This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 24 Hall of Fame Issue. Subscribe today!
AS I WATCHED the Giants alternately rise, fall and then rise again through yet another season, I took to YouTube in a desperate search for clues about Eli Manning. Of all the quarterbacks I've gotten to know over the years, Manning may be the most interesting. While the two-time Super Bowl champion and two-time Super Bowl MVP at times seems like a lock for the Hall of Fame, his play is absurdly inconsistent, lacking the ethereal stats of other potentially Canton-bound passers -- including the one whose last name he shares.
On YouTube (after being momentarily distracted by a Springsteen clip and a thing about whales), I found a home video shot and narrated by Archie Manning. Peyton and Eli are shooting baskets in the backyard court of their New Orleans home. Eli is 7, maybe 8, and he's missing every way possible -- short, long, off the top of the rim, off the bottom, off air. Peyton rebounds and feeds his younger brother after every shot; Eli hits a few but clangs most. It's painful to watch, yet Eli never seems discouraged. He just keeps firing. Finally, Peyton grabs a ball and steps to what appears to be the farthest and toughest shot on the Manning family court, mere inches from the doorstep. He drains it. Suddenly motivated, Eli steps to his brother's spot and shoots without hesitation. Money. "Nice shot, E," Archie says.
The whole scene seems prescient yet familiar, but it doesn't begin to answer the question of whether Manning is a Hall of Famer, because that can't actually be answered yet. He is only 31 and in his ninth season, his career probably halfway done. But for a non-doper, non-cheater, non-bettor and non-head case, nobody in sports finds himself in the middle of the is-he-or-isn't-he debate more than Manning. The reasons that he and not a quarterback of similar accomplishments -- like, say, Ben Roethlisberger -- sparks such an argument are partially knee-jerk: the comparisons with Peyton, the media stature of New York. But it's mostly because the question of Manning's Canton candidacy is mainly theological, revealing much more about one's definition of a Hall of Famer than about Manning specifically. Yet because of the way he plays, this debate applies only to him: Can you be a Hall of Famer if you're a mortal quarterback during the regular season but an immortal one in the playoffs?
In February, riding the rush of Manning's second punking of the Patriots in the Super Bowl in five years, the case for his bronze bust seemed closed. "Absolutely," Phil Simms said. The New York Post opined, "He is no longer Elite Eli. He is Hall of Fame Eli." ProFootballTalk wrote that "even without another Super Bowl title, Eli will make it into the Hall of Fame." And for the first six weeks of this season, Manning seemed to validate every statement, playing at a level eclipsed only by Matt Ryan.
But in the four weeks that followed, Manning's play was at one point "foolish," as Giants head coach Tom Coughlin put it. He threw only one touchdown pass and six picks. His backers inevitably began to backtrack. Simms: "He's not one of the elites." The Newark Star-Ledger called his play "Sanchezesque." Now rounding out the season, the Giants are closing in on that low-seeded playoff spot where they'll have to win on the road to make it to the Super Bowl, where Manning's pedestrian regular-season numbers (58 percent winning percentage, 1.4:1 TD:INT ratio, 82 passer rating) give way to postseason stats (72 percent winning percentage, 2.1:1 TD:INT ratio, 89 passer rating) that all rank in the top 10 all time. And of course, no stat measures the stones required to throw deep to David Tyree after untangling oneself from the Patriots front four in Super Bowl XLII, or to drop a bomb to Mario Manningham into a hole few quarterbacks can conceive of, much less capitalize on.
But the YouTube video and the dozens of games I've seen Manning play have crystallized my pet theory on him. It's hard to define the multiple traits the 23 modern-era quarterbacks enshrined in Canton share, not to mention the four or five playing today who are certain to join them. But one thing is a constant: They never forget. Terry Bradshaw never forgot that people called him dumb. Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers never forgot their draft-day slides. Steve Young never forgot his years as a backup. John Elway and Peyton never forgot the folks who said they couldn't win the big one. Using a mix of ruthlessness, talent and audacity and a combination of both deluded and earned confidence, they used those dark memories to fuel transcendent careers.
Eli Manning, on the other hand, always forgets. He forgets bad throws, bad games -- even bad months. Perhaps he inherited this ability to let go from his mom, Olivia, who never seems fazed during her sons' games, while Archie paces and fidgets. Or perhaps, as Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who coached both Peyton and Eli in college and has become something of a career counselor for them, theorizes: "It's a coping mechanism for being in the Manning family, for having the expectations of his dad and his brothers. How can you just turn it off when you need to? There's no question that he might be the best ever at forgetting."
However it arrived, forgetting is Manning's singular genius. His regular seasons are his hits and misses; the Super Bowl is the toughest shot that he always sinks unburdened by the fear of failure, having somehow scrubbed his memory. Of course, sitting at his locker on a late November afternoon, he can't explain how he's able to forget when I ask him about it. "You know, uh, obviously, uh, you know. You, uh, learn from your mistakes. Uh, you know, learn from a bad play. Remember the good ones; everything else you forget."
This is just how his mind works. Most quarterbacks strive to think like coaches; Manning thinks like a cornerback -- finding greatness in his ability to change not only a game's momentum but his own. Though Manning knows the Giants offense as well as a coach and can audible at the line of scrimmage with the best of them, Ernie Accorsi, the GM who traded for the quarterback out of Ole Miss on draft day, was onto something in 2002 when he wrote in his scouting report, "This is a guy you should just let play."
In tight situations, Manning's ability to forget allows him to not only just play but play free of self-consciousness. As Ryan says with envy, "He has no conscience." Against the Redskins in October, Manning entered the huddle in a familiar spot: trailing 23-20 with 1:32 left, having thrown two interceptions and been outplayed by Robert Griffin III. "All we gotta do is win the game," he joked to teammates. And predictably, that's exactly all he did, loosening a 77-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz on the second play of the drive, the 23rd fourth-quarter comeback win of his career. "It's not something to be totally proud of -- that you can bounce back after a bad play," Manning says, laughing at himself, which he does easily and often. "You try not to have bad games or bad plays. But that's part of football, and you can't let it get you down."
Not that Manning is immune to being down. After a misfire, he'll allow himself the patented Manning head bob and shoulder tug. But he doesn't stay down -- something not only great QBs but all pro athletes struggle with, no matter how hard they try to fake it for the cameras. So when teammates ask Manning for help, what they really want to know is how to think like he does. Earlier this season, kicker Lawrence Tynes had a lousy practice. Manning has rallied from many of them. So Tynes asked him, "If you have a bad day, what do you do to combat that?"
"Well, you've got nine years of game film," Eli shrugged. So Tynes watched big kicks from throughout his career, an elementary method of positive reinforcement -- forgetting disguised as reminding -- and his confidence flooded back. As backup quarterback David Carr, a former No. 1 pick who is as gifted as Manning in every way except for his ability to flush bad plays, says, "Eli really is that simple. And he's onto something."
Manning really is a simple guy. He married his college sweetheart, the former Abby McGrew. They have a toddler daughter, Ava. He has a King Charles Cavalier named Chester, whom he trotted up and down seven flights of stairs in the dark- ness of his Hoboken apartment building during Hurricane Sandy so Chester could pee. He still wears his hair in the official style of the Ole Miss male, ungelled and blanketing his forehead. He stars in corny Toyota commercials, and yes, he drives a Toyota truck.
The rare excesses look awkward -- and Manning knows it. One day this past spring, Cooper Manning visited his youngest brother, who decided to take him for a spin in his 2012 Corvette, a spoil of being Super Bowl MVP. Eli in a penis car? "You look like an idiot," Cooper said. Eli laughed, agreed, then hit the gas. "He goes through life in a very balanced way," Cooper says -- maybe the first time that any potential Hall of Famer has ever been commended for his work/life balance. But as a kid, Eli never dreamed of quarterbacking in the NFL. He played football because it was the family business and became elite not only by wringing the most out of his gifts and working his ass off but by keeping the sport in its place. A loss on game day might ruin his night but not his life. "That's his greatest asset," Cooper says. "Just a little less pressure that he puts on himself."
But it usually doesn't come to that. Each Friday, Manning hosts a film session for his receivers to outline opponents' wrinkles in painstaking detail. Before the Giants played the Bengals in Week 10, rookie receiver Rueben Randle entered late. Eli asked why. "Had to do some extra work," Randle said. Manning may keep things simple, but he is all business. "Who's gonna throw you a touchdown -- me or the guy you're doing extra work with?" Manning said. But on game day, Manning allows his receivers to just play too. Many future Hall of Famers, such as Brady, will sometimes cut off receivers who drop balls or botch routes. But Manning always tells his wideouts, "I'm gonna come back to you." He forgets his teammates' errors like he forgets his own. "I need them to have faith in me," he says, "and I'll have faith in them."
When judging candidates, though, Hall of Fame voters want sustained greatness, not faith, not balance, not a short memory. By the time he retires, Manning could rank in the top five in yards and touchdowns, rankings that might not hold thanks to the explosion of passing stats in the NFL's aerial age. But Canton has plenty of quarterbacks -- Sonny Jurgensen, Warren Moon - -who have produced prolific numbers but lack a defining postseason moment. Manning's career is defined by postseason moments, which has made fans nearly as forgetful as he is.
After all, few remember his first three years of mediocrity, or the league-high 25 interceptions he threw in 2010, or the boneheaded flip he tossed while falling into the welcoming arms of a Bengal earlier this season. When you think of Manning, you see him ending Brett Favre's Green Bay career by firing darts through the black-ice Lambeau air, the heave to Tyree, the dime to Manningham, his redefining of not only his career but also Coughlin's. You recognize greatness not in hitting every shot, just the ones that matter most.