It would be easy to say Eli Manning is one of the greatest players in Giants history, simply because he is. But it's also been a long and storied history for the franchise that includes 21 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 42 members of their own Ring of Honor, and four players named to the NFL's 100th anniversary all-time team.
That makes choosing a Top 5 anything but simple. And Manning's position is debatable, to say the least.
It's an incredibly difficult task to limit the greatest to five, and not just because of the number of players to consider, either. It's hard to compare players from different eras, and tough to judge the worthiness of players at different positions. Some selections transcend that, of course -- like Lawrence Taylor, for example -- but a lot of players could take a claim to the other four spots.
Does Manning make the cut? He's definitely headed for the Giants' Ring of Honor. He may someday be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But on the eve of his retirement, is he really one of the five greatest players in Giants history?
Here's a look at my list:
5. Michael Strahan, defensive end, 1993-2007
The fifth spot is the toughest, because there are still so many Hall of Famers left. There are also two players from a bygone era -- Roosevelt Brown and Mel Hein -- who were named to the NFL's 100th anniversary team and might just be the greatest players at their position who ever played. There's also Andy Robustelli, Harry Carson, Sam Huff, Phil Simms...
How could you go wrong with any of them?
Strahan benefits from several things here. He's obviously immensely popular. He went out in storybook fashion with the Lombardi trophy in his hands, and that's a hard image to get out of your head. He's recent, and I had the benefit of seeing him live, so his highlights haven't been relegated to grainy black-and-white films.
But when you get past all that, the truth is he's right up there with Taylor and Emlen Tunnell in his impact on the game regardless. No, he didn't necessarily change the way the game was played, but he certainly changed how many offenses played against the Giants. He was a sack machine, and drew more double and triple teams than any player I've ever watched. And he didn't move around like Taylor did. Everyone knew where he was playing and where he was coming from -- and more often than not he still got through.
He was one of the best students of the game I've ever seen, too. He was a master at pass-rushing technique, from his array of moves to his knowledge of how to use leverage. And perhaps no one was ever better at studying, finding and exploiting the weaknesses of offensive linemen who lined up against him. Plus, later in his career when it looked like the game was ready to pass him by, he reinvented himself and dropped 20 pounds, changing his game from power to speed.
Maybe his career wasn't historic on the level of Taylor's or Tunnell's. And if you want to argue that this spot should go to Hein or Brown, that's legitimate, too. They are both deserving. But it's hard to find any Giant who ever did his job better than Strahan. And he's right up there with Manning as a symbol of one of the greatest eras this franchise has ever had.
4. Eli Manning, quarterback, 2004-2019
I grew up in the Phil Simms era, so it's not easy for me to push him aside for anyone. But it's impossible not to when compiling the list of greatest Giants quarterbacks considering all that Eli Manning has done. Yes, their eras were vastly different, and passing statistics have exploded since Simms' day. But this is about more than Manning's numbers. He's always been about more than that.
This is about Manning being the hero of two of the greatest Super Bowl upsets of all time. It's about playing 210 consecutive games, and never missing a single one because of an injury. It's about being the absolute perfect spokesman and representative of the franchise and rarely stumbling in that role at all. It's about how he rose from the ashes of fans literally burning his jersey in the parking lot four years into his career, and becoming an icon of one of the most iconic franchises in sports.
Maybe I would feel differently if Simms had stayed healthy and won that second Super Bowl in 1990. But every time I wonder that, I'm reminded that Manning could have, should have won a third Super Bowl if Plaxico Burress hadn't shot himself in the leg in 2008.
The bottom line is you can skip over a lot of players -- a lot of great players -- when writing the history of the Giants. But Manning's part of this has to be written on the very first page. Some will argue this is too high, but how could the greatest quarterback in franchise history, with two rings on his fingers, be any lower than this?
3. Emlen Tunnell, defensive back, 1948-58
He is widely considered one of the greatest defensive backs in NFL history, and was rightfully named to the NFL's all-time, 100-year anniversary team. He also might be the most overlooked player in franchise history, despite being the first African American to play for the Giants and the first African American to be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Watch the old film, though, and you'll see an absolutely dominant player. In a decidedly run-first era, Tunnell intercepted a remarkable 74 passes and returned them for 1,240 yards -- both still franchise records, and both likely unbreakable. If he was in the area when a pass was attempted, it was almost certain not to get through to his target.
And that's not all. He recovered 15 fumbles and was a dynamic punt returner (257 returns, 2,206 yards and five touchdowns). He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, six-time first team all-pro, and helped the Giants win two championships. Not bad for a player that was completely ignored in all 32 rounds of the 1948 NFL draft.
2. Frank Gifford, halfback/receiver/defensive back, 1952-60, 1962-64
Gifford simply was the Giants in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the run of success included one championship (1956) and five trips to the championship game. And he did it all, playing both ways. Gifford dominated on offense, where he set a franchise record with 5,434 receiving yards that stood through the beginning of the NFL's passing explosion and lasted for 39 years.
His career was interrupted in 1960 when he took a brutal hit from Philly's Chuck Bednarik and ended up retiring from football briefly with a head injury. By then, he had already made seven Pro Bowls and been named a first-team all-Pro six times. He unretired in 1962 to make another Pro Bowl and win the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award, too.
His numbers may not have been gaudy, but his impact was. He even made the Pro Bowl at each of his three positions, and he played a little quarterback, too. Ask any Giants fan who goes back that far, and ol' No. 16 will be the first player who comes up.
1. Lawrence Taylor, linebacker, 1981-93
The top spot is the easiest spot -- and no one would argue. "L.T." isn't just the greatest Giants player ever, he's quite possibly the greatest defensive player in NFL history, too.
He was, in a word, fierce. With Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells guiding him, Taylor changed the way NFL linebackers played the game. He was a weapon, stalking his prey from a few yards behind the line of scrimmage. And when he attacked, no one could get in his way.
Taylor was a 10-time Pro Bowler, a nine-time first-team all-Pro, an NFC Rookie of the Year, and a two-time NFC Player of the Year. He finished his career with 132 ½ sacks, not including the 9 ½ from his rookie season when sacks weren't an official statistic yet. Sure, he played with great linebackers like Hall of Famer Harry Carson and Carl Banks. But L.T. made them better. He made the Giants defense feared.
Anyone who played with him, coached with him, watched him, or studied him is usually happy to vouch for his greatness. That's more than good enough for me.