Indeed, from the preseason quarterback competition through the recent weeks, when New York tabloids and talk-radio mouths were howling for Warner's head, Manning remained the picture of calm. After all, comfort in the spotlight is a family hallmark. Manning knew his every move would be scrutinized, so he followed his brother's example, inhaling the playbook and throwing himself into film study.
But the true test wouldn't come, of course, until he stepped on the field, and on Sunday he started shakily. While his mandate was clear--drop back quickly, make reads quickly, throw quickly--he looked skittish in the pocket and sprayed several passes in the first half. "I was so concerned with getting rid of the ball," he said, "that I was throwing when my guys weren't ready. I made some mistakes." So, too, did his receivers: In the first half alone they dropped five catchable balls. Meanwhile, Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was playing Superman, using his arm and feet to lead two touchdown drives (both of which ended with scoring throws to tight end Alge Crumpler) and put Atlanta up 14-0 with 9:09 left in the second quarter. After that, said Giants tackle David Diehl, "Eli settled down, and we started playing the way we can in the second half."
With 12:30 remaining in the third quarter, a decidedly more comfortable Manning took the Giants on a 16-play, 72-yard drive that ended with his first touchdown pass, a six-yarder to tight end Jeremy Shockey. New York's defense forced a Falcons punt two minutes later, and the Giants looked ready to tie the score at 14 when disaster struck. On second-and-five at the Falcons' 28, Manning made a mistake against one of Atlanta's rare zone blitzes, throwing a quick slant to his left that Falcons end Brady Smith intercepted (box, left). Though on their ensuing possession the Giants drove the ball to Atlanta's eight, they had to settle for Steve Christie's 24yard field goal with 6:28 left.
That would be the closest Manning would come to guiding his team to victory, despite having a final shot with the ball at the New York 26 with 1:52 remaining. On fourth-and-three at the Atlanta 42, Manning's pass to Shockey was batted away by Brooking.
Surrounded by cameras as he left the field, Manning was already in full self-abuse mode. "I was disappointed," he said, "because as a quarterback that's what you want: the ball in your hands, with a chance to win the game." But Coughlin, for one, was sanguine.
"I asked for a great effort and got a great effort," the coach said. "But we needed guys to step up and help [Manning] make plays, and they didn't."
If the Giants are to make the playoffs, they'd better step up soon. Their $54 million man can't afford a lengthy learning curve. The ship is taking on water by the day. If Manning is to keep it from sinking, he'll have to be much better next week.
Just ask him.