Monday, February 6, 2012

Eli's Coming

When I was a boy, Three Dog Night was one of the most popular bands around, and one of its earliest hits was a tune called "Eli's Coming."

That song wasn't related in any way to football, but, nevertheless, the title sprang to mind as I watched, for the second time in the last five years, Eli Manning lead his New York Giants to a come–from–behind victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

On Saturday, I observed that it was the fifth anniversary of Eli's brother's one and only Super Bowl triumph — and I also noted that, with another win over the Patriots, Eli would notch his second title "and, in the process, probably secur[e] his spot in the NFL's Hall of Fame."

That's how it tends to be with multiple Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks, I wrote, and, in the aftermath of Sunday's game, I see I'm not alone.

Don Banks of Sports Illustrated wrote of the "pretty select club" Eli joined with his victory.

"Quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl wins have a cache all their own in NFL history," Banks wrote, "and we best start wrapping our minds around the reality that Peyton Manning's little brother is in the fraternity, and the Colts' long–time great isn't. That last shall be first stuff really does come to pass sometimes."

Banks reeled off the names of the multiple winners and observed that nearly all of them are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. That certainly improves the odds that Eli will wind up in Canton as well.

Lord knows he wouldn't get in on the strength of his regular–season numbers. For that matter, his numbers on Sunday were good but not great. He completed 30 of 40 passes for just under 300 yards and one touchdown.

Good enough to get the job done, but not eye popping.

Of course, unlike his older brother, Eli's life is hardly at a crossroads. He's a hot property, having won not only his second Super Bowl but his second Super Bowl MVP award as well. And that makes up for a lot of things.

Success is fleeting in the NFL — just ask the last three quarterbacks who won the Super Bowl — and someone else may well be on the mountaintop in the space of another year.

But today it is Eli who stands astride that mountaintop, surveying the NFL's terrain below and basking in the praise that comes his way for his achievements.

That praise is certainly deserved, but I can't help thinking of how slender the gap between winning and losing a Super Bowl can be. After Manning's Giants opened the game with an impressive and workmanlike — but ultimately futile — possession, they had to punt and succeeded in pinning the Patriots deep in their own territory.

On the first play from scrimmage, Brady threw a pass that went 45 or 50 yards in the air easily — but the officials ruled that no eligible receivers were in the vicinity of the pass, which is the definition of intentional grounding, and threw a flag.

Ordinarily, the penalty for intentional grounding is loss of both yardage and down. Since Brady was in the end zone when he threw the pass, it resulted in a safety and a 2–0 Giants lead.

It has been my experience that some people believe that, for intentional grounding to have occurred, a quarterback must be in the grasp of a defender — and clearly in danger of being tackled for a loss — and throws the ball away to avoid the lost yardage and/or to preserve time on the clock.

But it is not essential for the quarterback to be under duress. It is only necessary for no eligible receiver to be in the vicinity of the pass — whether that pass is short or long.

An old friend (a colleague from my sports desk days) observed on Facebook that it was "the longest intentional grounding play I've ever seen," and I had to agree.

It also seemed to me that, given the fact that Brady's pass covered about half the length of the football field, it was unreasonable for anyone to expect him to be precise about his target — or whether the receiver would stay in the vicinity of the pass in the time it took for the ball to reach its destination.

But that is how the rule is written — currently. I think it would be wise to revisit that rule during the offseason.

Anyway, the game proceeded with the usual scoring — touchdowns and field goals — until late in the game, when the Patriots led, 17–15, and the Giants scored what proved to be the winning touchdown. They went for two on the conversion and came up short, making the final score 21–17.

Now, imagine if the Patriots had not been penalized for intentional grounding but failed to put together a scoring drive on their first possession and wound up punting.

And everything else unfolded as it did (which you really can't assume because everything that happened after the penalty was predicated, to some degree, on the fact that it did, in fact, happen).

That would have made the score 17–13 when the Giants began their game–winning drive.

As it was, the Giants were under no pressure to score a touchdown. All that was needed to take the lead was a field goal, and perhaps that made a difference in the way they played in those final minutes.

But, in the alternate scenario, a touchdown would have been necessary. Under the additional pressure, would the Giants have crumbled? Would they have called different plays? Would the Patriots have followed a different strategy on defense? We'll never know.

If we assume, however, that the Giants would have scored the touchdown, as, of course, they did, it would have made the score 19–17, and my guess is the Giants would have settled for one point on the conversion instead of going for two.

Extra–point kicks are almost always successful, and this one would have given the Giants a 20–17 lead — nearly the actual final score but with a crucial difference. That one–point variation could have made all the difference for New England.

The Patriots' strategy would have been to get within field goal range and try to force the game into overtime, not to get into the end zone, and their play calling would have reflected that.

But the game turned out the way it did — and that first–quarter safety made it possible for the Giants to gamble on a two–point conversion. Whether it was successful or not, they knew the Patriots would have to score a touchdown, they didn't have much time and they were almost out of timeouts.

Eli Manning certainly contributed to the victory, but so did everyone on the team — and, indirectly, Brady did, too. I'm not sure if he deserved to be named MVP.

But he got his second title, and that may be what matters most. Eli is in his prime and could still win another title or two before time catches up to him as it has his brother. He might not, though. You never know.

Eli's coming? He's here. But he might not be back.

Time will tell.

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