- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

ALBANY, N.Y. — The fresh-faced 23-year-old with impeccable bloodlines stood next to the 33-year-old veteran with the gray-flecked, 5 o’clock shadow on the practice field.

As the Tom Coughlin-era begins in New York, there is room for only one of them to be the Giants’ starting quarterback.

Eli Manning, the top pick in April’s NFL Draft, is certainly a big part of the Giants’ plans, as his rookie record $20 million signing bonus indicates.

But in the offseason, New York also signed Kurt Warner, just 21/2 years removed from his second MVP award and his second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons. The only thing more unexpected than his sudden rise from obscurity was his precipitous fall the last two years, which led St. Louis to cut him June 1.

“It’s a friendly competition,” Manning said after the first training camp practice at the University of Albany on Friday, a day after he signed a six-year contract worth as much as $54 million. “If Kurt throws a touchdown, I don’t feel I have to throw a touchdown on the next play. Whoever puts the team in the best position to win is going to get the call. I’m going to work as hard as I can to be that guy. …

“It’s always good to have someone to push you, and I’m going to push Kurt. It will be good learning from a guy who’s won MVPs and a Super Bowl. I’ll try to learn everything I can.”

Despite three seasons in Arena Football, a spring in NFL Europe and six years with the Rams, Warner also is in learning mode again. He signed with the Giants the day after his release and began absorbing Coughlin’s offense.

“I had the offense for three days in minicamp, and people were saying, ‘He wasn’t very good,’ ” Warner said. “Everybody expects you to be an MVP every time you step on the field. You can’t get too frustrated because it’s a learning process. It’s almost like you’re a rookie again.”

As the quarterbacks talk about each other, Manning seems to long for some of Warner’s experience, while Warner wishes he didn’t have so much of it — at least not all those blindside hits.

On Friday, both quarterbacks made rookie-type mistakes, causing offensive coordinator John Hufnagel to re-huddle his troops in anger. Each also made some pretty passes as Coughlin split the first-team snaps. He did it again Saturday and will continue to do so for awhile.

“It’s a challenge for any quarterback anytime you have a new system, and it’s a challenge when you’re a young player coming into the league,” Coughlin said. “Eli is more comfortable with what’s being thrown at him from a sophisticated nature, changing the play at the line of scrimmage. You’ve seen progress with Kurt, too. He’s ahead of where he was.”

Enough ahead that many of his new teammates expect Warner to start the Sept. 12 opener against NFC East champion Philadelphia.

Defensive tackle Norman Hand, who faced Warner four times with New Orleans in 2000 and 2001, said his old NFC West rival still has the quick release, the mental toughness and the ability to pick apart coverages that helped him forge the current highest passer rating in NFL history (97.2).

“You can tell Kurt’s been in there before,” offensive tackle Luke Petitgout added. “Eli’s not rattled, but he’s trying to find his place. Kurt’s a little bit more smooth.”

Warner’s rise from stocking grocery shelves to NFL superstardom and his subsequent fall from grace has been anything but smooth.

After three unprecedented stellar years and a poor but injury-riddled 2002 season, his career came to a crashing halt against the Giants in the 2003 opener. He suffered a concussion after being sacked and fumbling six times. Bravely — or perhaps foolishly — Warner played the entire game as the Rams lost 23-13.

Then, he didn’t play again until mop-up duty in the season finale. By that point, former understudy Marc Bulger had made him expendable, the same thing Warner did to Trent Green in 1999 when he went from unknown to Super Bowl MVP in six months.

“There are a lot of people who know I can still play at an extremely high level, but there are also people who say, ‘He’s done,’ ” acknowledged Warner, who doesn’t hide his bitterness toward the Rams. “I’m going to prove that I deserve to be the starter. I know how well I can still play this game. I have enough confidence in my ability, the way I see the field, react and make plays.”

Still, Warner knows he’s not the long-term answer for the Giants. New York finished 4-12 in 2003, its worst mark in 20 years. That led to the firing of seventh-year coach Jim Fassel and the release Kerry Collins, the team’s starting quarterback the last five seasons. New York then executed a draft-day trade with San Diego for Manning, whom the Chargers took first even though he vowed he wouldn’t sign with them.

“The Giants have never told me, ‘We’re going to pay Eli a lot of money, so we’re going to have to get him on the field as soon as we can,’ ” Warner said. “They told me, ‘We want you to play if you’re the best guy for the job.’ If Eli’s the better quarterback, then he should be the one playing. I’m still going to do whatever I can to help. I’m not going to cover up my notes so he can’t read them.”

Not that the kid couldn’t figure things out on his own. Manning’s success seems pre-ordained. His father, Archie, was a legendary quarterback at Mississippi before battling through 15 NFL seasons for usually poor teams. And then, there’s his older brother Peyton.

Unlike the more independent Peyton, who spurned Ole Miss and opted for Tennessee, Eli didn’t worry about the comparisons and signed with Mississippi, where he broke some of Archie’s records. After spending his whole life in the shadow of his famous father and brother, competing against Warner isn’t intimidating.

“There’s a [serious] competitor in Eli,” Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said of the rookie, whose laid-back demeanor would seem to refute that.

Plus, with the entire offense learning a new system at the same time, Manning is not at as much of a disadvantage as most rookies competing for a job.

“How quickly Eli gets to the point where they feel he can be successful is probably the determining factor,” Warner said. “Eli has all the ability in the world. He has the physical skills. He understands how to play the game. It’s just a matter of time before he steps in and becomes a tremendous quarterback. [But] you never know how long it’s going to take. I know Eli’s the quarterback of the future. It’s just a matter of when the future starts.”a

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