If you want to pick a fight, bring up Eli Manning and the Hall of Fame.
With Manning, the Giants quarterback, set to hold a news conference on Friday to confirm that he will retire, the debate about his accomplishments that has simmered for years now will have closure.
A quick summation of Manning’s career produces a fairly strong Hall of Fame case.
After being selected with the first overall pick in the 2004 draft, Manning went on to start the seventh-most games for a quarterback in N.F.L. history. He currently ranks seventh in career passing yards, seventh in touchdowns and is tied for 11th in wins. And most important, his trophy case includes two Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Awards, both of which came against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
For many of Manning’s supporters, those Super Bowl wins alone provide a be-all, end-all argument. Only 12 quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era have won multiple championships, so Manning punched his card the second Ahmad Bradshaw awkwardly tipped over into the end zone for a go-ahead score in Super Bowl XLVI.
But if Hall of Fame voters considered two Super Bowl wins to be an automatic benchmark, they would not have spent the last few decades ignoring Jim Plunkett, a quarterback with fairly modest regular season statistics who won two Super Bowls for the Raiders and was the M.V.P. of Super Bowl XV.
Plunkett’s failure even to be named a Hall of Fame finalist makes clear that Manning’s career requires a deeper examination than just looking at a picture of his Super Bowl rings.
Manning vs. the Hall of Famers
There are 29 quarterbacks currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but many of them played a version of the position that would be largely unrecognizable to current fans. If one compares Manning to the 16 post-merger quarterbacks currently in the Hall, however, his numbers initially appear strong.
In that group, Manning would rank third in passing yards, third in touchdowns, seventh in passer rating and sixth in adjusted net yards per attempt, a metric that accounts for the negative value of an interception. He was more prolific over the course of his career than quarterbacks like Kurt Warner, Bob Griese and Roger Staubach, and more efficient than quarterbacks like Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw and Ken Stabler.
On the other hand, Manning also would be fourth in interceptions, and his career record of 117-117 would make him one of only two players in the group — along with Namath — who does not have a winning record in the regular season.
Manning vs. His Contemporaries
The case for Manning gets far more complicated when one considers his contemporaries. The last 30 years have seen passing statistics grow inflated thanks to a series of rules changes, and a change in emphasis by coaching staffs. That makes it almost impossible to compare quarterbacks from today’s game to those from even the not-all-that-distant past.
Among all quarterbacks who have started at least 100 games since 1990, Manning’s numbers no longer jump out. He is not a top-five player in any major statistic, and his passer rating of 84.1 ranks 27th. His adjusted net yards per attempt ranks 29th. He is 20th in the percentage of his throws that resulted in touchdowns, and 30 other quarterbacks have had a fewer percentage of their throws result in interceptions. Even Manning’s Super Bowl wins do not come off as particularly unique, as his immediate peers — Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Brady — all have multiple championships, too.
For all his gaudy passing numbers, Eli Manning has never had a season of leading the N.F.L. in any major passing statistic — except for interceptions — and he has never been named to an All-Pro team.
And in perhaps the most damning statistic, Manning’s 117 losses are the second-most in N.F.L. history to Vinny Testaverde’s 123 — a record Manning most likely would have broken if not for his having been replaced by Daniel Jones for all but four games this season.
Hall of Fame Frequency
That Manning did not stand out in his era could be a huge issue, as there is a fairly established frequency of Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
Since 1970, there have typically been six or seven active Hall of Famers at any given time. The number shrank to as few as four in 1981 and 1982, and grew as high as eight from 1991 to 1994, but in general we have an idea of how many quarterbacks of any given era typically rewarded with induction.
Could Manning live up to a standard of being one of the six to eight best quarterbacks of his era? Not likely.
His career overlapped with two current Hall of Famers (Brett Favre and Kurt Warner) and with a group of five quarterbacks who almost assuredly will be elected once they are eligible (Peyton Manning, Brady, Drew Brees, Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers).
Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, despite being only 31, already has a Super Bowl ring and seems capable of collecting more, and there is a case to be made that both Philip Rivers of the San Diego and Los Angeles Chargers and Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons have been better quarterbacks than Manning even if they have not had similar postseason success.
That results in at least 10 of Manning’s contemporaries potentially being positioned ahead of him for a spot in Canton even before one accounts for a younger group of playmakers (Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff, Lamar Jackson) who eventually could play their way into the conversation.
Unless voters are willing to break with precedent, some tough decisions will have to be made among this crowded group of passers, and that standard could affect more than just Manning.
In the end, Manning appears to fall below what will most likely be the standard for induction once he becomes eligible. He was a good-not-great player with a .500 record whose case is almost entirely based on a pair of postseason runs powered largely by his team’s defense. To elect him would be to ignore the numbers and simply declare the two most brilliant days of his career to be enough to earn a gold jacket.
A similar argument worked wonders for Namath in 1985, but it has been routinely ignored for Plunkett. How it will work out for Manning is anyone’s guess. But when Giants fans bristle at that idea they should remember this: No matter what happens, Manning played David to Brady’s Goliath — twice — and that is a legacy that does not require a bust in Canton to be unforgettable.