The No. 1 thing I learned during 14 years in the NFL is that while there's a great difference between perception and reality, perception drives reality. It's true. Owners, general managers and even scouts aren't immune to building a profile of a player that's at least partly driven by perception, and they make decisions in part based on those perceptions. Perception becomes belief. It's not laziness, or really wrong, just a part of the culture of football. Perception is created through a combination of things -- the inherent small sample sizes of football, the emotion of the game, the size of the event and also the moment. How you perform on one big stage can stick with you forever, even in the evaluations of people who should know better. (Imagine the league perception of Joe Flacco today if Lee Evans had held on to that ball. How much more "clutch" would he be? How much better of a leader? All for the same read, the same accurate pass.)
Now think of the week Eli Manning faces. This is a week that, based on the way perception drives the league, could determine whether he's a Hall of Fame-level player. And this is a player who almost surely will finish his career with 50,000-plus yards and well more than 300 touchdown passes. But a second Super Bowl ring -- this time driven by the storyline that Manning led this charge, perhaps more than he did in 2007 -- would secure a Canton bust.
If Manning wins this week, I see him climbing onto the mantle of the other great quarterbacks in this league. And it won't be because of something he said on "The Michael Kay Show," and how we need to see him through the debate of "elite" or not. It'll be because he's improved as a player and will have totally shifted the perception of where he stands in the game. He'll be there with Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and even his big brother. And he'll have more rings than three of those guys.
Make no mistake about it: Manning is playing for almost instant "Hall of Famer" recognition this week. It's simply how the sport works.
Parameters: When I was asked to break down the top 40 quarterbacks in the NFL, I studied a lot of different factors. I used the tape, for starters, and the backroom words from evaluators and other QBs, the guys seeing it up close. I looked at the numbers, like QBR and passer rating, and win totals. I considered trajectory and which way the play is trending, so you'll see that word a lot. But I also took into account perception, because it absolutely plays a role in the way a player is valued around the league, and that matters. Labels stick.
You are also welcome to read into the order in which guys are placed within each section -- that's not declarative, but it's not an accident.
Hall of Fame Level
This category is reserved for guys who are considered the current Mount Rushmore among NFL quarterbacks -- they have secured legacies through things already accomplished. The numbers, status among peers, Super Bowl rings and franchise-leader status are all there. Plus, you'll see in each case, losing is a rarity even in a league built for parity. Trajectory is not an issue.