Eli Manning reenters debate on the top rookie QB with gutsy performance
Posted: Monday December 20, 2004 11:11AM; Updated: Monday December 20, 2004 1:28PM
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the tunnel underneath Giants Stadium, I found Archie Manning a couple of minutes after Saturday's Giants-Steelers game. I hadn't seen Archie after any of his son Eli's previous games with the Giants -- I'd witnessed only one of them myself -- so I can't compare his expression. But what I saw in Archie's face was relief. He couldn't really look happy, because Eli's Giants had just lost to Pittsburgh 33-30. Relief would do just fine, though, after his youngest son's first four losses as an NFL starter, which, for the most part, were disasters.
Giant steps, Arch. I mean, the kid threw a pass end over end last week in Baltimore. Totally frazzled. He looked horrible.
Then I asked him about the brutal beginning of Eli's pro career. In Week 11, when he entered the lineup, the first five teams on the schedule were ranked Nos. 1-5 in the NFL in sacks -- Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. "When he first got put in as a starter, I looked at the schedule and I said, 'Eli, this is about survival,'" Archie said. "And it's been tough, but he hasn't flinched.''
For the first time since Draft Day, when the Giants traded a 2004 third-round pick and first- and fifth-rounders next year to get Eli, Giants fans saw reason to believe they hadn't been swindled.
Here's what impressed me: Manning's ability to go toe-to-toe with the celebrated Ben Roethlisberger, despite not having the number of weapons Big Ben has and a mix-and-match offensive line compared to Pittsburgh's diamond-studded line. Let's take it from halftime. Giants down 20-14. Manning leads New York to a field goal on the first series after a Giants interception -- 20-17. Pittsburgh gets a field goal -- 23-17. Next series, second-and-23: David Tyree, a special-teamer and fifth receiver normally, turnstiles Steelers corner DeShea Townsend, runs a deep post and Manning rainbows the ball perfectly 55 yards in the air. Slowing down just slightly, Tyree catches it in stride -- gain of 49. Five plays, 72 yards, Manning touchdown to Marcellus Rivers, 24-23 Giants. Another Steelers field goal. Pittsburgh, 26-24.
On the next drive, I thought Pittsburgh turned it up a notch defensively. On the sidelines, the Steelers' leaders, guys like James Farrior and Joey Porter, exhorted their mates to shut it down immediately. With 11:35 to play in the game, the Giants were playing for nothing, and they were playing for everything. Down in the closing minutes to maybe the best team in football. It was the kind of moment for which they got Manning. A quarterback with holes all over the offense -- no big back, little speed at receiver, a makeshift offensive line -- sometimes has to overcome those things and play well, just to give his team a chance. And here was Manning's chance.
Third-and-eight from midfield. Crowd of Terrible Towel-wavers and Giants fans, 78,000 in all, yelling for different reasons. Manning in the shotgun, pointing to his left at two fake (or maybe not) blitzers in Pittsburgh's zone blitz. You never know where the pressure is coming from in that scheme. Left guard JasonWhittle pointing to the blitzers. Looks like a flood blitz from the left. Manning takes the snap. Instead of the blitz from the left, it's coming straight up the middle in the person of linebacker Larry Foote. Uh-oh. Who's got him? TikiBarber sees Foote at the last minute. Barber's about 202 pounds, Foote 236. Barber gets low. Just as Foote is a foot (or three) away from Manning, he lunges at him, and all at once, Manning throws and Barber drives into Foote's midsection and stops him from clobbering Manning and forces the pass awry. A more perfect blitz pickup a running back could never make. ("That's the part of my job no one ever sees,'' Barber tells me later. Now they do, Tiki.) And Manning's pass sails 17 yards on a line to Amani Toomer. One problem: Safety Troy Polamalu is flying at the ball from the left, trying to get a hand on it. He's a fingertip away from it, and it nestles, a bit high, into Toomer's hands.
Manning and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger meet after the game on Saturday.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
That, folks, was an Elway throw, and Manning showed Elway-type guts in the pocket.
"You are not intimidating that kid,'' Farrior said later.
Barber finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown run. Giants, 30-26. Steelers drove the length of the field to go up 33-30. With 4:57 left, Manning tried to make a legend out of his first good day in the NFL. But on third-and-two, he floated one over Toomer into the hands of cornerback Willie Williams. Interception. Ballgame.
I don't want to make too much of this, especially after a month of showing almost nothing to a fandom starved for PhilSimms' successor. But Manning was poised and smart. I can't tell you if he'll do it every week, but the arm strength and accuracy, for the first time in five weeks, were of NFL quality. If you'd never seen Roethlisberger and Manning before Saturday, then watched the game, you'd say, "I can't tell, based on today, who's going to have the better pro career.'' What this was was a start.
"What you like to see,'' center Shaun O'Hara told me afterward, "is how [Manning] reacts to this. You think he's happy with this? He's not happy coming close and losing. Deep down, he knows he's good. Real good. But he wants to be great.''
Yesterday morning, I e-mailed The Man Who Put His Neck on the Line, Giants GM Ernie Accorsi. He could have done nothing on draft day last April but take a call from the Cleveland, accept a high second-round pick and move back three spots and take the precocious Roethlisberger. Instead, he traded a lot to get Manning. I asked, "When you were watching the game, did you find yourself at any point saying to yourself, 'Now this is the guy I saw for two years at Ole Miss?' ''
It took 27 minutes for the e-mail to come back.
"Yes,'' Accorsi wrote from his Blackberry. "That's the QB I saw at Mississippi. All the qualities were present: poise, quick recognition and release, crisp throws, strength and accuracy with the long ball. But mostly command.''
Then Accorsi wrote about how glad he was to see Manning bring the Giants back after the Steelers kept scoring, and about how he liked how a nonplussed Manning dealt with the Roethlisberger comparisons.
"Ben is going to be outstanding,'' Accorsi wrote, "but I'm very happy we have Manning.''
Let the years decide.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"I don't know that you can ever rule out anything in this goofy business.''
-- San Francisco coach Dennis Erickson, who pulled out of the Ole Miss coaching hunt last week, asked about whether he would interview for another college job.
THE AWARDS SECTION
Offensive Player of the Week
Jacksonville QB Byron Leftwich. He had the worst stats of anyone ever to win this honor (nine of 20, 121 yards, two touchdowns, no picks) but the kid took four killer shots from the Packer defense, found Jimmy Smith for two well-thrown touchdown passes, and sat at the controls of a Florida team that went to the minus-three wind chill of Lambeau Field -- with 13-mph winds -- and won. The more I see of Leftwich, the more I think he's going to be a great one.
Defensive Player of the Week
Defensive end Julius Peppers. Almost picked Dwight Freeney for his terrific job on Jonathan Ogden last night, but Peppers is playing at such a high level right now. Did you see the play, captured perfectly by the ESPN cameras, of Peppers driving the Atlanta tackle back into the backfield and right into the ballcarrier for the tackle. Amazing. As a two-way defensive end, no one is playing better right now.
Special-Teams Player of the Week
New York Giants KR Willie Ponder, who set a team record with 259 kick-return yards on eight returns, including a 91-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff. Eli Manning talked after the game about what a great lift it was to have such good field position, and this was where he started after each of the seven kickoff returns other than the touchdown: at the Giants' 45, 30, 29, 45, 28, 48 and 36.
Coach of the Week
Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. I know there are no moral victories, but Nolan did a smart thing against Peyton Manning. He pressured him from all angles, all night, with different blitzers and combinations of rushers
Goat of the Week
Detroit long-snapper Don Muhlbach. Sorry Don. But when you take the apple on a gimme snap that would have led to the tying point and overtime, you've got to wear the horns.
The AFC's 39-19 in interconference games, and I have eight of the top 10 here are from the AFC.
1. Pittsburgh (13-1). I know the Steelers want to sign looming free agent PlaxicoBurress long-term after the season. I also know, after Saturday, that I trust Antwaan Randle El to move into Burress' role if cap reasons prevent Burress from returning.
2. New England (12-1). I won't change 1-2 just because 1 struggled to beat a 5-9 team on the road.
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
3. Philadelphia (13-1). Is anyone else out there alarmed that the Eagles don't have a running back who can chew up the clock, and yardage, when it counts? Terrell Owens went out of the game with an ankle injury, and then the Cowboys just sat on the lack of running game. Owens, by the way, is either Gumby or the most incredible physical specimen of our time. I can't believe he wasn't KO'd for the rest of the year by that pretzel-twisting tackle by Roy Williams.
4. Indianapolis (11-3). I don't care if he didn't break the most overhyped record since ESPN overhyped the last record. Peyton Manning, against a formidable and quick and punishing defense, outlasted the best the Ravens could throw at him and won the game of wits with Ray Lewis and defensive coordinator MikeNolan.
5. San Diego (11-3). How do scouts who evaluated Antonio Gates and said he's not worth it look themselves in the mirror without shaking their heads? San Diego and Cleveland. Those are the only teams who really went after the kid coming out of a Kent State basketball career.
6. Buffalo (8-6). You know the sad part? The Bills are going to have to go to Indy on Wild Card weekend -- barring a San Diego win at the Colts this weekend -- and get thrown to Peyton Manning.
7. Atlanta (11-3). Looks like MikeVick's going to need those legs for the Falcons to go very far in the playoffs. Last three games: 49 percent passing, two touchdowns, four picks.
8. New York Jets (10-4). OLB EricBarton's a really underrated player. He's always in the right place.
9. Jacksonville (8-6). OK, I admit it. I never thought in a million years Fred Taylor could go into GradyJackson's kitchen in negative wind chill and have a great day. Twenty-two for 165 and a Jax win has to be one of the best two or three days of Taylor's career. Maybe No. 1.
10. Baltimore (8-6). I'm not even calling that thing last night a moral victory. I'm just saying I wouldn't want to face these guys on the rug on the playoffs.
11. Carolina (6-8). If Carolina and Minnesota tie for the final playoff spot at 8-8, Panthers win it with a 7-5 NFC record.
12. Green Bay (8-6). Anybody on the Packers remotely healthy?
13. Minnesota (8-6). Last really big game of the regular season, Christmas Eve, Pack at Vikes.
14. Houston (6-8). The chicks really dig David Carr.
15. New Orleans (6-8). I guess.
STAT OF THE WEEK
When the NFL Competition Committee meets in March prior to the annual league meetings, expect the group to take a very hard look at the uniformity of how illegal-contact (non-incidental contact between receivers and defenders beyond the five-yard bump zone at the line of scrimmage) is called.
In Week 10, there were three illegal-contact penalties in 14 games.
In Week 13, there were 27 illegal-contact penalties in 16 games.
AGGRAVATING/ENJOYABLE TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK
Laura and Mary Beth King are home for the holidays, and they recommended I tell this story from my sojourn to Dallas last week:
I'm at Bob's Steak and Chop House, sitting at the bar, waiting for my table, and sitting next to an older woman who had a martini and a large pile of onion rings in front of her. She offered me one. I did. It weighed about six pounds. She started talking. What do you do, where do you live, all that stuff. So she finds out I cover football, and she says to me with a very straight face, "You know that all those football players, every one of them, are totally hooked on drugs? They're all playing for their drug dealers.''
I said I hadn't heard about that.
"The names on their backs are all phony,'' she said. "Each name is the name of the drug dealer they're playing for. That's who gets their paycheck every week. It's all a sham.''
"You should write about that.''
Well, I've been covering the NFL for 20 years now, and I'm pretty close to the people in it, and I've never heard of that. I really don't think there's any way that could be true.
"You're part of the coverup then. I can see you're never going to write about it.''