When it comes right down to it, Eli Manning cares about one thing and one thing only as far as football is concerned. For the Giants' 31-year-old quarterback, it is all about winning. Period.
Forget the stats. Forget the superlatives -- and the criticism. Forget the media chatter about whether he's elite.
So it is no surprise that Manning delivered a simple shake of his head and a one-word answer when I asked him in the locker room this week whether winning his first regular-season Most Valuable Player Award was something that mattered to him.
"No," he replied.
Even after his latest example of brilliance, when Manning led the Giants to a 27-23 comeback victory over the Redskins and rookie sensation Robert Griffin III, there was absolutely zero interest in being recognized with the NFL's most coveted in-season individual award. It was the second fourth-quarter comeback of the season for Manning, the ninth since last year and the 22nd of his outstanding career.
"It's not a concern," said Manning, who leads the NFL with 2,109 passing yards to go with 12 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 92.5 rating. "I don't worry about it. I only try to win games. That's all I'm concerned with."
Besides, it's not as if Manning doesn't have an MVP trophy already. In fact, he has two of them, the kind you win for leading your team to victory in the Super Bowl. But as we approach the halfway point of the season, it's time Manning is a part of the conversation when it comes to being honored as the game's most indispensable player.
Even in a season when older brother Peyton, who already has an NFL-record four MVP awards, is threatening to make it five.
His teammates agree.
"He definitely belongs in the discussion," said star wide receiver Victor Cruz, who caught Manning's game-winning 77-yard pass against the Redskins. "It's not only statistically, but when you see how he commands the offense, how he drives the ball down the field every series, it's legendary to watch. He's the head of this team, the head of our offense, and without him standing strong in the pocket, making those throws, taking hits, holding us accountable to catch the football, we'd be nowhere."
You could have made a case that Manning should have been a candidate for MVP last year, despite the fact the Giants eked out a playoff spot with a 9-7 record. There was no way Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers wouldn't win the award, not after his transcendent performance and Green Bay's 15-1 record. But Manning was clearly the one indispensable player on a team that would go on to win its second championship under his leadership.
"I think if our record had been better last year, he'd have been a candidate," safety Antrel Rolle said. "The guy only gets better with time and with age. Sometimes I look at him and laugh. He's not full of emotion, his facial expressions can kind of mislead you, but this is a guy who does so many things for his team and is so clutch."
And that's what separates Manning from so many others. Even if his numbers aren't always comparable to Rodgers', Drew Brees', Tom Brady's and his older brother's, Eli's fourth-quarter brilliance is. Maybe he's hurt by his calm demeanor, which is often mistaken for not caring. Whatever the case, it is time to start looking at Manning in terms of being the singular kind of player that is deserving of the sport's highest regular-season honor. Especially if the Giants get back to the playoffs in the toughest division in football.
"Eli is huge, and we have tremendous confidence in him," Cruz said. "Having a guy like that who is calm under pressure and understanding that he'll get the ball to his playmakers is huge."
Manning will leave it to others to discuss his merits. During our discussion about MVP, he seemed more concerned about what he did wrong against the Redskins than what he did right.
"I watched this game and I see some big-time throws that I made, but then I see some that I missed, some decisions and some bad throws and things I've got to fix. That's really all that matters to me."
Clearly, Manning would rather win games than awards. Maybe this time, he can win both.