Eli Manning’s Hall of Fame case is complicated

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Let’s let history be our guide about whether Eli Manning earns entry in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. To do so, I have separated quarterbacks from the modern era into three 20-year periods: 1960-’79, 1980-’99 and 2000-’19. I assigned Hall of Fame quarterbacks to the period when they played all or the majority of their careers.

I wanted to see how many quarterbacks in the modern era have been enshrined, to see how it might impact how many quarterbacks gain entry from the current age, when passing dominates football more than it has in any period in pro football history.

1960-1979: With between 21 and 28 teams in this period (AFL and NFL), 11 quarterbacks made the Hall. The 11: George Blanda, Terry Bradshaw, Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Fran Tarkenton, John Unitas.

1980-1999: With between 28 and 31 teams in this period, 8 quarterbacks made the Hall. The eight: Troy Aikman, John Elway, Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Warren Moon, Steve Young.

2000-2019: With 32 teams in this period (all except the first two seasons), 2 quarterbacks have made the Hall so far. The two: Brett Favre, Kurt Warner.

There are no rules, of course, mandating how many players at any position from one period get in the Hall. But barring injury or retirement by Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, by 2021, nine of the top 10 quarterbacks in passing yards and touchdown passes will have played the majority of their careers between 2000 and 2019. The rules change and passing-stat-inflation will have to be taken into account, surely. A good number of quarterbacks—likely between eight and 12—could make the Hall from the current era of the NFL.

Favre and Warner are two. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees make five. The best candidates after that, in some order, are Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, seemingly ahead of Carson Palmer and Donovan McNabb. Where Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford end up … TBD, in part because we’re not sure how long any of them will play. I could see Ryan playing another six or seven years and Wilson another decade.

Eli Manning has his negatives, to be sure. In 15 years as a starter, he’s a .500 quarterback in the regular season. He’s never finished in the top three in the NFL in passing yards, yards per attempt or passer rating—and only once (2015) was he in the top three in touchdown passes. He has, however, led the NFL three times in interceptions. In 13 of his 15 seasons, he didn’t win a playoff game. Those points have to count, and they will be considered by the group voting when Manning comes up for election in 2025 or beyond.

But few quarterbacks have had higher highs. Manning had two incredible postseasons, two bigger postseasons than any his brother Peyton had. Twice, in 2007 and 2011, he had unlikely 4-0 playoff runs, winning in Green Bay over Favre (’07) and Rodgers (’11), and beating Belichick/Brady with late heroics in two Super Bowls, ruining New England’s perfect season in the first one. That 17-14 win, with the David Tyree Velcro catch, will go down as the most bitter loss for both Brady and Belichick in their lives. “That one still eats at me,” Brady told me a couple of weeks ago.

In history, there are few good comps for Eli Manning. Most Hall of Fame quarterbacks win in the regular season and postseason. But I found it interesting to compare him to Jurgensen, who never started a playoff game and got into the Hall on the fourth ballot. Their stat lines:

Why did Jurgensen make the Hall? He was a strong-armed Dan Fouts type. Five times he led the NFL in passing yards. When he threw for 3,723 yards in 1961, it was a single-season NFL record. Twice he led the NFL in touchdown passes. Twice he was first-team all-pro. Manning never led the NFL in passing yards or touchdown passes, and never was first- or second-team all-pro in 15 seasons. Each has a major flaw on his résumé: Manning was an average-at-best regular-season player who owned two postseasons and twice won Super Bowls against the best coach and quarterback in the modern game. Manning also will finish his career in the top 10 in passing yards and touchdowns—but how much of that is the statistical inflation of the era in which he played? Jurgensen was a very good regular-season player whose teams lost more than they won and who did nothing in the postseason.

Voters in 1983 enshrined Jurgensen. Will voters overlook Manning’s regular-season mediocrity because he had two of the greatest postseasons a quarterback has had?

It’s not going to be an easy call. I will understand those who don’t vote for Manning. My gut is that he gets in at some point, but as one of the 48 voters in the room, I’ve found the only predictable thing about Hall voting is how unpredictable it is. That’s no cliché. Rarely do I have a good handle before the meeting about how the votes will come out.

Read more in Peter King’s Football Morning in America