The End of an Eli?

You have to feel for Eli Manning. If he weren’t the brother of a quarterback whose face would be on a Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks, should such a concept exist, he’d be better loved. He has 118 career wins, including playoffs, and a pair of Super Bowl MVP trophies.

No modern quarterback with that many wins isn’t in the Hall of Fame or a lock to get there (like his brother). No player with multiple Super Bowl MVP Awards isn’t in or a lock to get there (like Tom Brady).

Yet somehow, it doesn’t add up. Recently, he passed the elite 30-mile club in career passing yardage. In the modern era, that club includes Brady, Drew Brees, John Elway, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger (also there this year). That’s it. More than 40 years of the modern passing rules, and he’s one of seven to throw for more than 52,800 yards (Philip Rivers might well make it eight late this season or in the playoffs, should the Chargers qualify).

We’re in the age when the definition of great quarterbacking is changing, and perhaps expectations are too high. Or perhaps there was a run of a few years when random luck produced a group of top quarterbacks. Hard to say. A few months ago, I tried to come up with a Bill James-style formula for calculating quarterbacks reaching the Hall, and Eli is borderline. Only Ken Anderson has more points in this formula of those who aren’t in or still playing (or like Peyton, not yet eligible), but the list of current players is impressive.

I think I’ve made my feelings about Ken Anderson’s qualifications well known (darn it, Canton, it’s time to fix this). But ultimately, I think Eli won’t make it because his brother will, and Brady and Brees and Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers are dead locks to make it. We’ll have quarterback fatigue.

We also have to consider quality of play. My quarterback metric is designed to analyze this across generations, and the fact is that Eli is an average-minus quarterback statistically. His career average in the metric is 49.8, a number that would and should have coaches wondering if they should draft a replacement. Only two of the Hall quarterbacks are below 56 career – Warren Moon (53.8) and Elway (52.7). And Elway is one of a handful to reach 150 wins while Moon had to prove himself in the CFL for years when he should have been in the NFL. None of the other current quarterbacks I’ve mentioned here are below 58 average for their careers (Peyton is at 61.2).

Today, New York Giants coach Ben McAdoo announced that Eli won’t be starting at quarterback the rest of this season. He offered him the opportunity to play a series or two, then come out, because Eli’s streak of 210 straight starts is second all-time among quarterbacks to Favre (though still a few years short). Manning wisely declined, understanding this kind of record is only valid when you’re playing in the fourth quarter.

Is it time for the Giants, 2-9 and mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, to consider alternatives to their 36-year-old leader? Manning’s average score in the metric is down to 44 this year, 27th among NFL starters. There’s reason to wonder if it’s time to retire. The Giants invested a third-round pick this year in Davis Webb, who is rather raw coming off his graduate-transfer year at California, but is huge and has a gifted arm. But Webb won’t start, either. That goes to Geno Smith, who has an 11-19 career record with the Jets and a 42 average in the metric. Smith is in his fifth year, and will be a free agent next spring. I’m not sure he’s worth the look if a look has to be taken. I’m not sure that’s a great decision, given that the Giants will draft high next year and really need to know all they can about Webb whereas the odds are low Smith is worth starting next year.

But decisions have a way of becoming necessary at inconvenient times, and the worry is that Webb isn’t ready or he would get the longest look. Since this is likely the end of Manning with the Giants, fans can appreciate what his long career has brought to New York, even if it’s just a little bit short of Hall quality and he has struggled along with the rest of the team this year.

This Date in History

As the Cleveland Browns stumble toward what could be the second 0-16 season in NFL history, I’m reminded of this date, Halloween, in 1999.

Halloween was unkind to the Browns this year. It’s clear that DeShone Kizer is not ready to lead an NFL team. He’s very young, and many scouts say he has talent. But starting a 21-year-old second-round draft pick at quarterback is not the NFL norm, and Kizer is really struggling.

The trading deadline was at 4:00 today, and the Browns traded for Cincinnati backup A.J. McCarron with minutes to spare. The Bengals called it in to the league office. However, for some reason, the Browns did not beat the deadline. That’s just one of those stories you can’t make up.

Anyway, McCarron, like Jimmy Garoppolo (who the Browns apparently wanted to trade for in the off-season), is in his fourth year and stuck behind an established franchise quarterback. This means he would go into next season restricted as a free agent. So the Bengals would have liked to get something for him. I’m not sure why they’d be willing to trade him in-division, but perhaps that’s another slight against the Browns.

Colin Kaepernick fans should take note of this, as an aside. If there’s one situation in the NFL where Kaepernick fits, it’s this one. As long as he’s willing to play mentor to Kizer and accept fringe starter money (this runs about $6 million for a full season these days), this would be a great road back to the NFL. I can’t say what’s in the heads of NFL GMs and owners, but this seems like a good idea while some of the other openings (backup in Tennessee, more recently) have not seemed like good fits.

But let’s flash back to 1999, the first year of the expansion Cleveland Browns (the “old” Browns became the Baltimore Ravens in 1996). In return for not causing trouble, the city of Cleveland was promised an expansion team no later than 1999, plus the expansion team would “own” the Browns’ history and team colors.

For some reason, and this was apparently unrelated to the move, the Browns also fired their head coach at the time. He found a new gig relatively quickly and has since won five Super Bowls with his new team, but that’s another story so I won’t mention his name here.

The Browns began play again in 1999 and were fairly bad. They headed into their Halloween matchup at New Orleans with an 0-7 record. As NFL games go, it was exciting. The Saints took a two-point lead with 21 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. But quarterback Tim Couch, the first pick in the 1999 draft, was up to the challenge.

Couch completed a 19-yarder to the Browns’ 46-yard line. Time out with 0:02 on the clock. Couch then rolled right and threw the ball as far as he could. Kevin Johnson fought through a crowd in the end zone to give the new Browns their first victory.

Incidentally, as of the last time I messed with these numbers, Couch has by far the highest rate of late fourth-quarter game-winning drives in modern NFL history. No, don’t reserve a bust in Canton – his career quarterback record was 21-36. But 11 of those 21 wins came on plays just like that one (well, not quite just like that one).

Now there’s some connection between this New Orleans team and Front Office Football. For years, it was a running joke that there were too many Billy Joes in the game. When I designed the original game (and perhaps this is still an issue, because the design in this case is still quite similar, but I may have removed the name), any first name that was shared by more than one NFL player was placed on the list of more frequently used first names (IIRC, there were about 500 names on that list).

The Saints had two primary quarterbacks – Billy Joe Hobert (4-8 career record) and Billy Joe Tolliver (15-37 career record). It’s a name that stands out, I guess. In 1999, they shared quarterbacking duties. Both had 1-6 records as a starter that year. Hobert started this Halloween game. He was either hurt or pulled after throwing a second-quarter interception (he is listed as making the tackle, so I’m guessing hurt). Tolliver relieved.

Cleveland ended up winning a second game that season. And that was the Browns’ worst record (new or old) until last year. But they have finished last in the AFC Central/North in 14 of their 18 seasons since expansion and look certain to make that 15-for-19. They have a 0-1 playoff record since expansion and their last playoff victory was on New Year’s Day in 1995 against New England, who was apparently impressed by their head coach because… well… still not mentioning his name.

Finally, back to winless seasons. The Browns won in week 16 last year, beating the Chargers as their kicker missed a game-tying 45-yarder as time expired. Now in Los Angeles, the Chargers have played a bit better (3-4 so far, as opposed to 5-11 last year). They lost their first two games this year essentially on missed game-ending 44-yard field-goal attempts.

This meant YoungHoe Koo, their new kicker this year, lost his job. Koo, by the way, is only the fourth player born in Korea to play in the NFL (and the second with a father not an American stationed with the military). Since one of those four players is Hines Ward, South Korea has by far the highest percentage of native-born Super Bowl MVPs in NFL history. In case you’re interested, the Browns visit the Chargers in week 13.