Eli vs. Tiki
I have mostly refrained from talking about New York sports, in spite of (or maybe because of) the fact that I am a New York sports fan. But, I couldn’t resist saying something about the recent dust-up between Eli Manning and Tiki Barber. It started when Tiki said, on NBC Sunday night, that Eli struggled to assert himelf as a leader:
“He hasn’t shown [ability to lead],” Barber said on the broadcast. “His personality hasn’t been so that he can step up, make a strong statement and have people believe that it’s coming from his heart.
“Last year about Week 12, I turned over the offensive motivational speech to Eli and he was gung-ho to do it, but he was uncomfortable doing it. I think a lot of it had to do with vets being around – myself, Jeremy Shockey, Plaxico Burress. He didn’t feel like his voice was going to be strong enough and it showed. Sometimes it was almost comical the way that he would say things.”
Manning responded a couple of days ago and, I confess, what I find amusing is not what Manning said, but how many media outlets portrayed Manning as “firing back,”(the phrase used both by Newsday and the New York Post), or, in the words of the Daily News “One day after Hurricane Eli smashed into the mouth of Tiki Barber,” as if Manning hit Tiki where it hurts. This was a common theme both in the New York media and on ESPN, which made much of Manning coming heavy in response to Tiki’s comments.
I guess I was just happy for Tiki that he made a smooth transition into the media world,” Manning said. “It will be interesting to see if he has anything else to say [about anyone] besides the Giants and what his comments will be on that. I’m not going to lose any sleep over what Tiki has to say.
“I guess I could have questioned his leadership skills last year, calling out the coach and having articles about him retiring in the middle of the season saying he lost the heart. As a quarterback, you’re reading your running back has lost the heart to play the game and it’s about the 10th week, I can see that a little bit at times. I’m not going to get concerned and I’m going to go out and play ball.”
A couple of points here. One, what Tiki said strikes me – as a faithful Giants fan and regular viewer of their games – as obviously true. I can’t speak for what went on in the locker-room, but Manning’s on-field demeanor is low-key to the point of painful to watch. I don’t need Manning to be a gesticulating wild man like his brother, but it’s not just that Eli’s a quiet guy – already unusual for a field general. It’s that he seems to visibly sulk when things start to go poorly. In fact, I can’t remember a high-profile QB (I didn’t say “good,”) with body language as bad as Manning’s. Now, I tend to think stuff like body language and leadership is over-rated. But, if you are going to be a team leader, and you’re not going to be visible about it with gestures and words, you exhibit leadership by performance. And, in that department, Manning’s been thoroughly mediocre, despite having been surrounded by a) very good skill position players his first three years in the league and b) especially at running back, where Tiki performed at a Hall of Fame level between 2004 and 2006.
But, OK, Manning wants to defend himself. That’s fine. And, in fact, on his radio show on Tuesday, Barber credited Manning with responding to Tiki, saying he thought that was a good sign. Pretty gracious of Tiki.
But, the substance of Manning’s remarks were pretty lame, if you ask me. Yes, Manning could have questioned Tiki’s leadership skills last year. Except that as a promising season dissolved in a torrent of injuries to key starters, Barber was the only player to continue to perform at a high level and, in the final regular season game, with a playoff berth on the line, single-handedly carried his team into the post-season (Tiki rushed for 234 yards and 3 touchdowns). Furthermore, I don’t have a problem with a player calling out a coach, especially when that coach has made a habit of throwing his own players under the bus . It’s part and parcel of the culture of football that management is supposed to have wide latitude to do whatever it wants, while the labor force is supposed to quietly fall in line. But, when you’re sacrificing your body as fully as Tiki (and all NFL running backs do each week), you have a right to be frustrated when you feel like your coach isn’t giving you the best chance to win. That Manning has internalized the double-standard when it comes to public criticism in the NFL is not a sign of leadership. It’s a sign of being a dutiful follower.
I don’t blame Tiki for Eli’s poor performance the second-half of last season, but Manning’s bravado about how he just went out and played (presumably Tiki’s behavior would only have affected the weaker-minded among Eli’s teammates) is belied by the fact that he stunk over the last eight weeks of the season, managing just two games with a QB rating over 70, which is the Mendoza line for QB ratings (his rating for the season, 77.6, ranked slightly below average for the league).
Among the New York media, Harvey Araton seems to have gotten it right:
The broadcast game is about distinguishing one’s self from the rest of the ever-expanding pack, and Barber knew what he was doing when he announced himself in the studio Sunday night by describing Manning’s leadership qualities as “comical.” Manning answered Barber, his teammate only eight months ago, with a salvo that looked and sounded more sheepish than furious.
Easily impressed, his Giants teammates reacted with a right-on, about-time gusto, which mostly underscored the belief that what Barber said, however self-serving, was essentially true.
People often miss the point when they say that it is not easy for Manning to be the little brother of Peyton, quarterback and pitchman extraordinaire. Performance issues aside, Eli’s problem, born of a personality that is seemingly guileless, transcends genealogy. Forget Peyton; in his three seasons with the Giants, Eli has been everyone’s little brother, alternately picked on and stood up for. In either case, not the most ideal leadership conditions.
If Manning puts together three seasons (or even one) like Barber’s final three, he’llget all the respect that’s coming to him. But, the media’s eagerness to trumpet his respnse to Tiki says more about the sports culture’s antipathy toward people stepping out of line, than it does about Manning’s qualities as a leader. And, don’t get me wrong; as a Giants’ fan, I am invested in Eli stepping up to the plate. But, until he performs where it counts – on the field – Tiki vs. Eli is a mismatch.