On Saturday morning a small group of NFL media members will huddle in a room in Atlanta and spend hours debating the merits of the 15 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalists. They will try to sell each other on their preferred candidates, make the case for each of them for Canton, before eventually settling on a final group of five modern-day inductees.
Someday in the not-so-distant future, maybe around 2025 or 2026, a similar group will be debating the Hall of Fame credentials of Giants quarterback Eli Manning. He's a virtual lock to be included on the list of 15 finalists immediately as soon he's eligible.
But there remains a good chance that his Hall of Fame candidacy will die right there.
It is the unfortunate truth about the career of the 38-year-old Manning that even though he'll eventually retire as undoubtedly the greatest quarterback in Giants history, there is considerable doubt about whether he's one of the greatest players of all time. He has been hurt by a comparison to his contemporaries, the Giants' lack of winning in the last seven seasons and a feeling that his abilities and production have dropped off in recent years.
He's never been thought of by fans as one of the all-time greats. And that feeling has definitely rippled through the NFL's national media, too.
Over the years, I've spoken to many of the 48 voters currently on the Hall of Fame selection committee, and I assure you the overall feeling on Manning can be described as lukewarm. There is great respect for his abilities and maybe even some awe about how he helped engineer two remarkable Super Bowl championships. It used to be a given that two Super Bowl rings was enough to get any quarterback into the Hall, since Jim Plunkett is the one to win two and not get into Canton.
Manning, though, is well-positioned to be the second. And if he does get in, it's not going to be immediate. It's going to take some time.
Why? Based on conversations with those many voters, here are some of the things working against Manning's candidacy for the Hall:
- Many consider him to be, at best, the sixth-best quarterback of his generation, and some rank him lower than that, depending on which others are included. Obviously he's behind his brother, Peyton, and Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. A lot put him behind Ben Roethlisberger too, and some think Philip Rivers was better (though his failure to reach a Super Bowl so far hurts that case).
- He's done far more losing lately than winning. Granted, anyone who has watched the Giants since 2011 knows Manning has also been under siege thanks to his porous offensive line and that the team around him has been bad. But facts are facts, and right now his career record is 116-114, and over the last six seasons it's only 38-57. He's not solely responsible for that .400 winning percentage, but it doesn't reflect well on him.
- He may have won two Super Bowls, but those are also the only seasons when he's won a playoff game at all. He was one-and-done four other times. And by the way, six playoff appearances in 15 years (so far) doesn't help either.
- There are some who still think the Giants' defense carried him to his Super Bowl titles. Granted, not many believe that, and it's not a smart take. It overlooks how terrific Manning was in the 2007 playoffs and the fact that he carried the 2011 team by himself most of that year. It also dismisses his two game-winning Super Bowl drives as flukes, which is unfair.
- Many people believe his career has been on a downward slide for several seasons -- at least the last three. That overlooks what really were stellar numbers for him this past season and the fact that the Giants aren't loaded with talent around him. But there is definitely a feeling that with a new, young crop of quarterbacks emerging, the NFL has passed him by -- much more so than the other quarterbacks his age.
Whether all that is fair or not, it's what the voters will weigh when Manning's name is brought up. And it won't help that the Pro Football Hall of Fame's voting system is incredibly flawed. Voters don't simply consider whether someone is a Hall of Famer or not. They consider whether he should get in before others at his position, how long some of the other candidates have been waiting and who some of the other candidates are that will be in the group of finalists soon.
With only 48 voters, all it takes is a small group of "no" votes to eliminate someone from contention. That's a huge problem overall and a good reason why the voting desperately needs to be expanded. But it could be an enormous problem for Manning, who likely has a few voters in the room already who don't think he's Hall of Fame-worthy at all.
Of course, things could change a lot in the next six to eight years or so. History may look kinder on Manning than it does now, though that's hard to see if offenses continue to explode which will only help diminish the stats of players from Manning's generation. Right now he's in the top 10 in passing yards and passing touchdowns and ranks 11th in fourth-quarter comebacks. But by the time he's up for selection, who knows if he'll still be in the top 10 in any of those categories at all?
No matter what, he'll be in the Giants' Ring of Honor almost immediately after he retires. It's a good bet no Giants player will ever wear No. 10 again. But it's a long way from honors like that to a bust in Canton. For Manning, the road figures to be really long.
And there's no guarantee it ends inside the Hall.