There is no denying that Eli Manning has forever played under his older brother’s shadow. But with this latest Super Bowl, perhaps that shadow isn’t as ominous as it is distinguished. Maybe the shadow is no longer Eli trying to live up to Peyton, but Eli being Eli and being inevitably compared to Peyton. He is, after all, the little brother.
Little brothers and sports: it’s an interesting phenomenon, often one that starts in the earliest formations of childhood. As soon as the older one could dribble a basketball, there will be one-on-one games. As soon as the older one could throw a football, there will be tire-swing contests. The rule of thumb here is that while the older brother dominates these games year after year, the little brother flounders in sibling obscurity. He gets frustrated, he cries and he loses the ensuing wrestling match. He always loses the wrestling match.
Yet, because he’s been knocked down for so long, getting up again isn’t so much agonizing as it is routine. It’s a simple matter of fighting fire with fire. But while the older brother’s flame is simply a function of physical superiority, the younger’s is arguably something more.
In an article written about a year ago, the Wall Street Journal’s Hannah Karp talks about this phenomenon, citing a study that analyzed date from 700 brothers in Major League Baseball. The study concluded “younger brothers were more than 10 times more likely to attempt the high-risk activity of base stealing and three times more likely to steal bases successfully. It also found younger brothers were more likely to allow themselves to be hit by pitches to get on base.”
As the Good Men Project’s Ryan O’Hanlon writes, being a little brother lends itself to a playing style rooted in risk, recklessness and an overall log-line of “I need to differentiate myself from you, and I’ll to do whatever it takes to get there.” He uses Blake Griffin and Jimmer Fredette as examples, but we see the same thing from Eli. While Peyton is the master of composure, Eli is often at his best when he doesn’t have time to think, or when he’s scrambling around like a lunatic, recklessly firing away. While General Peyton marches down the field to the beat of a Tennessee marching band bass drum, Eli is playing football’s version of guerrilla warfare.
This is why Eli’s highlights are utterly spectacular plays that will be played 50 years from now and still be marveled at. It is also why he throws ill-advised interceptions, or gets sacked for 30 yards. But while he’s not doing doing Citizen Eco-Drive commercials, Manning is playing football through the lens of who he is.
We’ve concluded that Eli probably isn’t a better quarterback than Peyton, but he’s undoubtedly proved himself to both the NFL and pantheon of greatness that is Manning football. He’s not on a mission to finish his career superior to his brother, nor is he trying to remove himself from Peyton’s shadow. He’s simply just playing with the spirit of his little brother self. And he’s doing it quite admirably.