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Eli Manning is ... whatever you think he is

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The great thing — and the annoying thing — about football debates is their pliability. It’s a context-driven sport, which means legacies can be steered in all sorts of directions. You can credit or discredit almost any player as your heart desires.

Much of baseball history is quantifiable and solved, a ledger of individual acts. In a football debate, the mess is all the other players.

So there’s no legacy road map required with Eli Manning. It’s a “choose your own adventure” — take it anywhere you want.

Manning’s retirement news seeped out Wednesday afternoon, and since then there’s been an exhaustive Hall of Fame debate. I’ve engaged in some of that, for better and for worse. Manning has his share of fans, and fanboys. And he has his share of critics, too.

As a fantasy player, Manning goes down as good-not-great, a King of the Bs. He was inside the QB1 cutline (12th or higher at the position) in 7-of-16 seasons, but he only made the Top 5 once. His most common finishing rank was 10th, neatly matching his uniform number.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 29:  Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants warms up prior to the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium on December 29, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
Eli Manning's career produced plenty of smiles, but also a complicated legacy. (Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

If you didn’t prioritize quarterback at the fantasy draft, Manning usually was a shrewd secondary target. He was durable, never missing a game due to injury. He didn’t run, but it helped keep him on the field. He was good at avoiding sacks, too.

Manning was known for starting fast — September was his best month, by far, for rating and efficiency. October was his only month with a winning record, though his final ledger famously landed at .500 — 117 wins, 117 losses. Even on Monday night, Eli was a straight 11-11. He was the human coin flip.

Manning will probably make the Hall of Fame, largely for his two championship rings. And make no mistake, Manning was a driver of those titles, taking down several favored opponents and putting indelible moments on tape. They’re going to play the David Tyree helmet-catch for eternity, and you won’t see a prettier sideline pass than the Manning laser corralled by Mario Manningham in Super Bowl 46:

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Manning took down the 15-1 Packers in 2011, and two heavily favored Patriots teams, including the undefeated 2007 squad. Those feathers look prominent in any cap.

But there’s always a glass-half-empty side of it. Manning went 8-0 in those two championship runs — but 0-4 in his other playoff appearances. And in 10 other seasons, New York did not qualify for the playoffs at all. Yes, Manning did win two Super Bowl MVPs, but can we take that at face value? Some historians will suggest that Justin Tuck deserves at least one of those MVP awards, perhaps two.

Manning supporters will mention all the mediocre defenses he was saddled with through the years. But Manning skeptics will note no one scored more than 20 points on the Giants during Eli’s two championship runs. Two of his defenses surely got hot at the right time.

Manning’s career stats fit the overall theme — take them any way you want. Manning retires No. 7 in both passing yards and passing touchdowns. YPA, he’s merely 87th. Indeed, his quarterback rating — adjusted for era — is an eyelash under league average, putting him in the Andy Dalton, Jon Kitna neighborhood. Those guys don’t inspire Hall of Famer debates.

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Efficiency stats aren’t going to back Manning. Cumulative stats generally will, though he’s also 12th in interceptions (three times, he led the league in picks). He was named to four Pro Bowl teams but never came close to the All-Pro team. He did not receive a single regular-season MVP vote.

The Giants took Manning with the No. 1 pick in 2004, and it goes down as a hit. The Bengals or Browns would love to find a quarterback who posts even 30 percent of Manning’s career. Sure, Philip Rivers has the best stats from the Class of 2004, and Ben Roethlisberger has enjoyed more team success. But I don’t blame the Giants fans who hold Eli Manning near and dear to their heart.

And surviving has a value. Reliability and durability; those are good things. Manning handled the toughest media market in the world with nary a controversy. He showed up. He usually did something useful or interesting.

Manning wouldn’t get my theoretical Hall of Fame vote. Maybe he’ll get yours. In the meantime, we need a new fantasy quarterback to draft in the 11th round.

Fare thee well, Elisha. You were funny in that one commercial. I saw you in some parades. We had a time.