Monday, February 04, 2008

Eli, Ernie Accorsi and Michael Lewis

Needless to say, I just won $6 from six guys I bet $1 each in December after seeing the Giants lose to the Patriots in a – for them – throw-away game. They had already clinched for the wild-card, and the Patriots were on a roll for a perfect season (so it mattered for them).

I was shocked to see Eli and the rest of the Giants play that game, and, as I recall, come back to score a late touchdown to make the score 38-35. They were loose and confident in defiance of the, to everyone, objective certainty that the game was lost. The Giants whole demeanor was – I repeat – confident and intelligent. They knew what they were doing and were having fun doing it.

I predicted that they would win all their post-season games, meet the Patriots again in the Super Bowl, and --------------- win. People lined up to bet and abused me with disrespect.

But I had reason and feeling in my madness. It wasn’t just what I saw in the closing quarter of the game. I had read Michael Lewis’s article of December 19, 2004 entitled “The Eli Experiment” which gave me background and context for what I perceived in my own interior and what a camera could not perceive merely recording the empirical exterior. I saw intelligence, daring and feeling. I saw what Ernie Accorsi saw in a game played at the University of Mississippi with Eli at quarterback. Michael Lewis – who works in the world of internal perception of people – felt through the feelings of Accorsi and wrote the article. Lewis has done this over and over again from his books like “Liars Poker,” “Moneyball,” “The Blind Side,” and articles like “Coach Fitz,” “Odd Man In” (Paul O’Neil of Alcoa and Secretary of the Treasury), “Jonathan Lebed: Stock Manipularor, S.E.C. Nemesis – at 15,” etc. The key is to perceive the interior of the other through your own interior, i.e. to read the other person from within your own experience of yourself and transfer this to the other. This is the meaning of the Latin verb “To understand” - “Intellegere,” ab initus legere: to read from within.

These perceptions of Accorsi and Lewis meld with what has appeard in this blog continuously: It is only with the heart that one knows rightly. Bendict XVI has called it "theological epistemology" which is showcased in the perception of the divine Person of Jesus Christ through the empirical and historical sensation of Jesus of Nazareth. The point is that like is known by like. If the Person of Jesus Christ is prayer, then one has not only to pray, but to become prayer, in order to know Him whose very Being is the relationality of prayer. That said:

Here are the significant parts of the Lewis article on Ernie Accorsi’s discovery of Eli Manning, and the reason for his hiring by the Giants:

When Eli Manning submitted his brain to the N.F.L. for inspection, he relaxed his pretense that nothing much was going on inside of it. The N.F.L. actually requires that prospects take an intelligence test -- which is, of course, surprising to everyone outside the N.F.L. As Charlie Wonderlic, the C.E.O. of Wonderlic Inc., which creates the N.F.L.'s intelligence tests, puts it, ''Why in the world would you want to know how smart a football player is?'' But you do want to know, especially when that player is a quarterback. The Wonderlic Personnel Test, given to all prospects, is identical to the test given to more than two million corporate employees each year. It consists of 50 questions. The taker is given 12 minutes to answer as many as he can. Here is one of the easier questions:

''FAMILIAR is the opposite of 1) friendly, 2) old, 3) strange, 4) aloof, 5) different.''
And here is a hard one:

''In printing an article of 24,000 words, a printer decides to use two sizes of type. Using the larger type, a printed page contains 900 words. Using the smaller type, a page contains 1,200 words. The article is allotted 21 full pages in a magazine. How many pages must be in the smaller type?''

The test has been used by N.F.L. teams for decades, but the emphasis placed on it has grown with the complexity of the game. (Archie Manning recalls, during his senior year, some guy affiliated with a pro team turning up at Ole Miss and handing out an intelligence test. ''We all took it sitting on stools in the locker room, with no one watching us,'' he says. ''Two of the tackles cheated off each other.'') Teams use it to weed out players whose minds are simply inadequate to the task. The rule of thumb -- on offense at least -- is that the closer you are to the ball, the smarter you need to be. (Centers are the only players who routinely test as highly as quarterbacks.) The average test score for lawyers is 30 and for janitors is 15. The average test score for halfbacks, the lowest-scoring players, is 15, and for quarterbacks is 25. The head of scouting for the Giants, Jerry Reese, says, ''If a quarterback's score comes in under 25, we worry; otherwise we don't pay that much attention to it.'' Eli Manning scored a 39, putting him in the 99th percentile of last year's two and a half million Wonderlic test takers. His brother Cooper (he was laughing as he spoke) said, ''I think the only guy who scored higher than Eli was a punter from Harvard who didn't make a team.'' (Actually, Pat McInally, the Harvard punter who scored a perfect 50, did make it on to the Cincinnati Bengals.) Eli Manning's score was so high that when I mentioned it to Charlie Wonderlic, he suggested I recheck my facts and said, ''There's not a job on the planet that requires a person to score at that level.''

But Eli Manning may be the only person in the history of the Wonderlic who can score a 39 and not recall his score. Wandering down a hallway in the Giants front office one day I asked him how he did on the test. ''Ummmmm -- I think I got a 41 or a 42 out of 50.''

''How did Peyton do?'' I asked.

''Ummmmmmm -- I don't think he did as well, maybe low 30's.'' Then he smiled and said, ''I think Peyton might have been above average.''

By all the tests that N.F.L. scouts use to measure college quarterbacks, Eli Manning compared favorably to his famous older brother. And yet the decision to take him with the first pick, and pay him great sums of money, was nevertheless regarded by many inside the N.F.L. as fantastically risky. A few general managers, and coaches, would have refused to make it. When the quarterbacks arrived at the 2003 N.F.L. combine -- where the teams put the most highly touted prospects though their paces -- the coach of the Carolina Panthers, John Fox, simply walked out. He took a principled stand against spending money and draft picks on a quarterback. No N.F.L. coach will say this, but a few actually build their teams on the principle that the quarterback need not be especially gifted, because he doesn't need to be terribly important. You don't need a god out there; you don't need Joe Montana or John Elway or Peyton Manning. All you need is one very smart coaching staff and a quarterback who won't mess up their intricate plans. Spend less of your money on a quarterback and you have more to spend on the people around him. Ask them to do more, and the quarterback to do less.
The coaches who approach the game this way -- Fox, Brian Billick of Baltimore, Bill Cowher of Pittsburgh, Bill Parcells of Dallas, Bill Belichick of New England -- define one end of the N.F.L.'s managerial spectrum: the end that argues that it's never worth the risk to pay a fortune to a quarterback unproved in the pros. Ernie Accorsi might well define the other. ''There is no other position in team sports as important as the quarterback,'' he says. ''A great quarterback, unlike a great running back, cannot be stopped. And if you have a great one, you're never out of it. He walks on the bus and the whole team sees him and thinks, We have a chance.'' The problem, from Accorsi's point of view, is finding the great quarterback.

IV. The Magic

It was absurd: a 61-year-old New Yorker hustling down to Mississippi on a fall weekend in 2002, just to watch a 21-year-old junior quarterback in the flesh. In the N.F.L., 61 isn't old; it's ancient. Just about everyone who was in the N.F.L. when Accorsi took his first job, in 1970, was gone. He'd retire soon; the long-term future of the New York Giants was of no practical consequence to him. But he'd seen something he couldn't ignore -- a tape of an Ole Miss game. And what he'd seen in the Ole Miss quarterback, Eli Manning, got his blood racing in a way it hadn't in years. He wanted to see him play. He could have watched him plenty on television, but Accorsi had grown almost hostile to the way that football games have come to be televised. ''You can't even see what's on the field, and you can't see the formations,'' he said. ''The camera is all over the place. On the sidelines. In the stands. On the coaches' faces. I had no idea what Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi looked like because all you saw back then was the games.''
He wanted to see what he wanted to see -- every move Eli Manning makes -- and he wanted to see ''how he responds to the pressure of the game -- how he responds to the crowd.'' He arrived early to the field, to watch Manning warm up. He couldn't tell from the tape the strength of Eli Manning's arm; and he couldn't tell from warm-ups either. It was as if Eli were trying not to show what he had. Did that mean he didn't have it? Accorsi couldn't tell. He found his seat, not in the press box, where he wanted to sit, but out on the ice-cold photographers' deck. The opposing team, Auburn, was stacked with N.F.L. prospects. Ole Miss had maybe two, and one was Eli Manning. Accorsi watched as Auburn sprinted ahead, 14-0.
On a couple of occasions, Manning threw long. Running to his right, he drilled a pass, across his body, to the left side of the field maybe 55 yards. His arm was stronger than Ernie dared to imagine: the kid had a cannon, possibly stronger than his brother's arm. And then something happened: Accorsi felt it before he saw the scoreboard change. Manning was, improbably, keeping Ole Miss in the game; he was finding a way to win. Ole Miss had simply given up trying to run the football -- at one point Auburn had outgained them on the ground, 230 yards to 10. And yet even without a ground game they were moving the ball through the air. Pass after beautiful pass found its mark. Eli Manning was doing the riskiest thing a quarterback can do, and everything about this game merely increased that risk. The pass rushers were always a split second from killing him; the defensive backs were all bigger and faster than his receivers; and, because Ole Miss had no running game, everyone in the stadium expected a pass. And yet he seemed to have a special ability to cope with risk. Accorsi -- growing more and more excited -- pulled out his notebook. In a later report, he wrote:
Rallied his team from 14-3 halftime deficit basically all by himself. Led them on two successive third-quarter drives to go ahead 17-16, the first touchdown on a streak down the left sideline where he just dropped the ball (about 40 yards) over the receiver's right shoulder for the touchdown . . . called the touchdown pass (a quick 12-yard slant) that put them ahead at the line of scrimmage himself.
At one point late in the third quarter, Ole Miss found itself on the Auburn 15-yard line. The rush came so hard that it knocked Manning down as he took the snap. The Auburn line just hurled the entire Ole Miss line backward, and Manning went over like a bowling pin at the back of the stack. The play looked to be over; but a split end was running a fade to the corner of the end zone. As Eli fell, with his rear end maybe two inches off the ground, he threw the ball. A perfect spiral up and into the outstretched hands of the wide out that would have been yet another score if the astonished Auburn cornerback hadn't stuck out his hand at the last moment and deflected the ball.
This kid wasn't like any Accorsi had seen -- not in a long time. He was tall -- 6-foot-4 at least. He could throw the ball plenty far. He was decisive. He was poised -- ridiculously so. He had exquisite feel for the game. But that sterile checklist didn't begin to capture what caused Accorsi to feel the way he did. ''Forget all about the measurables.'' he says. ''When you're trying to find the difference between the great quarterback and the good quarterback, you have to feel it. The intangibles.'' In his 32 years in pro football, Ernie Accorsi had a chance to draft this sort of talent once: John Elway. As the general manager of the Baltimore Colts, in 1983, he chose Elway with the first pick of the draft -- only to hear Elway say he'd rather play professional baseball than play football in Baltimore, forcing a trade to Denver. Accorsi quit in frustration; as he put it, ''If I'm going to lose my job, it's going to be over this, not some right guard.'' And now here was this kid, a junior at a school that hadn't won anything, whom he had a shot of drafting. He wrote in his notebook:
“He has a feel in the pocket. In one case a linebacker coming off the blind side edge had him measured and he was going to get mashed. At first, i didn't think he felt it but he held it to the last split second, threw a completion and got hammered. Just got up and went back to the huddle. . . .
I know it's just one look. . . . But if I had to make the decision this morning, I would move up to take him. They are rare, as we know.”

* * *
* * * * * * * * * *

Q: Do you sense that it was a little premature to make the quarterback change?
A: No, not at all. That's not my sense at all, and it wasn't yours either. Short memories.

Three games was all it took for the press to ask Coach Coughlin if he wasn't, perhaps, a fool for bringing in a rookie quarterback. In his debut against the Falcons, Manning showed flashes of brilliance and nearly led the team to an upset victory. He was sacked just once; he moved the offense against one of the N.F.L.'s better defenses. In the second half, he threw his first touchdown pass, to the Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey. But in his second game, against an even better Philadelphia team, he definitely looked overpaid.
Accorsi wasn't about to attribute much significance to that. The best quarterbacks often play poorly in their first starts. ''Unitas's first pass was intercepted,'' he said. Elway's debut was no more auspicious. ''Elway came out and lined up under the guard. The center had to shout at him, 'Hey, John, I'm over here.' '' And, as everyone knows, Peyton Manning's team, in his first season, went 3-13. All Accorsi would say about Eli Manning was, ''Thank God he showed us he's human.''
Before the third game, against the Washington Redskins, Accorsi agreed to watch tape with me afterward and dissect Manning's performance. Monday morning, I found Accorsi in his office at Giants Stadium with an expression on his face somewhere between apologetic and disturbed, like a man standing on the side of the Jersey Turnpike who has just caused a 10-car pile up. Against a team with a 3-8 record, a team that hadn't scored more than 18 points in a game all season, the Giants lost 31-7. They ran 41 plays to the Redskins' 68. Manning was, at best, unimpressive: 12 completed passes in 25 attempts for a mere 113 yards. When his receivers were open, his throws were off target. He looked like a different quarterback from the one who had played against the Falcons.
On one play, Giants receiver Ike Hilliard got open running an out pattern. As I watched Hilliard come free for the first time in two games, I thought back to a training scrimmage I witnessed at the Giants' camp in upstate New York one afternoon in August. Eli Manning dropped back to pass, while a cluster of three Giants receivers streaked downfield together like jets in formation -- it's called a bunch-three route. At the last moment, Ike Hilliard peeled away and cut toward the corner of the end zone -- and fooled no one. A cornerback and a safety stayed on him, step for step. Improbably, the ball appeared over Hilliard's shoulder and dropped into his arms for a touchdown. There was exactly one football-size place to put the ball so that Hilliard, and no one else, might catch it. On the way back to the huddle, Hilliard asked every defender he passed, ''Did you see him drop it in there?'' When he passed by the coaches pacing on the sideline, someone shouted at Hilliard, ''Great job, Ike.'' Hilliard shook his head and said, ''I didn't do nothing.''
And now, facing what appeared to be a much easier throw, Manning just missed him. The ball sailed right over Hilliard's head [just like yesterday 2/3/08]
About the only nice thing a fan might say about his performance was that the team around him appeared so outclassed that whatever Eli Manning did could scarcely matter at all. Hardly anybody said it, however; the fans were already screaming that the Giants were sacrificing their season for the sake of getting playing time for their expensive rookie. What I hoped Accorsi could explain, using the evidence of the game tape, was how can you tell the difference between the struggles of a promising rookie quarterback and the struggles of a terminally hopeless rookie quarterback? But he declined. ''I'm sorry,'' he said, as I walked into his office. ''I can't do the tape thing. I don't have the stomach for it.''
Later that day I did get him on the phone. He'd spent the intervening few hours watching the tape, over and over. And his mood had changed. ''If you look at the tape,'' he said, ''the guys are all covered. He didn't have anyone to throw it to. They took the run away from us, the whole game was on his shoulders, but he didn't have any help. Our receivers weren't getting open.'' Another cheering thing was clear: Manning made very few bad decisions. Once, on third and long, with all of his downfield receivers covered, he had running back Tiki Barber open in the flat. If he had seen him, Barber might have gotten the first down -- but you never know. ''That's one of the things he'll learn to do as he matures. He'll learn to look for his release man.'' A couple of the balls that appeared to be underthrown were actually tipped by the defense. And that throw to Hilliard -- he was hit as he made it.
''It's easy to rationalize this,'' Accorsi said. ''It's easy to talk yourself into thinking it wasn't as bad as it was. But I'm not that way. He got the ball to the only people he could get the ball to. A quarterback with less poise would have been out there throwing interceptions. He was playing within himself. He was making smart, crisp throws. We just didn't give him any help.'' This actually wasn't all that different from Archie's reaction to his son's first few games. ''Too many people talk about quarterbacks like they're golfers,'' Archie said. ''You can only do as much as your team lets you do.'' Manning, at least in Accorsi's eyes, was the same guy he saw down at Ole Miss two years before. He faced one of the best pass rushes in the N.F.L. and was sacked only once -- mainly because he got the ball away so quickly. ''Look, you'd like to see the magic faster,'' Accorsi said. ''But I think he did all he could. People will laugh at that. But I'll invite them to watch the tape.''

But since he didn't invite me to watch the tape, all I had to go on was the game. The first three quarters I watched from the end-zone pillbox where the Giants video staff operates ''the eye in the sky.'' The last quarter, I walked along the Giants sideline, on the field. It must be a little different in every stadium, but in the Redskins' stadium, the first think you notice is the strong smell of trampled grass. It's pungent and makes you realize that you aren't in a clean place -- an antiseptic television stage set -- but a real place, with dirt. But right after that you see that everything and everyone -- from the hash marks on the field to the painted Redskins cheerleaders -- has been designed to be seen from a great distance. The players themselves are remote beings. In baseball and basketball, the players pick out faces in the crowd. Football players remain essentially detached from the 90,000 people staring down on them. The fans are just one great noise machine, to be turned on and off by the home team.
The game itself, up close, is a mess. The formations, the elegant strategy, the athleticism -- when you're right next to it, it's all chaos. The ball goes up in the air any distance at all and the only way you can deduce what has become of it is by the reaction of the crowd. When Eli Manning drops back to pass, if you're standing a few yards away on the sidelines, you have no sense of him doing something so considered as making a decision. The monsters charging at him from every direction are in his face so quickly that you flinch and stifle the urge to scream, ''Watch out!'' There is no way, you think, that he can possibly evaluate which of these beasts is most likely to get to him first, and so which of them he should take the trouble to evade. At that moment any sensible person in Manning's shoes would flee. Or, perhaps, collapse to the ground and beg for mercy. Yet he is expected to wait . . . wait . . . wait . . . until the microsecond before he is crushed. He's like a man who has pulled the pin from a grenade and is refusing to throw it.
But here's what's odd: not only must he remain undisturbed by the live grenade in his hands, he must also retain, in his mind's eye, the detached view of the man sitting in the pillbox on the rim of the stadium. The quarterback alone must weld together these two radically different points of view -- the big picture and the granular details. For there is no way to react intelligently, in real time, to the chaos; you need to be able to envision its pattern before it takes shape. You have to, in short, guess. A lot. Every time Eli Manning drops back and makes a decision, he's just guessing. His guesses produce uneven results, but he is shockingly good at not making the worst ones. God may know -- though I doubt it -- if Eli Manning will one day be a star in the N.F.L. But if there was the slightest hint of uncertainty or discomfort in the rookie, I didn't see it. The only unpleasant emotion he conveyed -- and it was very slight, in view of the circumstances -- was frustration. The one emotional trait he shares with his older brother is maybe the most important: success is his equilibrium state. He expects it.
The most revealing play of the game occurred after everyone stopped watching. Down 31-7, the Giants got the ball back with 22 seconds left to play. Instead of taking a knee and heading for the showers, Manning dropped back to pass. The Redskins, still high on the novel experience of actually beating someone, blitzed eight men. Manning found his tight end, Jeremy Shockey, for nine yards across the middle, to midfield. With six seconds left and the clock ticking, Manning ran over to the official and called timeout. From any other point of view except for his -- and the Giants' long-term future -- stopping the clock was deeply annoying. The game was over. The news media -- along with Accorsi and the rest of the Giants management -- had streamed down to the interview rooms. The Redskins cheerleaders, freezing in their leather micro-shorts, were hurrying to pack up. Most of the 90,000 fans were gone, and the few who remained booed. But Tom Coughlin wanted Eli Manning to see as much as he could of this very good N.F.L. defense. He wanted Eli to make one more decision, and throw one last pass against the Redskins blitz -- incomplete, as it happened. It was the game within the game -- the education of Eli Manning.
Michael Lewis is the author, most recently, of ''Moneyball.'' His last cover article for the magazine was about his -- and the Manning brothers' -- high-school baseball coach.

1 comment:

Kentucky Scot said...

The Giants should be happy they have Coughlin. Cincinnati hired Marvin Lewis instead of Coughlin. With Marvin Lewis and a quarterback more prolific than Eli Manning, we can do little better than 8-8. QB's are great, but they need great coaches to really win.