On the surface, the debate on whether or not Eli Manning is Hall of Fame worthy is a shallow, trivial matter; a battle of Super Bowl rings and soft-hearted Manning memes. But, underneath the colorful overtones of an emotionally-fueled litigation of legacy, there is a more fundamental concept at risk: Who is to be remembered?

It was revealed earlier this week that Manning will be announcing his retirement today. The signal caller’s sign-off is not quite a walk into the sunset; he was benched for first-round rookie quarterback Daniel Jones early in the 2019 season. Although he eventually made his way back into the lineup due to injury, the standing ovation he received was not enough to quiet the doubters in a furious debate over the fruit of Manning’s many years.

With his pending retirement, the 16-year career of Manning comes to a close, but the debate on whether or not he is Hall of Fame worthy rages on. Does Manning deserve to be remembered? This question may come to tear at the seams of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s very foundation, and set a new standard for what it means to don the gold.

Is Eli Manning Hall of Fame worthy?

Some legacies are stone. Rigid against the erosion of time and perspective. Their greatness cannot be debated. Manning’s, however, is liquescent. With each fervent opinion and each clashing frame of reference, his imprint left on the sport of football changes shape, like a loosely-connected body of molecules.

To some, Manning is the David to the NFL’s Goliath; the only one who bested the evil empire of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at the highest stage, and did it twice. To some, that is enough. Others, however, reserve the halls of canton for the unquestionably elite, an echelon Manning never rose to.

The deciding factor of Manning’s fate ultimately lies in the perception of what qualifies as Hall of Fame worthy. Is it a player’s statistical and relative accomplishments that place him among the exalted, or do the memories provided by that player have weight as well?

Search for a widely accepted prerequisite for Hall of Fame consideration, and you’ll likely find that your search comes up empty. While the Hall of Fame voters are discreet in their methods, the public is often torn on how to judge players against the gold jacket.

Excellence and Longevity

Perhaps the most popular criteria for Hall of Fame consideration are these two: excellence and longevity. Players who are excellent, but fleeting, often fail to leave a distinct enough imprint on the game, while players who are resilient, but middling, leave an imprint, but not a standard.

Excellence and longevity, in tandem with one another, present a viable equation for Hall of Fame consideration. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the best example; he’s paced the NFL for two decades. Over that time span, he’s earned fourteen Pro Bowl berths, three All-Pro bids, and three MVP awards. More distinct than his personal accomplishments are his playoff accolades, where he has six Super Bowl rings, a representation of the sheer dominance Brady has enabled in New England. Brady has been one of the best at his position for a long time, and when he’s gone from the game, he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest ever to play it.

Brady is the consummate example of excellence and longevity, and Joe Montana is with him in that conversation. Just as Brady monopolized the twenty-first century, Montana monopolized the eighties, with four Super Bowl rings, three All-Pro seasons, and two MVP awards. He played for fifteen years, and made the playoffs 11 times, establishing a level of championship consistency never seen before his time.

Brady and Montana serve as paradigms for the quarterback position, but there are also less dramatic representations present. Drew Brees only has one Super Bowl ring to Brady’s half dozen, but he has a career passing title and thirteen Pro Bowl bids to compensate. Ben Roethlisberger is on the fringe of the conversation, with six Pro Bowl berths and two Super Bowl rings. 

All of these quarterbacks, to varying degrees, possess the tandem of excellence and longevity that is most often associated with the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Montana has already been fitted for his gold jacket, and Brady and Brees are likely to be immortalized in Canton soon after they retire.

Against these champions, Manning is more than an enigma. One could argue he’s never been one of the best at his position, over 16 seasons. His career-high passer rating is 93.6. His career record is 117-117. He has four Pro Bowl berths, and he’s only led his team to the playoffs in six of his sixteen years, a far cry from a mainstay in the postseason race. In his final three seasons, Manning was a marginal starter, whose waning arm strength visibly held back a Giants team that went 9-26 in games he started.

All this, and yet, Manning has two Super Bowl rings. Two Super Bowl MVP awards. So where does that place him? Does that make Eli Manning Hall of Fame worthy?

A somewhat suitable case study for Manning is former Oakland Raiders signal-caller Jim Plunkett. Plunkett played in the NFL from 1971 to 1986. He retired with a career record of 72-72, and his career touchdown-to-interception ratio was 164-198. And yet, for his overbearing decency, Plunkett ended his career with two Super Bowl rings to show for it all, and a playoff record of 8-2.

Adjusting by era, it’s not far-fetched to say that Plunkett was the Manning of his time. Both quarterbacks never rose to the ranks of the elite in their respective generations, but both experienced success at the pinnacle of the sport, against all odds. Both cemented their own legacies in playoff history and earned the coveted jewelry that so few can enjoy.

In spite of all this, Plunkett is not in the Hall of Fame.

Is Plunkett’s exclusion a damning precursor for Manning? That depends on what one must do to be remembered. Excellence and longevity are the common factors, but there is also the word fame itself to explore.

Fame Itself

There is a correlation between great moments and great players. If there was no Hall of Fame to celebrate the best, then the best would still be remembered for their exploits, and for their exposure on the greatest stage. Players like Brady, Brees, and Montana.

But sometimes, the greatest moments are not made by the greatest players. 

This was a reason for Julian Edelman’s albeit short wave as a popular Hall of Fame prospect. Edelman has never been to a Pro Bowl or been recognized as an NFL All-Pro. But his role in some of the twenty-first century’s most pivotal playoff moments has engraved his name in the fondest memories of fans across the nation.

Manning never came close to achieving the degree of excellence and longevity that Brady and Brees did. But Manning braved the New York market. The quiet Ole Miss kid won over a restless fan base with his toughness and poise and withstood the pressure of a No. 1 overall pick.

You know that guy Brady, the “G.O.A.T”? Manning beat him twice, at his own game, with dozens of timeless moments along the way. The helmet catch. The throw to Manningham. The resilient stand in the 2011 NFC Championship. The Hakeem Nicks hail mary to dispose of the dominant Packers. The ageless comeback against the Eagles. Through all of it, Manning didn’t blink. And by doing so, he gave the game life and achieved his own immortality in the annals of NFL history. No amount of Manning memes can undo that.

If the Hall of Fame is, in fact, a judiciary of fame itself, then Eli Manning has more than enough to be worthy.

Ending as it Began

Manning’s career will end just as it began; amidst controversy. Everyone had an opinion when Manning was the No. 1 overall pick that one team gave away, and one team gave a chance. And everyone has an opinion now, with Manning limping into a life of unfamiliar subtlety, leaving behind a career that both exceeded expectations and underachieved.

For the foreseeable future, Manning’s legacy will continue to be the subject of debate, a liquescent entity in a black and white world. The very shape of his imprint will be different to every single person, like a stream of water flowing through rugged channels and tributaries. 

At the end of it all, however, the debate is meaningless, because the public does not decide how Manning will be remembered. That responsibility goes to the voters.

Engrained in that responsibility is an inner struggle. Do the voters conform to their past precedents, and judge Manning on his record? Or do they appeal to the sentimental values that give football the depth and color by which it is emboldened?

For now, their choice is unknown. Manning will have to wait, likely tuning out the noise, as he had a habit of doing in New York; if not worthy of the Hall of Fame title, or the Hall of Fame jacket, then at least worthy of the conversation.