Posted: Monday February 13, 2012 1:04AM ; Updated: Monday February 13, 2012 6:03PM
Peter King
Peter King>MONDAY MORNING QB

Giants learned a long time ago of Eli Manning's poise, toughness

Story Highlights

The Giants were impressed with Eli Manning while scouting him at Ole Miss

His first game against Baltimore was a stinker, but he rebounded nicely

Remembering Whitney Houston; thoughts on Hall of Fame voting, more

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Eli Manning
Eli Manning's poise and toughness were evident in his days at Ole Miss and again in Super Bowl XLVI.
Simon Bruty

The week-after-the-Big-One column is heavy on the Giants, as it should be. And I'd be remiss if I didn't touch on the greatest Anthem I've ever heard at a game -- the late Whitney Houston's, 21 years ago. I'll get to other things around the NFL, too, but I still find so many things fascinating about the rise of Eli Manning, and the rise of this cornerstone franchise with him.

We'll start in the stands at a football game in the small city of Oxford, Miss., a little more than nine years ago.

***

Scene 1: Nov. 2, 2002, Oxford, Miss. The general manager of the New York Giants, Ernie Accorsi, is sitting outside, in the row of seats in front of the Mississippi press box, scouting the quarterback of Ole Miss, Eli Manning, against heavily favored Auburn. It's bitterly cold. Taking notes that afternoon for his scouting report (which six years later would be an important element of Tom Callahan's insightful book, The GM, on Accorsi's last year with the Giants), Accorsi is watching two future first-round picks at quarterback -- Manning and Auburn's Jason Campbell -- and seems riveted by Manning.

A couple of days later, Accorsi types his report in all capital letters to be submitted as part of the team's scouting report on Manning. In a section of the report covering the second half, he writes: "NEVER GETS RATTLED. RALLIED HIS TEAM FROM A 14-3 HALFTIME DEFICIT BASICALLY ALL BY HIMSELF. LED THEM ON TWO SUCCESSIVE THIRD QUARTER DRIVES TO GO AHEAD, 17-16. THE FIRST TOUCHDOWN, ON A 40-YARD STREAK DOWN THE LEFT SIDELINE, HE DROPPED THE BALL OVER THE RECEIVER'S RIGHT SHOULDER. CALLED THE NEXT TOUCHDOWN PASS HIMSELF, CHECKING OFF TO A 12-YARD SLANT. MAKES A LOT OF DECISIONS ON PLAY CALLS AT THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE.''

Scene 2: Dec. 12, 2004, Baltimore. The one thing Eli Manning always has had is poise. That's what makes this horror show at the Ravens so weird, and so troubling.

When quarterbacks go to the line of scrimmage, they most often point to the foe they're using as the middle linebacker, in order for the offensive line to know which man they're going to block. The first man to the right of the "mike'' linebacker, for instance, will be blocked by the right guard, etc. And so when Manning would see Ray Lewis, number 52 on the Ravens, across the line and bark out, "52's the mike,'' Lewis would scurry to the outside of the formation and yell, "I'm the mike!'' And Ed Reed or another defender would slip into Lewis' spot and yell, "I'm the mike!'' They were taunting Manning, and it shook him up.

Says Manning now: "A nightmare. A disaster. They saw me sweating it, and they took advantage of me, to say the least.''

In the fourth start of his Giants' career, Manning was the definition of pathetic, four of 18 for 27 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions ... for a 0.0 passer rating. In the press box, one veteran Giants scribe took to calling Eli "Billy Ripken'' over and over again. As in, "The brother of a great player who'll just never make it.''

Scene 3: Feb. 5, 2012, Indianapolis. Manning was down by 11 that cold day in Oxford. He was down eight here in Super Bowl XLVI. But he led the Giants to two field goals in the third quarter, and when he took over at the New York 12 with 3:46 to go, the Accorsi scouting report comes to life. On the first snap (ON A 40-YARD STREAK DOWN THE LEFT SIDELINE, HE DROPPED THE BALL OVER THE RECEIVER'S RIGHT SHOULDER), Manning, on a 38-yard streak by Mario Manningham down the left sideline, dropped the ball over the receiver's right shoulder, and Manningham made a perfect catch and got both feet down and the Giants were in business at midfield. The Patriots were stunned.

Four plays later, on second-and-eight from the Patriots' 32, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride thinks the Pats may blitz. He gives Manning a running play to use if they don't, and tells him to check to a quick slant if they do blitz. "Alert, alert!'' Manning says, walking up and down the line when he sees safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes getting ready to blitz. The run is off. The pass is on. (Remember Auburn-Ole Miss, and Accorsi. CHECKING OFF TO A 12-YARD SLANT.)

Manning takes the shotgun snap. Three Patriot blitzers are erased by Kareem McKenzie, Ahmad Bradshaw and Kevin Boothe. Textbook blitz pickup orchestrated by veteran line coach Pat Flaherty and running backs coach Jerald Ingram; both men came to the Giants with Coughlin in 2004. Hakeem Nicks runs a quick slant inside cornerback Antwaan Molden, and Manning throws a strike. Gain of 14.

The other day I asked Gilbride to pick the plays on that drive he thought were the crucial ones. He picked two. "The one to Manningham, of course,'' he said, "and a quick slant to Nicks. We were not settling for the field goal. No way. Not unless we had to. We were attacking.''

Two vital passes against Auburn, a streak down the left side and, on a Manning audible, a quick slant: Gain of 52.

Two vital passes against the Patriots, a streak down the left side and, on a Manning audible, a quick slant: Gain of 52.

Accorsi, who lives in Manhattan, watched the game in the solitude of his home in his hometown of Hershey, Pa. "On that last drive,'' Accorsi said, "I said, 'He's gonna do it.' I've seen it before.''

***

Eli Manning needed to sleep. After three days of revelry, parades, ring-sizing and backslapping, he'd had enough. "We've got to get out of here,'' he told his wife, Abby, and so they left their Hoboken, N.J., nest Thursday and went somewhere. Where, I don't know. But he was good enough to call me Friday and explain two things: how he survived 2004, and how he won the fourth quarter in last week's Super Bowl.

Remember what happened in 2004. The Giants could have stayed where they were on draft day, at number four in the first round, and taken Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger. But Accorsi traded a bushel full of picks to San Diego to get Manning.

In training camp, Kurt Warner won the starting job. He got off to a 5-2 start, but then lost to Chicago and Arizona, and first-year Giants coach Tom Coughlin went to Accorsi and said he wanted to make a change at quarterback. He wanted Manning to play. He knew Manning was the future, and even though Warner likely would have given them a better chance to beat the defensively strong upcoming foes, Coughlin thought he was going to Manning at some point, and he knew the kid's confidence wouldn't get strafed if he played. That's what Coughlin thought, anyway. "I do recall how desperately Eli wanted to be in there,'' Gilbride said last week. "He was dying to play.''

"I redshirted my freshman year at Ole Miss,'' Manning told me, "and when I was put in there, I was ready to play. My rookie year here, at first, it was an opportunity to watch an MVP play. Kurt was great to me. I would ask him tips about picking up the blitz. And when coach Coughlin went to me, I knew it hurt Kurt. I felt for him. But he was still a professional, helping me. He could have been a lot of things, but I can tell you he was a help to me.''

Warner likes Manning, and vice versa. This was a tough situation, because Warner thought the Giants were throwing away the season -- maybe to justify the trade and the selection of Manning. And Warner looked right for the first month. Manning put up only 23 points in losses to Atlanta, Philly and Washington, and then there was the 37-14 debacle at Baltimore, the day Warner had to come in to rescue Manning in relief. "He was overwhelmed by the situation,'' Warner told me on my podcast last week. "It was some of the worst quarterbacking I'd seen at the NFL level.''

The Ravens, Gilbride said, "did everything they could to humiliate Eli.''

Manning didn't fold. He had a huge week coming up, and a short week. The Giants took the train back to New Jersey after the Sunday game in Baltimore. Coming the following Saturday: a nationally televised game against Pittsburgh, at home, with Roethlisberger, who looked like a big star in the making for the Steelers, coming to the Meadowlands to show everyone in football that Accorsi and the Giants made a big mistake in picking Manning and not him.

On the two-hour ride to Newark, Manning spoke with Gilbride and then-offensive coordinator John Hufnagel. Rather than sulk about the disastrous game he'd played, he told them his eight favorite plays. He told them, "If you could put these in the game plan next week, it'd give me eight plays I'd be comfortable with -- rhythm plays, plays I know I'd have an open receiver even if it was just a short gain.''

Notable that Manning could think about the next game 90 minutes after the most embarrassing game of his life. "I was down, really down,'' he said. "But I knew if we could put some plays in the plan for the next week that I liked, I'd feel better about it -- and the offense would see in practice we'd be able to move the ball.''

That week, he met with Coughlin. "I'm better than this coach,'' Manning told him. And Coughlin said he knew that, and don't look over your shoulder; just play. But around the team, this was a big week, and a tense week. Roethlisberger and the Steelers were 12-1. In the New York Daily News, Gary Myers wrote, "So far, it's shocking how inept Manning has looked. The field looks 200 yards long.'' Accorsi told Myers that week: "I don't want to talk about Roethlisberger. This thing will be written over a long time, not, in Eli's case, four weeks."

Now, Manning says: "I didn't read the paper in high school, and I never got the paper in college. I could kind of tell what was being said about me by the questions the reporters would ask. So I didn't read about me. Same thing when I got to the Giants. But I could tell that week was a big week. The media was like a bunch of hungry dogs. They were coming for me. And I hadn't played well, so that's the way it goes.''

Strange game. Willie Ponder of the Giants returned the opening kick 91 yards for a touchdown. Roethlisberger threw a pick on his first drive. The Steelers scored on an Antwaan Randle El shovel pass. Manning followed with a 55-yard touchdown drive ending in a two-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Shockey. The crowd was getting into it.

Back and forth they went, the Giants taking a 24-23 lead at the end of the third quarter on Manning's second touchdown pass of the day, the Steelers coming back to take the lead on a Jeff Reed field goal, Manning driving the Giants 52 yards for another TD (a Tiki Barber TD run) to put the Giants up 30-26 midway through the fourth quarter, and Jerome Bettis burrowing behind right tackle with five minutes left to make it 33-30, Steelers.

Driving to tie or win it, Manning threw a pick at the Steelers 18 with three minutes to play. Ballgame. "You don't like to say losing a game was a big mental boost for us,'' Manning said, "but it was. That was the day I thought I showed our team I could play at a high level.''

Manning that day: 16-of-23 (.696), 182 yards, two TDs, one interception, 103.9 rating.

Roethlisberger: 18-of-28 (.643), 316, one TD, two interceptions, 84.8 rating.

That's the day Manning took the heat off himself. He's never really felt it since.

***

Now to the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl last week. Much has been said and written about the fateful final drive, and the throw to Manningham in particular, when Nicks and Victor Cruz were lined up to the right and Manningham to the left.

The Giants took over at their 12 with 3:46 to go. Gilbride wanted to take a shot on first down.

"I thought 'Rio' [Mario Manningham] could run by the one corner on the left,'' Gilbride said. "I didn't know if Eli would choose that side, but I thought the play might be there. The thing is, I knew Eli wouldn't make a bad decision there. He's rooted solidly in this offense, and he has a strong belief what's there and what isn't there.''

In a story about this play for Sports Illustrated this week, I wrote that Manningham had gone to Gilbride on Thursday and was blunt about the Giants' playcaller not forgetting him -- or the receivers as a group -- in the game against the Patriots. "We feel we can win this game,'' Manningham said. "You have to understand --we're not nervous. We're excited. The stage is definitely not too big for us.''

On Friday, Manning told me Manningham came to him, too. There wasn't much three-wide stuff in the game plan, Manningham said, so when he's in there, he was going to get open and take advantage of his opportunities. The strong inference: Don't forget me. I'm going to help us win.

During the week, Manning had written notes in his game plan about this play. He wrote about how the New England safeties don't get very wide when they're taking a half of the field apiece. Manning thought, watching tape of the Patriots, "There'll be opportunities to make plays downfield on them.'' But still he didn't think this play was a lock to go right, as he had --according to backup quarterback David Carr -- every time he'd ever seen this play run in practice or a game.

When the ball was snapped, Manning was still thinking Cruz or Nicks first, and that made Chung, the safety who would have responsibility over the top on Manningham, creep over to his left, to provide help if Manning went to that side. "I wasn't looking [Chung] off,'' Manning told me. "I was truly throwing to the right. But the cornerback looked like he was in good position on Victor. I thought the nickel was too close to Hakeem. I didn't like what I saw.''

In his split-second look to the left, Manning saw Manningham with a step or step-and-a-half on corner Sterling Moore, with Chung, hips open to the left and inside the numbers, with very far to turn and run to break up the play if Manning threw left to Manningham.

"It's one of those plays,' Manning said, "where I can't throw it inside, toward the field, or the safety could knock it away. And I can't underthrow it. Those are the two no-nos. If I throw it too far, nothing's lost. It's second down, and we'll be OK.''

The throw traveled 42 yards in the air. As it dropped into Manningham's hands at the Giant 47, Moore's right forearm clubbed Manningham's right shoulder, trying to dislodge the ball; Chung arrived a split-second later and mugged Manningham over the boundary into the Patriots' bench area. Every Patriot but Bill Belichick signaled the play was no good because Manningham surely was out of bounds. But he wasn't. Manningham got both feet in the field of play before the mugging.

Later, Gilbride asked Manning why he'd made that decision. "The other guys got jammed,'' Manning told him. "And I threw it where no one else could get it.''

Eli Manning might play 10 more years and never make a throw better than that one. Sheer perfection ... and thrown to a receiver determined to make a big play in the biggest game of his life.

The audible to the slant to Nicks "was easy,'' Manning said. "I could see the two safeties crowding the line, so it was the only call to make.''

After the completion to Nicks gave the Giants first-and-10 at the two-minute warning at the Patriot 18, Manning looked across the line. "We hit 'em in the mouth,'' he said. "I think they were getting worried then.''

Funny thing about the touchdown, the six-yard score by Ahmad Bradshaw three plays later. Manning thought to tell Bradshaw not to score when he got to the line. However, Gilbride and Coughlin never thought to tell the Giants to beware of the Patriots handing them the touchdown.

Manning saw the Pats being a little lax when he got to the line, and when the snap came, he saw a defensive lineman stand up -- as though he wasn't going to try to make a tackle or rush the passer. So when Manning handed the ball to Bradshaw, he said, "Don't score!'' But Bradshaw couldn't process it in time, and by the time he got to the two-yard line and tried to stop, his momentum carried him into the end zone.

Two takeaways: The fact that Gilbride and Manning have been together for eight years is a huge factor in Gilbride knowing what Manning will execute well in a certain situation. "He completes my sentences,'' Gilbride said. And Manning told me this about Gilbride: "He is what I know about NFL offenses. I can't tell you how huge an advantage it is to be with the same coordinator for so long.''

And Manning's approach to football is a factor in him being so good, late, in such big games. He's been down to the Patriots in the final two minutes the last three times he's played them. And he's driven the Giants 83, 80 and 88 yards in those three games, scoring each time in the final minute to win. How does a person not allow the moment to overwhelm him? Or at least to affect his play? Manning looks like he'd rather play in the fourth quarter, with 116 million people watching.

"I think it comes from the fact I can only do so much,'' Manning said. "And I want to give our team every chance to win, and I want to give myself every chance to compete and to win. I control half the game, and even then I can't control one of our guys fumbling. So I have always had the attitude that if I do everything in my power to prepare, and then I have confidence that we've got a good plan and I know it's good enough to win, then I just go play and whatever happens happens.

"If we lose, will I be mad or upset? Yes. For a few days. But I think after some time, a few days, I'm not going to let it ruin my life for the next two months. I've got a wife and a daughter, and it's not fair to them to ruin the offseason because we lost a football game. I need to be there for them.''

One last thing from that Accorsi scouting report. Something about guts. Manning may not look the part, but someone who plays the way he does late in games has something that Accorsi saw that day in Mississippi, something he'd also seen in his Colts days with Johnny Unitas, something Colts teammate Bobby Boyd saw too. Wrote Accorsi: "BOYD TOLD ME ONCE ABOUT UNITAS, 'TWO THINGS SET HIM APART: HIS LEFT TESTICLE AND HIS RIGHT TESTICLE.' ''

Lots of lessons here. A good organization, with a strong GM, should be trusted above all. Young, Accorsi and Reese have served the Giants extraordinarily well in the last 33 years. Good coaching, with a staff that mostly stays in place, is most often the hallmark of a winning organization. And a good quarterback, with guts, well, that doesn't hurt either.

 
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