ALBANY, N.Y. – It's hard to argue when seven NFL executives unanimously (and still strongly) disagree. Heck, it's hard to argue when Eli Manning agrees with them, saying openly that his brother Peyton is still the better quarterback of the two.
But somewhere in the back of my mind, I keep coming back to Eli as the superior quarterback.
David Carr, Eli's backup with the New York Giants and a former No. 1 overall pick himself, understands the dilemma.
"Man, that's a hard question to answer," said Carr, who didn't automatically go with his teammate. Carr is a purist at heart, able to weigh the relative value of regular-season dominance against playoff greatness. "The things that Peyton has done over his career are incredible. The numbers, the wins, the whole package. He has won a title and was close another time.
"But two Super Bowls. That's pretty hard to argue with."
My stance is as much of an about-face as humanly possible. For years, Eli drove me nuts with his laconic, borderline sloppy style. As I said many times, Eli played early in his career with the energy and emotion of a frat boy waking up for an intramural game on Saturday morning after a Friday mega-kegger.
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Peyton, of course, is and has always been the opposite. Frenetic, energetic and completely in control. Peyton has done more to extract every drop of talent from his body, which may be why it's now breaking down earlier than any of us hoped. Where Eli was frat boy, Peyton is a Ph.D whose thesis was published years ago.
However, somewhere in the past five years, I have come to appreciate the younger Manning. There are still plenty of times when Eli throws a sloppy pass that floats high and gets tipped by his own receiver for an ugly interception. There are moments when Eli can be infuriating with his nonplussed demeanor.
Then again, there are plenty of times when my youngest son pushes my buttons in the same way (his older brother isn't far behind, just for the record). The difference is that when it comes to the critical moments of a season – the postseason, specifically – Eli flips the switch to an altogether different level of play.
Not every time, mind you. There were times earlier in Eli's career when even the playoffs couldn't get the best out of him. Over the past five years, however, that has almost completely changed (the early exit in the 2008 season was more because the entire team was falling apart).
In the 2007 season, his playoff performance was fascinating, including an incomparable performance in the freezing cold of Green Bay in the NFC championship game. Eli outdueled Brett Favre and, in the process, likely sealed the Packers' decision to jettison Favre, who finished that game as a hot mess of interceptions. In the Super Bowl, Eli came up with the critical play to David Tyree and a half-dozen other critical throws as he slayed the previously 18-0 Patriots.
Last year, Eli added to his playoff legacy, leading a 9-7 team through Green Bay, San Francisco and even to victory in his brother's old house in Indianapolis by beating the Patriots again. His game-winning, two-minute drive was a thing of beauty, complete with the staggering deep throw down the sideline to Mario Manningham.
By contrast, Peyton has been good in the playoffs, but not exactly magnificent. Across the board, Peyton's postseason stats are just slightly behind his brother's. Where Eli elevates his game, Peyton is more like a football version of Greg Maddux. He's really great in the regular season, not as impressive in the playoffs.
Some people might use the argument that the Giants have built a better team around Eli. Perhaps, but the Colts catered to Peyton about as much as any team has done in league history. Time and again, the Colts used first-round picks on skill-position players to put around Manning. Marvin Harrison was already there when he arrived in 1998 and the Colts proceeded to use first-round picks on Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Anthony Gonzalez and Donald Brown.
The Giants have used a first-round pick on an offensive player only twice in the eight years since they took Eli No. 1 overall (wide receiver Hakeem Nicks in 2009 and running back David Wilson this year).
For my money, I want a guy who is great in the playoffs. Statistical purists will argue with me and you will never find a fantasy football owner who would take Eli within four rounds of Peyton when Peyton was at peak physical health.
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Even NFL personnel types can't get their arms around the idea that Eli is somehow better.
"Not even close," one exec wrote in a text message when he cast his vote for Peyton.
Fair enough. To be frank, this is sort of like picking between Waterford and Lenox crystal. Both are extraordinarily beautiful. Moreover, if these two were my choices for picking up sides for a mock game, I'd be happy with the No. 2 pick.
But if you force me to make a choice, Eli it is.
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