Asked where he ranked among NBA greats, Moses Malone didn't have to think long.
"I'll always be No. 1," he replied with flawless logic, "to myself."
Keep that in mind as the seven-seasons-long-and-still-running-strong debate about Giants quarterback Eli Manning unfolds during the upcoming NFL season. This week, Manning put himself in the same class as Tom Brady in response to a question about elite quarterbacks in the NFL, then hedged a little bit and said he was "Top 5, Top 10." Never mind that a Super Bowl title and a wealth of stats have earned him a spot in that conversation. It's an argument Manning can't win.
Instead of being encouraged that he finally spoke up for himself — another thing he's been knocked for since arriving in New York — some fans are practically demanding an apology.
"I'm not trying to be a better quarterback than that guy," Manning said about Brady, as though his remarks needed clarification. "I'm trying to win games for the Giants."
It's revealing in one sense that the debate caught him by surprise. After all, blowing things out of proportion is practically a civic duty in New York. But Manning claimed he didn't know his remarks had caused a stir until his father, Archie, a fair NFL quarterback in his own days, called him.
"I thought after the interview, it was a nice little interview and nothing would come out of it," Eli recalled.
Fat chance. Playing quarterback in the NFL, maybe more than any position in sports, has become a game of show and tell. It's no longer enough to get your hands on the hardware, mumble a few thanks to teammates and the organization and melt into the background, the way Roger Staubach and most of the best QBs of his generation did. Now the best ones have to win and talk about it with just the right amount of swagger. Marrying a supermodel, for example, speaks volumes. So do starring roles in a raft of commercials. Deflecting praise at nearly every turn, or going about business in a quiet, professional manner wasn't going to be enough for some Giants fans. Not surprising, those are the same people who want to smack Manning for being too cocky. All that really matters, of course, is whether Manning believes what he said.
Imagine growing up as the baby brother of one of the best quarterbacks ever, and you begin to understand where he's coming from. Eli couldn't run his mouth at the dinner table in his own house, not with Peyton alongside. Archie, who's been in demand the last few years after both sons took turns in the Super Bowl spotlight, has always made a point to downplay any sibling rivalry in those interviews. But a story he told on the eve of the Giants' 2008 NFC Championship win over the Packers in Green Bay — en route to an even more improbable win in that year's NFL title game — hinted at what Eli was always up against.
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina passed by the family's New Orleans home without causing much damage, burglars broke in. Peyton and Eli had signed a dozen jerseys each for a charity auction and left them behind. When the Mannings finally got back into their house, every shirt in the stack that Peyton signed had been stolen. Eli's jerseys still sat on a table, barely ruffled.
Long after those jerseys shot up in value, Manning still says little. He's got fewer Super Bowl wins than Brady (three) and Ben Roethlisberger (two), but just as many as Peyton, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. His passing statistics, generally, would rank him somewhere at the back of that pack, and it's easy to argue that a few who haven't won it all — Michael Vick, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers — would give Manning some competition for the spot. But in terms of elite quarterbacks at the moment, that's about it.
So the real news isn't that Manning was spot-on with his self-assessment, but that he actually said it out loud. He's shouldered his unfair share of criticism — think Tiki Barber — and usually responded by biting his lip. He caught plenty of heat for piling up a league-high 25 interceptions last season, even though there was more than enough blame to go around. Some were the result of blown routes and 50-50 throws at the end of games the Giants had little hope of winning. Manning took the blame for nearly every one, because that's what leaders do.
It's also why he owns the Giants locker room the same way that Brady, his brother and the league's other elite QBs do — but not as loudly. If Manning is serious about turning up the volume, chances are good he'll find plenty of teammates more than willing to back up just about anything he says.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke,