Eli Manning's Burden

Kid Brother Takes a Load Off
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Elisha Nelson Manning (whose name wouldn’t stick out on a list of Confederate generals) is a walking, mumbling Southern hegemone. Eli, his dad (legally Elisha Archibald Manning III), and the whole clan are quietly a lot more Mississippi than people realize, though much more Haley Barbour Mississippi than Brett Favre Mississippi. Archie hails from Drew, MS, a tiny, Black Belt hometown he shares with photographer William Eggleston (whose art was used on the cover of Big Star’s Radio City—infinity Southern-cred points). On the distaff side, clan mother Olivia Manning is from Philadelphia, MS—yes, that Philadephia, MS.

And for as long as Elisha Nelson Manning has been a starting quarterback in the NFL, it has been a source of comfort and grace to me that he’s not very good at being a starting quarterback in the NFL. This isn’t because I have any particular beef with Eli Manning as a vessel for football talent or even his general project of looking like an mutant fifteen-year-old. I find his shy-unto-sullen frat-dude thing vaguely endearing, for reasons I don’t understand. When Eli got a ring in 2007, that was mostly hilarious, because I’m not a Patriots fan, and because the Helmet Catch was first-rate sports melodrama.

But it wasn’t first-rate football, or even first-rate quarterbacking. In fact, the game by rights should have been over two plays earlier, when Manning lobbed a pass to Asante Samuel, who was so surprised by the shittiness of the throw that he forget to intercept it. Eli bounced right off that guardrail, and managed to just barely avoid getting sacked by two different dudes before valiantly overthrowing David Tyree.

But the thing about flags is that they do not stop flying. Eli’s Super Bowl win/MVP will last forever, and so will his quintessence of awkward little brother. Now that he’s reprising the role of Tom Brady’s foil, Eli Manning’s distinct Shia LeBoeuf vibe is stronger than ever. Yes, the Giants won Super Bowl XLII, Yes, the Transformers franchise has earned $2.6 billion dollars worldwide. Yes, I see little kids in New York City wearing Eli Manning jerseys—but that’s only because the Giants only have one starting QB. And also because of Mark Sanchez.

Basic metrics seem to bear out a gentle upward arc in Eli’s on-field performance as he marched toward and past age 30. Davy Crockett kilt him a bar when he was only 3, but people grew up faster back then. Let’s all give Eli Manning a pat on the head (using a stepladder, because he’s somehow 6’4”) for finding the keys before age 45. But because he's still, on a molecular level, Eli Manning, the Giants still lost to the Redskins twice this year. He still threw 25 picks in 2010 (granted, a number of those weren’t his fault). Even as a consensus #1 pick, eight-year veteran, and Super Bowl MVP, Eli Manning was and is eternally unfinished.

Except Eli Manning is actually a great QB now.

Well, that’s not strictly speaking accurate or true. He’s not Brady or pre-angry-years Peyton Manning great. But anyone who saw a mud-spattered Eli get engulfed by an angry swarm of 49ers defenders while completing a 30-yard-pass to Ahmad Bradshaw in the NFC title game—or rather, saw him pop up, unfaded, shake his spinal column back into alignment, and keep going—saw Eli Manning in the the act of grown-man shit. He took the burden of history, carefully placed it in the garbage, and lit the garbage on fire. I'm not positive he won't later fall into that flaming trash can, but for the next five days at least, he's free.

It seems paradoxical to say that a guy with a ring and an MVP trophy has anything like a history to be burdened by, but that’s Eli Manning for you. Even post-XLII he seemed to play under duress, to be still pushing to validate himself as a sufficiently noble heir to a great Southern football patrimony. It’s tempting to wring meaning from Eli’s Giants and their periodic tendency for unlikely Super Bowl appearances, to posit that Eli is about to trip over the threshold of greatness. But I'm not sure Eli Manning will ever be a great QB in the traditional sense, even if he shreds the Patriots’ balsa-wood defense this Sunday. But he has mastered an important concept in the American cultural lexicon, the same play that Southern dudes have been turning over, from Bob Dylan (Southern end of the Mesabi Range) to Newt Gingrich: Don’t look back.

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