Playing the Hall of Fame Game
The 2011-12 NFL season has come and gone, the media has taken a fond look back at the year that was, and they have come to the following conclusions: Tom Brady is a worthless hack who should switch to selling Uggs full-time; Eli Manning has combined the steely resolve of a hammerhead shark with the joyfulness of a seven-year-old eating paste to become a quarterback for the ages; the reddened skin of Tom Coughlin’s face ought to be flayed from his skull and displayed in the Hall of Fame as a tribute to the postseason triumphs it oversaw; Vince Wilfork’s girth is a threat to the tectonic stability of the continental crust; and above all, we have to decide this very second how history will regard the Giants and Patriots players decades from now.
Is the current narrative perhaps a bit narrow, given the myriad achievements and the magnitude of Tebow we witnessed this season? Probably, yes, but that does not give me any less right to break the trend that television has laid out for me, as pro football broadcasts are widely known to be infallible indicators of American sensibilities and taste. Determining which players qualify as the Greatest of All Time with a knee-jerk reaction to one game seems to be an inexact science, but that kind of science is the easiest ones for me to understand. So without further ado, here is a sensible and tasteful breakdown of all things that built and broke legacies in last Sunday’s Super Bowl. In the words of something as red-blooded American as Grandma’s apple pie, Bud Light: “Here we go.”
Tom Brady: the most handsome quarterback in all the land had a pretty solid game on Sunday night, making the arguments against him an unusual case of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately that ignores his latest play. On the surface, his 276 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception (which, in terms of the field position the Giants got, was a glorified punt) depict a soundly-played game. His performance late in the game was not perfect, but he had his team within fingertips of the Lombardi Trophy even as the clock struck zero.
Furthermore, as espoused by veteran NFL analyst Gisele Bundchen following the game, Tom Brady has not yet developed the skill set to catch his own passes. Granted, there was the safety he took on his first play of the game, and there may not be anyone to blame for it other than Brady himself, but if someone who watches the Pats on a regular basis can show me the last time Brady has successfully evaded a rushing end via scrambling, I will show you a quarterback who should not be expected to shake pressure in the end zone.
But what the naysayers keep forgetting is this: Brady’s three Super Bowl rings grant him a certain historical immunity that one night in Indianapolis can never undo. Once you get to three rings as a QB, unless you open your mouth and prove yourself Terry Bradshaw, the respect you get historically is unassailable.
Eli Manning: Watching Eli’s growth from the incompetent future of the Giants to their unflappable present leader has been an exhilarating and perplexing ride, but the arguments on behalf of his Hall of Fame candidacy are more than a little bit premature. Keep in mind that last year, while Manning posted his one and only 30-touchdown season to date, he also led the league with 25 interceptions while ending up on the outside of the playoff picture for the second straight season. People point to the Pro Bowl numbers he put up this season (4,933 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, 16 picks) and his two Super Bowl victories as indicators that he is a great quarterback who will recieve a bust in Canton.
While this is possible, the fact remains that Elisha Nelson Manning has led an above average career so far, and while a few more elite seasons and possibly another ring would put him in the discussion of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, he is not there yet. While he is not quite as low as the level of Jim Plunkett, the only two-time Super Bowl winner not inducted into the Hall of Fame, Manning is not yet in the rarefied air of Bart Starr and Roger Staubach either.
Tom Coughlin: It is hard to think of the grumpy old man with the reddest face in football history as an all-time great, but the arguments on his behalf are actually quite simple. A .500 record next season would give him 150 wins for his career, passing greats Marv Levy and Bill Cowher to jump to 17th on the all-time list. Keep in mind that there are 21 coaches enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The two Super Bowl rings place him in the company of only a dozen other coaches that have as many.
On the other hand, there is a Tuna-sized impediment to Coughlin’s Hall of Fame prospects. Bill Parcells, who also has two rings, is 11th in wins, and generally commands more respect than the current Giants coach. But as long as Eli is in town, if Coughlin is willing to stick around and maybe bring that one extra championship back to the New York/East Rutherford, NJ area, the pasty-red man in charge might find himself in Hall of Fame territory soon enough.
The natural pairing with Coach Coughlin would be Patriots head man Bill Belichick ’75, but the mere idea of questioning his Canton prospects seems hazardous given his coarse and ruthless nature—and given that he is a Wesleyan alumnus, he knows where I live.
So instead, let’s focus on a breakout character of this postseason.
Vince Wilfork: Listed at 6’1” and 325 pounds, the mammoth Wilfork is probably closer to 370 by a very conservative eyeball examination. Entering this postseason following his fourth All-Pro season, Wilfork leapt into the national consciousness with an impact appropriate for a man his size. His domination of the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship has overshadowed the fact that he followed it up with a relatively quiet Super Bowl performance. In the prelude to the showdown in Indianapolis, Wilfork lived in the Ravens’ backfield, compiling six tackles (three for loss), 1.5 sacks (a playoff career high), and three offensive linemen eaten (value approximated).
Wilfork’s iconic display of girth and athleticism, when coupled with his already-stellar track record, means he might be the next person to complete a Hall of Fame resume. Manning might be closing in, but Wilfork is at the height of his considerable powers at a much scarcer position. Great quarterbacks might have more impact on a team’s chances to win, but if Wilfork can string together a couple more All-Pro caliber seasons, his status as one of the top defensive tackles in the league over the course of his career will be historically impressive.
There are more players who have an outside shot at Canton—like Justin Tuck—or have a long time before we could begin considering them—like Rob Gronkowski. But rather than look to the past, let us note some of the good fortune to come. Brady and Belichick are peaking in frustration, which forebodes yet another season in championship contention. And for Giants fans, all this talk of greatness and glory for Manning and Coughlin means everyone is ignoring one thing. After experiencing one of the most humiliating collapses in league history last year, the New York Giants have finally exorcised the Matt Dodge demons. It may not have been long, but it was painful, and it is vanquished. And history will come to regard that as truly great.