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For more from Chase and Jason, check out their work at Football Perspective and The Big Lead.

The Great New York Sports Debate I

Posted by Chase Stuart on October 19, 2006

For my birthday, my brother gave me a copy of The Great New York Sports Debate, by Roger Rubin (of the Daily News) and David Lennon (of Newsday). The caption at the top reads: "Two New York Sportswriters go Head-to-Head on the 50 Most Heated Questions." In the introduction, the authors explain that the list only considers the last 35 or so years in New York sports, so there will be no section on Babe Ruth.

I've decided to take each of the football chapters and make a blog post about it. Why? I'm not really sure, other than when I hear a couple of people talk about football, especially New York football, I feel obliged to chime in. The first few chapters (one chapter per question) of the book hit on mundane topics like baseball and basketball, but then we get to...

Chapter 4:Did the Giants Blow it with Eli Manning?

Here are a few excerpts from each writer...

Lennon

The Giants believed they were getting the next Peyton Manning when they grabbed his younger brother, Eli, in a draft-day trade with the San Diego Chargers in 2004.... Well, they got a mini-Peyton all right....Eli exhibited all the classic Manning traits [in his playoff loss to the Panthers]: bowed head, shrugged shoulders, face twisted in abject look of helplessness....

Here's what makes Eli's development even more painful to endure: Ben Roethlisberger, selected at No. 11 in that 2004 draft, already has a Super Bowl ring[.] [Lennon would later write that the Giants would have taken Roethlisberger instead of Rivers had New York stayed at four, and that the "biggest knock against Roethlisberger apparently was that Archie Manning wasn't his dad."]

[The Giants traded Philip Rivers along with their first and third round picks in the 2005 draft for Manning, and] the Chargers did turn one of those picks into linebacker Shawne Merriman, who happened to be named the NFL's Rookie of the Year in the same season that the Giants wound up woefully thin at that position.

Pretty good arguments from Lennon, and I've long been in the "Manning is overrated" camp. I'll make my argument after we hear what Rubin had to say, but it's going to be hard to overcome the "we could have had Shawne Merriman" line. (Merriman currently has 5.5 sacks and an INT in five games this year.)

Lennon also wrote that Eli would have to be the next John Elway to be worth the stunt he pulled to get out of San Diego. Rubin responded by saying

Rubin

Manning is ahead of where John the Great was [two years into his career]... Just as Manning did [in 2005], Elway laid an egg in his first playoff game, a twenty-four-point loss to the Seahawks that saw him throw for only 123 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception. He got picked off twice in a seventeen-point loss to the Steelers the next year, too.

Troy Aikman won three Super Bowls but imploded in a thirty-two-point loss to the Lions in his first postseason appearance.... You know how many seasons it was before Terry Bradshaw completed a season with more TDs than INTs? Try five.

Rubin goes on to say that comparisons to Roethlisberger are unfair because of the superior talent in Pittsburgh, but that Roethlisberger's 9-21 for 123 yards, 0 TD/2 INT performance in the Super Bowl looked pretty similar to Manning's only post-season moment.

So who got the best of these arguments? I wholeheartedly agree with aspects of what both authors wrote. Rubin's accurate in advising patience and caution with the younger Manning, who seemed to make another big leap this year. But mostly I agree with Lennon, for three main reasons. In reverse order, to point out the obvious...

3. Shawne Merriman is a stud in the NFL. He looks to be a legitimate candidate to fly to Hawaii every February for the next decade. When the Giants traded for Manning, I thought that they were basically giving up another top 10 pick to get him, and a team that bad couldn't afford to give away picks. I was wrong about how good they were, as Big Blue has rebounded nicely and was considered by some a Super Bowl contender this year. But the significance of gaining Merriman means the Chargers got the best of this trade.

2. That being said, we still have to get to the big debate -- who is the best out of Eli, Roethlisberger and Rivers? The Giants could have had any of the three, but opted for Eli. I already wrote that Eli isn't better than Merriman plus either QB, but is Eli better than both Rivers or Big Ben...or either of them?

I'm a fan of both Roethlisberger and Rivers, so it's hard for me to say yes. Both play in conservative offenses, but there are two things you can't ignore about Roethlisberger -- his incredible athletic abilities, and his terrific efficiency numbers. Roethlisberger has great size and strength, can throw the ball a mile, and always appears able to make something out of nothing. He's very accurate, which is a perfect fit in the Pittsburgh offense. Put simply, there's very little he can't do. He's not Mike Vick fast, but (pre-injury, at least) he's a mobile QB that can hurt a defense by scrambling.

Lots of quarterbacks have great talent, but Roethlisberger has seen those numbers translate into on the field success. Roethlisberger ranked 5th in the NFL in adjusted yards per pass as a rookie, and led all quarterbacks in that metric last season. His QB rating after two years ranked third in NFL history at that experience level, behind Kurt Warner and Dan Marino. It's rare to find a QB with all the physical tools (Daunte Culpepper) with great numbers (Peyton Manning) that's won a Super Bowl (Tom Brady). Roethlisberger's record coming into 2006 was a sparkling 22-3 in the regular season and 5-1 in the post-season. He's taken a big hit this year (up until this weekend), but he's the best of the three so far.

I'm a huge Philip Rivers fan, in large part thanks to Maurile Tremblay, who works with me and Doug at Footballguys.com. I can never write it better than Maurile, who wrote a few months back that

He has a stronger arm than Brees, a quicker release, he is more accurate, and he makes his reads more quickly. He also sees the field better on a one-step drop, so he can beat the blitz more effectively. I've watched both guys in practices and in games, and there is absolutely no doubt that Rivers has better physical skills. And based on everything you can find out about him, you will find no reason to doubt his mental abilities, either. Those have always been his strengths -- his understanding of the game, his intelligence, his leadership, etc.

Maurile's without a doubt the most conservative and rational football fan I know, so I've taken his words seriously. Maurile and I have been leading the pro-Rivers charge this off-season, and I'm glad to see it looks like we were right about something. It's hard to complain about a QB that's currently ranked second in all of football in quarterback rating. He's got some talented targets, so he can't get all the credit for what he's done, but I've got no doubt that Rivers is going to be a good quarterback in this league for a long time. That brings us to...

1. Yes, the Giants messed up by passing on Roethlisberger and Rivers, and really messed up by trading an extra first round pick (Shawne Merriman) just to get Manning. The worst part? Right now, Eli's the worst of the three QBs.

I know, I can already hear Big Blue's faithful slapping their monitors. But while you'll probably hear "Manning ranked 5th in TDs and 4th in yards last year", my simple response is that he ranked 3rd in pass attempts. It's hard for me to think a QB is some sort of stud when his best ranking in all the passing categories, is his ranking in pass attempts.

Manning has two other big problems: he gets intercepted a lot, and he doesn't complete enough of his passes. That brings his AY/A way down. In fact, Eli was barely better than the league average passer last year in adjusted yards per attempt. Manning ranks 68th in quarterback rating through two seasons, ahead of Fran Tarkenton and Drew Bledsoe, but behind Tony Banks and Timm Rosenbach. For his career, Manning ranks as a below average starting QB. Surprised?

Most of that is due to his rookie season, of course, where his 3.54 adjusted yards per attempt was the worst in the league for all QBs with 100 attempts. Manning was absolutely horrible in 2004, and merely average (as a starter) in 2005. Peyton Manning, Trent Green, Matt Hasselbeck, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Jake Plummer, Jake Delhomme, Marc Bulger, Byron Leftwich and Drew Brees were clearly better passers last year. Manning fit somewhere in the middle third of quarterbacks, which is good (or merely average, depending on your perspective) but certainly not great. The Eli hype was out of control in 2005 merely because he ranked 3rd in the NFL in attempts (and thus accumulated a ton of stats) and well, his dad is Archie Manning.

This year? I might have to bite my tongue on Eli. His comeback performance against the Eagles was superb. He's completing nearly 2/3 of his passes, has thrown over 2 TDs per game, and his YPA is at 7.6. Yes, he's still got the accuracy issues, but I'm starting to come around on Manning. I think the biggest disparity between my view of Eli and others was that I saw Manning's performance last year and said he's an average NFL QB at the time, while others looked at it and said "that was excellent for such a young QB." I am cautious about giving too much credit for potential, but it seems like Eli can do some great things.

But I think they'll be just a little less great than the things his friends in Pittsburgh and San Diego do.

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