Eli Manning will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a few years. He is a likely first-ballot selection.
The bulk of his Hall of Fame candidacy stems from three things: his last name, his Super Bowl XLII MVP, and his Super Bowl XLVI MVP. He is one of five players to win multiple Super Bowl MVPs. Three are in the Hall of Fame (Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Montana), and the other is the greatest quarterback of all-time (Tom Brady). Manning lacks in other areas, but he played his best football in January and February.
Unlike most players arguing for or against Manning’s Hall of Fame candidacy, many would agree that he is an average to an above-average quarterback that got hot twice and capitalized. His stats are inflated because of the era, and he gets a boost because his brother and father are NFL royalty. All of these are true. For Manning, it is a matter of when not if he gets to Canton.
However, the career of Manning opens the discussion on how stats age. If one were to compare Manning’s stats to those of past generations of Hall of Fame quarterbacks, he/she would find that Manning has historically great stats while other quarterbacks are lacking. When comparing players across eras, it is useful to compare a player to his peers. There are pros and cons, and not all eras have equivalent talent depth, but comparing to contemporaries normalizes the rise of passing throughout the years. In baseball, statisticians can use wins above replacement and era-adjusted stats such as OPS+, wRC+, and ERA+ to compare players across generations. Football is not as simple, but quarterbacks can be compared using Pro-Football-Reference’s adjusted passing stats. One stat called Rate+ (short for passer rating index) normalizes passer rating across eras. 100 is average. Over 100 is above average. Under 100 is below average.
Eli Manning graded as an above-average quarterback in Rate+ eight times. Manning’s longevity aids him in this exercise, but he was playing in an era of absurdly talented and productive quarterbacks. Since Manning was drafted in 2004, 17 of 32 teams have had a quarterback that has a higher Hall of Fame Monitor than Jim Kelly (the lowest-ranked Hall of Famer at quarterback). Granted, five of the quarterbacks suited up for multiple teams between 2004 and 2019. Most of the league has the benefit of a future Hall of Famer (or near Hall of Famer) under center. 18 of the other top 50 quarterbacks by Hall of Fame Monitor had a career that overlapped with Manning.
Some of the Hall of Fame Monitor stems from quarterbacks reaching statistical milestones, helping present players. Had Manning or any other contemporary player played even 20 years ago, their stats would be diminished. Even rate stats such as passer rating would slip as completion percentages were lower and interception percentages were higher in previous generations. In 1965, Len Dawson led the AFL in completion percentage and passer rating with tallies of 53.4 percent and 81.3. In 2019, all 32 qualifying quarterbacks completed at least 58 percent of their throws, and 29 posted a passer rating above 82.0.
Passing yards, attempts, and touchdowns have skyrocketed in recent years. In 1972, Joe Namath led the NFL with 216 passing yards per game. 2019 saw 26 quarterbacks average 225 yards per game.
Manning’s Hall of Fame candidacy is helped by his mammoth tallies of 57,023 passing yards and 366 passing touchdowns (both seventh in NFL history), but those numbers will surely be surpassed in the coming years. By 2023, Manning could be on the outside of the top 10 in both categories as Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Matthew Stafford will have solid opportunities to usurp Manning. As quarterbacks continue to become more specialized, they will carve out longer and more productive careers. Drew Brees will likely break 80,000 passing yards in 2020. Tom Brady can reach 80,000 in 2021. In 15 years, Patrick Mahomes will likely add thousands of yards and dozens of yards to wherever Brees or Brady take the records to.
In a different era, Manning may not be a Hall of Famer. His longevity has only been matched by a handful of special quarterbacks. His stats dwarf those of many Hall of Famers.
Manning is a no-doubt Hall of Famer. He may never have been the best quarterback at any point during the regular season, but his shiny Lombardi trophies, Super Bowl MVPs, and historically relevant stats mean that one cannot write the history of the NFL without mentioning Manning. He is an interesting case study on how perception changes over time, how stats can be misleading, and how some peaks are remembered more fondly than others. Will the induction of Eli Manning lower the quality of the Hall of Fame? Perhaps. Would the Hall of Fame be valid if Manning were not inducted? No.