3:46 remained in the fourth quarter. Eli Manning to Mario Manningham for 38 yards. For the third time in the last 4 years, an outstanding throw in a critical situation was the defining play in the Super Bowl.
In Super Bowl 43, it was Ben Roethlisberger’s remarkably accurate throw to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds on the clock that gave the Steelers the victory. Two years later, in Super Bowl 45, with the Packers clinging to a 3 point lead in the middle of the fourth quarter, Aaron Rodgers drilled a third and 10 strike to Greg Jennings that proved to be the difference in Green Bay’s win. And Sunday, it was Manning with an extraordinary rail shot to Manningham on the first play of the Giants winning touchdown drive.
Outstanding execution on the biggest stage in the most challenging of circumstances. What do all three have in common? The magnitude of the moment distinguished those throws, but they each were the result of measurable quarterback attributes that are essential to perform at a high level.
The most overlooked characteristic when discussing quarterbacks is accuracy. The better term is ball location. Think back to Roethlisberger’s throw against the Cardinals to win Super Bowl 43. The ball was placed in the only spot that could have produced a completion. It cleared the outstretched hand of Arizona’s Ralph Brown by no more than 3 inches.
It was not Big Ben “making a play,” as many like to declare when discussing Roethlisberger’s abilities. Rather, it was the product of a particular and identifiable trait – accuracy – that can be quantified and analyzed.
The same was true of Rodgers brilliant throw in Super Bowl 45. Some quick context: Jennings was the inside slot receiver, Pittsburgh played “2 man” coverage (man-to-man with 2 deep safeties), Ike Taylor was matched on Jennings. In that coverage concept, Taylor was able to undercut Jennings’ seam route because he had safety help over the top. What that effectively did was significantly shrink Rodgers’ passing lane to Jennings. The window was incredibly small.
Yet Rodgers pulled the trigger. We know the throw was astonishingly accurate. The more important attribute that Rodgers demonstrated was the willingness to make a stick throw into a tight window. That’s a measurable attribute. And you cannot play quarterback at a high level, i.e., a Super Bowl winning level, without it.
That brings us to Manning. First and 10 from the Giants 12 yard line trailing by 2 with less than 4 minutes left in the game. Here’s the breakdown: the Giants had Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks to the right side of the formation, with Manningham the single wide receiver to the left. The Patriots played “Tampa 2”, with 2 deep safeties splitting the field and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo the middle seam defender. Mayo, as he dropped, favored the 2 receiver side with Cruz and Nicks.
The initial read for Manning was to the right. He immediately recognized he did not have a throw within the timing of Cruz and Nicks’ route combination. It was a 3 receiver route, so Manningham on the deep sideline to the left was Eli’s only other option. Because Manning looked to his right on his pass drop, Patrick Chung, the deep safety on Manning’s left (Manningham’s side), settled for just a heartbeat and did not continue to get the necessary depth to defend Manningham’s go route. With corner Sterling Moore unable to jam and disrupt Manningham, he raced down the sideline unimpeded, over the top of Moore.
With Chung a step inside and not deep enough, and Moore trailing Manningham, there was room for Eli to make the throw. But still, not an easy throw. Manning had to take Manningham as close to the sideline as he could without throwing it out of bounds. If the throw was just a yard further inside, then Chung makes the play and it’s an incompletion. If the throw was a yard further outside, it’s out of bounds. Talk about a small window.
Not many quarterbacks would have taken that rail shot. That one throw, the defining play in Super Bowl 46, highlighted a number of critical attributes essential to play the quarterback position at a championship level: quick progression reading, decision making, the willingness to make stick throws into tight windows, and accuracy.
All these traits are visible and discernible on film. They are some of the subtleties of quarterback play, the nuances demanded at the NFL level. It’s a highly disciplined craft. Critical moments in big games are not defined by random and arbitrary play. It’s tangible and quantifiable skills that most often produce the memorable plays.
Eli Manning has reached the point in his development in which he has mastered many of them. Manning simply plays the position the right way. That’s the reason he performs well in the fourth quarter. It’s a function of measurable attributes that produce consistent execution over time.