eli manning, coming and going

words: david roth

 

On Sunday, before the New York Giants lost for the 11th time in 13 games, the home fans gave Eli Manning a standing ovation. Manning, who is 39, had been benched a week earlier in favor of Geno Smith, a 30-year-old who had previously washed out with the New York Jets, the Giants’ longtime roommate and troubled cousin. The coach who eventually benched Manning was the same man whose hiring Eli had advocated two years ago. The Giants fired that coach and the general manager who hired him earlier in the week. Manning is the only quarterback ever to lead his team to a win over a Tom Brady-led Patriots team in the Super Bowl. Even if you watched him do it, you would not believe that he is the man for the job, but he has done it twice. This, even as he reaches the end, is what is strange and special about Eli Manning—he is goofy, gape-mouthed, prone to some truly avant-garde decision, and then suddenly he is kissed by the universe and golden, or anyway suddenly something much more than he appeared to be.

 

Brady, the greatest NFL quarterback of his generation and maybe any other, deals in a more practical sort of magic. He wins and wins, and has stayed great later into his career than would seem possible, but also he sleeps in smart pajamas. He would prefer that you call them “bioceramic sleepwear”—he would very much prefer that you do this, in fact, given that the aforementioned Smart Pajamas™ are part of Brady’s nascent TB12 lifestyle brand. Brady continues to be brilliant at his impossibly difficult job in ways and at an age that no other player has ever been, but at the age of 40 he has both broader concerns and broader ambitions.

 

All of them appear to involve himself and his success, to be fair, but we tend to grade things on a curve where NFL quarterbacks are concerned. The things that must be crowded out of a person’s soul in order to be the way that NFL quarterbacks are invariably leaves them seeming somehow unknowable. The two are twinned, by necessity. To not just suffer but cultivate an all-devouring competitiveness, and so to become beings of pure accumulation and accomplishment, is to become something very, very strange. When identifiable symptoms of humanity present, however briefly, through all that, the effect is uncanny in the extreme. It is not surprising that Brady’s personal passion is Finding Ways To More Fully Be Tom Brady, really. But it is something, sort of, a distorted voice from the bottom of a very deep well. It sounds like the voice is just saying “Tom Brady,” but the news is that there’s anyone down there at all.

 

So yes: Tom Brady would like to tell you about the benefits of a very expensive and specifically branded version of hydration. He has some joyless scientistic recipes involving zucchini “noodles” to relay and some suggestions regarding how readers that stick to his exercise program—it’s called The TB12 Method, and his big new book’s subtitle explains it as a way “to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance”—might become immune to physical injury or sunburn, as Brady now earnestly believes himself to be. Brady will sell you as much of this as you’re willing to buy. For $19.99 a month or $199.99 a year, Tom Brady will sell you a subscription to these solutions, in conjunction with the strange and multiply discredited Performance Doctor who is Brady’s partner in the pursuit of perfection.

 

There is no good reason for Brady to have pivoted so hard to hucksterism, just as there is no science that shows people become immune to sunburn if they’re sufficiently hydrated. But if anyone can make this pitch credible, it’s Brady. No one has ever done what he has done; no one has ever done what he is doing. If he thinks it is because he drinks a specific type of water or sleeps in a particularly astute pair of pajamas or practices “pliability,” he is absolutely free to believe it. There are many more respectable ways to signal your endorsement for something than Getting High On Your Own Supply, but it still qualifies as an endorsement.

 

If you agree with him enough to pay for that water or pull on those pajamas or spiralize those virtuous zoodles...you are very much a customer, but you are also certainly within your rights, and could certainly have picked any number of less-deserving avatars than Tom Brady. But for all the novel and of-the-moment specifics of Brady’s delusion, it is not new or unique to him. Every one of Brady’s peers had to have some similar sort of belief in their invulnerability and fundamental different-ness, if only because the alternative is the harsh reality of a job that by its nature exists somewhere between maddening and purely sacrificial. Brady plainly believes that the rules do not and will not apply to him, and has the phrenological anti-data and alchemical sorta-science to prove it. It is a crazy thing to believe, of course, but it’s easy enough to understand why Brady might need to believe it.

 

There is also this: football has not disproved any of this for Brady just yet. Brady has been injured, but not nearly as severely as many of his peers had by this point in their careers; some of his peers really do believe that the “pliability” he believes protects him from getting hurt is not just a delusion. The evidence against Brady’s unique immortality is everywhere around him and inherent in this vicious and stupid and fascinating and intermittently elegant game, but also there is the matter of the scoreboard.

 

If you know or care about or watch football, you know that this isn’t how it works. You know what it looks like because the game marches these brilliant and outwardly superhuman athletes towards the exits every single Sunday. If you have forgotten what that looks like, you can always watch Eli Manning as he goes.

 

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Interim coach Steve Spagnuolo told Fox Sports broadcaster Charles Davis that he wanted his Giants to be “bold, brilliant, and relentless” in Eli’s return from his benching, a point that Davis relayed shortly before the team punted on 4th-and-3 from within Dallas Cowboys territory. That punt bounced into the end zone and Fox went into the commercial break playing Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky.” When the backup tight end Rhett Ellison snared a low line drive from Manning at the goal line with two minutes left in the second quarter, it gave Manning his 51st career touchdown pass against the Cowboys and the Giants their first lead in two weeks. They held it for 29 seconds, did not score again all game, and wound up losing by 20 points.

 

It has been that sort of season for Eli Manning, and also for the Giants. At this point, it is difficult to tell the two apart. That will be said as a compliment when the team honors him in retirement, but right now there is nothing especially flattering about the ways in which Eli’s singular and strange way of being rhymes with the Giants’ own institutional and organizational delusions. Both present as staid and scrupulously boring even as they make one bizarre decision after another; he and his team are both decorous and dull and secretly, luridly weird. The successes that they achieved were always more exciting for all that, and were never more so than in their Super Bowl wins. Nothing so determinedly conservative has ever felt more erratic or unreliable, and it makes sense that a team that whipsaws between order and chaos from one down to the next would be the only one capable of stopping the brutally rational New England juggernaut.

 

The long and stumbling end that Manning and the Giants are suffering through together this season fits, too. Manning is only done as a NFL quarterback if he wants to be; as goofy and scrambled as his performance can be from one moment to the next, there aren’t 15 people alive who are currently better at this terrifying job than he is. But it seems clear that he and the Giants have come to the end of the road together. Their strangenesses fit together for years, but now suddenly seem to fit together too well. The Giants have always prized a facile sort of stability—they are one of those teams with a [Team Name Here] Waythat was grounded in the idea that a sufficient number of rituals and rules, sufficiently revered, could somehow squeeze the human chaos out of a game that runs on it, and leave behind only crystalline order and honor and a respectable profit. It is a nice thing to believe, and also something like the NFL’s signature delusion. It is wildly and hilariously wrong, of course, but it isn’t going anywhere.

 

In this moment, the symmetry between Eli’s spiraling endgame and the Giants’ season in purgatory approach but do not quite reach resonance as a reflection of a NFL in crisis. The Giants are fundamentally a strange family business, and the vanity and cravenness that is tanking the league is a broader and darker thing. But in Eli and the Giants’ simultaneous limp to the finish of their shared era, it is easy to see a reminder of how strange and parlous the NFL’s dominance always was.

 

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The NFL became the biggest and richest sports league that the world has ever seen and somehow always acted as if it deserved more. Its stated goal of doubling league revenues over the next decade is frankly psychedelic in the context of the league’s current decline, but the league was self-defeatingly devoted to profit and posturing long before the league’s signature combination of short-sightedness and heavy-handedness finally caught up with it. Now that the league is on the other side of its peak, the end of Eli Manning—or at least his purgatorial present—seems like nothing so much as a reminder of how endings go, and how time’s attrition always and inevitably works.

 

More than any other sport, the NFL is built on delusion. The owners believe they can afford to ignore short- and long-term threats to the health and future of the game because of how rich they are at this moment, and defer every reckoning forever through sheer force of bluster and bigness and an oafish faith in power. Tom Brady believes that he can bend this strange and vicious game to his will, or at least negotiate the terms of his own surrender; he believes that, if only he does everything exactly right, he will never get old or weak or reap the harm that football inexorably deals out. This belief that inevitable things are not inevitable is hubris, and as such has both some tragedy and some comedy in it. Change comes, things end. You don’t have to watch Eli Manning, gape-mouthed and defeated and beloved and tragi-comically immortal even at the end, to know that.

 

It would be nice to believe that there are things yet to be discovered that, once discovered, will work forever; people have always loved to believe this. But football—all sports, really—are never more exciting or more human than when they refute this, and remind us that there are no such clean getaways. The moments that are remembered longest mean the most precisely because of how hard they are to hold. Such moments come less frequently now, for Eli, and never quite came often enough for him to seem great; the futility that surrounds them now is, if we’re being honest, very difficult to watch. That’s always been the case with him, to some degree. This is what made his best moments so memorable, though, and the sudden brightness and sudden fade of those moments was made him remarkable to watch moment by moment if not always in aggregate—the way they came, and then the way they went.