his second game, against an even better Philadelphia team, he definitely looked overpaid.
Accorsi wasn't about to attribute much significance to that. The best quarterbacks often play poorly in their first starts. “Unitas's first pass was intercepted,” he said. Elway's debut was no more auspicious. “Elway came out and lined up under the guard. The center had to shout at him, 'Hey, John, I'm over here.'” And, as everyone knows, Peyton Manning's team, in his first season, went 3-13. All Accorsi would say about Eli Manning was, “Thank God he showed us he's human.”
Before the third game, against the Washington Redskins, Accorsi agreed to watch tape with me afterward and dissect Manning's performance. Monday morning, I found Accorsi in his office at Giants Stadium with an expression on his face somewhere between apologetic and disturbed, like a man standing on the side of the Jersey Turnpike who has just caused a 10-car pile up. Against a team with a 3-8 record, a team that hadn't scored more than 18 points in a game all season, the Giants lost 31-7. They ran 41 plays to the Redskins' 68. Manning was, at best, unimpressive: 12 completed passes in 25 attempts for a mere 113 yards. When his receivers were open, his throws were off target. He looked like a different quarterback from the one who had played against the Falcons.
On one play, Giants receiver Ike Hilliard got open running an out pattern. As I watched Hilliard come free for the first time in two games, I thought back to a training scrimmage I witnessed at the Giants' camp in upstate New York one afternoon in August. Eli Manning dropped back to pass, while a cluster of three Giants receivers streaked downfield together like jets in formation — it's called a bunch-three route. At the last moment, Ike Hilliard peeled away and cut toward the corner of the end zone — and fooled no one. A cornerback and a safety stayed on him, step for step. Improbably, the ball appeared over Hilliard's shoulder and dropped into his arms for a touchdown. There was exactly one football-size place to put the ball so that Hilliard, and no one else, might catch it. On the way back to the huddle, Hilliard asked every defender he passed, “Did you see him drop it in there?” When he passed by the coaches pacing on the sideline, someone shouted at Hilliard, “Great job, Ike.” Hilliard shook his head and said, “I didn't do nothing.”
And now, facing what appeared to be a much easier throw, Manning just missed him. The ball sailed right over Hilliard's head.
About the only nice thing a fan might say about his performance was that the team around him appeared so outclassed that whatever Eli Manning did could scarcely matter at all. Hardly anybody said it, however; the fans were already screaming that the Giants were sacrificing their season for the sake of getting playing time for their expensive rookie. What I hoped Accorsi could explain, using the evidence of the game tape, was how can you tell the difference between the struggles of a promising rookie quarterback and the struggles of a terminally hopeless rookie quarterback? But he declined. “I'm sorry,” he said, as I walked into his office. “I can't do the tape thing. I don't have the stomach for it.”
Later that day I did get him on the phone. He'd spent the intervening few hours watching the tape, over and over. And his mood had changed. “If you look at the tape,” he said, “the guys are all covered. He didn't have anyone to throw it to. They took the run away from us, the whole game was on his shoulders, but he didn't have any help. Our receivers weren't getting open.” Another cheering thing was clear: Manning made very few bad decisions. Once, on third and long, with all of his downfield receivers covered, he had running back Tiki Barber open in the flat. If he had seen him, Barber might have gotten the first down — but you never know. “That's one of the things he'll learn to do as he matures. He'll learn to look for his release man.” A couple of the balls that appeared to be underthrown were actually tipped by the defense. And that throw to Hilliard — he was hit as he made it.
“It's easy to rationalize this,” Accorsi said. “It's easy to talk yourself into thinking it wasn't as bad as it was. But I'm not that way. He got the ball to the only people he could get the ball to. A quarterback with less poise would have been out there throwing interceptions. He was playing within himself. He was making smart, crisp throws. We just didn't give him any help.” This actually wasn't all that different from Archie's reaction to his son's first few games. “Too many people talk about quarterbacks like they're golfers,” Archie said. “You can only do as much as your team lets you do.” Manning, at least in Accorsi's eyes, was the same guy he saw down at Ole Miss two years before. He faced one of the best pass rushes in the N.F.L. and was sacked only once — mainly because he got the ball away so quickly. “Look, you'd like to see the magic faster,” Accorsi said. “But I think he did all he could. People will laugh at that. But I'll invite them to watch the tape.”
But since he didn't invite me to watch the tape, all I had to go on was the game. The first three quarters I watched from the end-zone pillbox where the Giants video staff operates “the eye in the sky.” The last quarter, I walked along the Giants sideline, on the field. It must be a little different in every stadium, but in the Redskins' stadium, the first thing you notice is the strong smell of trampled grass. It's pungent and makes you realize that you aren't in a clean place — an antiseptic television stage set — but a real place, with dirt. But right after that you see that everything and everyone — from the hash marks on the field to the painted Redskins cheerleaders — has been designed to be seen from a great distance. The players themselves are remote beings. In baseball and basketball, the players pick out faces in the crowd. Football players remain essentially detached from the 90,000 people staring down on them. The fans are just one great noise machine, to be turned on and off by the home team.
The game itself, up close, is a mess. The formations, the elegant strategy, the athleticism — when you're right next to it, it's all chaos. The ball goes up in the air any distance at all and the only way you can deduce what has become of it is by the reaction of the crowd. When Eli Manning drops back to pass, if you're standing a few yards away on the sidelines, you have no sense of him doing something so considered as making a decision. The monsters charging at him from every direction are in his face so quickly that you flinch and stifle the urge to scream, “Watch out!” There is no way, you think, that he can possibly evaluate which of these beasts is most likely to get to him first, and so which of them he should take the trouble to evade. At that moment any sensible person in Manning's shoes would flee. Or, perhaps, collapse to the ground and beg for mercy. Yet he is expected to wait…wait…wait…until the microsecond before he is crushed. He's like a man who has pulled the pin from a grenade and is refusing to throw it.
But here's what's odd: not only must he remain undisturbed by the live grenade in his hands, he must also retain, in his mind's eye, the detached view of the man sitting in the pillbox on the rim of the stadium. The quarterback alone must weld together these two radically different points of view — the big picture and the granular details. For there is no way to react intelligently, in real time, to the chaos; you need to be able to envision its pattern before it takes shape. You have to, in short, guess. A lot. Every time Eli Manning drops back and makes a decision, he's just guessing. His guesses produce uneven results, but he is shockingly good at not making the worst ones. God may know — though I doubt it — if Eli Manning will one day be a star in the N.F.L. But if there was the slightest hint of uncertainty or discomfort in the rookie, I didn't see it. The only unpleasant emotion he conveyed — and it was very slight, in view of the circumstances — was frustration. The one emotional trait he shares with his older brother is maybe the most important: success is his equilibrium state. He expects it.
The most revealing play of the game occurred after everyone stopped watching. Down 31-7, the Giants got the ball back with 22 seconds left to play. Instead of taking a knee and heading for the showers, Manning dropped back to pass. The Redskins, still high on the novel experience of actually beating someone, blitzed eight men. Manning found his tight end, Jeremy Shockey, for nine yards across the middle, to midfield. With six seconds left and the clock ticking, Manning ran over to the official and called timeout. From any other point of view except for his — and the Giants' long-term future — stopping the clock was deeply annoying. The game was over. The news media — along with Accorsi and the rest of the Giants management — had streamed down to the interview rooms. The Redskins cheerleaders, freezing in their leather micro-shorts, were hurrying to pack up. Most of the 90,000 fans were gone, and the few who remained booed. But Tom Coughlin wanted Eli Manning to see as much as he could of this very good N.F.L. defense. He wanted Eli to make one more decision, and throw one last pass against the Redskins blitz — incomplete, as it happened. It was the game within the game — the education of Eli Manning.
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