In 2011. Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets and Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos combined to complete 434 passes in 814 attempts (a combined completion percentage of 53.3) for 5,203 yards, 38 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. In that same 2011 regular season, Eli Manning of the New York Giants completed 359 passes in 589 attempts for 4,933 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 16 picks.
With 14 fewer games and 11 fewer starts than the Sanchez/Tebow "powerhouse," Eli was able to nearly match the more popular and newsworthy duo all by himself. A second Super Bowl championship in five years later, and with Sanchez and Tebow as front page fodder for every possible media outlet, one starts to wonder: Why aren't we talking more about Eli Manning?
It isn't as if Eli doesn't have an interesting story, after all -- son of Archie and little brother to Peyton, Eli came into the NFL in 2004 with impossible expectations as an immediate professional birthright. Still, the younger Manning has managed to keep pace with them in a way that flies very much under the radar to the media -- but certainly not to the teammates who have learned to respect his quiet leadership.
"Listen, we've always made fun of the guy,'' guard Chris Snee said in July. "He's a goofy guy. He's easy to make fun of, from his running motion, I love when he wears cutoff shirts to try to show off his arms. He'll fire right back, that's why no one's uncomfortable being around him. He's obviously an elite quarterback, two-time Super Bowl MVP, but he's just another guy on the team.''
Defensive lineman Justin Tuck was not amused when NFL Films gave Manning the 31st ranking in its 2012 Top 100 series. In his mind, the quarterback who had to work his way up the food chain in the NFL and in his own locker room has earned much more respect.
"That's a joke," Tuck said in July. "No question. He is top five, hands down. Top five. "You win the Super Bowl, you have the season he had, you are automatically top 10. But it's how he did it, as far as the fourth-quarter comebacks, leading a team that really didn't have a super, superstar wide receiver at the beginning of the year. He made two guys in Hakeem [Nicks] and Victor [Cruz], he made those guys what they are now. I really feel as though he should have been a lot higher than he was."
There's a lot of that going around, especially among the football cognoscenti who marvel at the fact that Sanchez's poor on-field decision-making and Tebow's frequent airballs earn them so much more attention. Manning, as is his wont, couldn't possibly care less. He's just trying to avoid any hint of complacency after the season in which he said he was elite and then want about proving it beyond any doubt.
"That's what you have to avoid," Manning said, just few days before the Giants were preparing to open their regular season against the Dallas Cowboys this upcoming Wednesday. "I'm not satisfied. I'm still enjoying this. I still feel like I'm in the best part of my career and I can play at a high level. This is what I love to do: playing football and winning games."
Eli Manning did each of those things at his highest level in 2011. Could he be even better in 2012? It's entirely possible, even if you don't hear enough about it.