AS HIS dreadful rookie season was winding down, Eli Manning morphed from Peyton Manning's inexperienced little brother into a quarterback who looked as if he belonged in the NFL. It happened on the Giants' last drive of the season, against the Cowboys, in a game between two teams going nowhere.
Heading into the finale, Manning had lost all six of his starts, but he'd shown signs of progress the previous two weeks in close losses to the Steelers and the Bengals. Now New York trailed Dallas 24--21, with 1:41 left. Mixing runs and passes, Manning moved the Giants 63 yards to the Cowboys' three with 16 seconds remaining. New York burned its last timeout, and on the sideline Manning lobbied the coaches to give him two plays, a pass and a run, with the option to call either once he saw what defense Dallas was in.
"The coaches were undecided about whether I'd make the right decision," Manning recalled in training camp this summer. "I said, 'I can handle it.' So they called up to [quarterbacks coach Kevin] Gilbride, and he said, 'Let's put it in.'" When he got to the line, Manning saw the safeties wide across the end zone, so he audibled to the running play. Tiki Barber burst across the goal line, and the Giants won 28--24.
"There couldn't have been a better drive to end the season," Barber says. "It sent us into the off-season knowing our quarterback knew exactly what to do in a clutch situation."
There's no doubt that as Manning goes in 2005, so go the Giants. They're not dominant in any area, so they need a quarterback who can manage the game, move the ball consistently despite average talent overall on offense, and quickly develop into a first-rate pro passer, justifying the '04 draft-day trade with the Chargers to acquire his rights as the No. 1 pick. That's why members of the organization were holding their collective breath after Manning injured his throwing arm in an Aug. 20 preseason game against the Panthers. Two days later the injury was diagnosed as a sprained elbow, and coach Tom Coughlin said that Manning's status would be evaluated game to game.
Manning is neither a fiery leader, nor the preparation freak Peyton is. Being more laid-back, however, might not be such a bad thing. "I used to score 25 points in a high school basketball game; then I'd have two points the next game," Eli says. "My dad would say, 'Why?' I'm not a guy to force things. If the shot was there, I'd take it. If not, I'm happy to let another guy score. Same in football. I don't care if I throw it three times or 50 times. Did we win? That's what I care about."
In personality, Manning seems similar to another quarterback picked first in a recent draft, Tim Couch, selected by the expansion Browns in 1999. Nice, polite and quiet, they've worn the tag of franchise cornerstone uncomfortably. The difference might be that the pressure wore on Couch, while Manning arrived better prepared to handle the spotlight, having followed in the footsteps of not only his record-setting brother but also his dad, Archie, a former NFL quarterback.
"Tim had it tough being the first draft choice of the Browns," says Giants center Shaun O'Hara, who blocked for Couch in Cleveland. "The pressure of a franchise on him became part of his undoing. Eli's been scrutinized his whole life. Would he be as good as his father? As good as his brother? Then he saw his brother trip and fall all over himself as a rookie in Indy. He's not afraid to make a mistake, because he knows young quarterbacks are going to make them. He knows pressure. I haven't seen it bother him."
Now Eli must show a big improvement from his rookie year, when he completed 48.2% of his attempts and threw six touchdown passes against nine interceptions. "Hopefully I'll make the jump," he says. "But it's not automatic." Peyton improved his completion rate from 56.7% in his first year to 62.1% in his second, and his TD-to-interception differential went from minus 2 to plus 11. On the other hand, Brett Favre threw 11 more interceptions in his second full season than he did in his first, and his completion rate dipped from 64.1% to 60.9%.
"I would love to say that in the second year it all just clicks," Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, a seven-year veteran, said this summer. "But I probably wasn't fully comfortable till year four."