- The Washington Times - Friday, October 28, 2005

Against the Redskins at FedEx Field last December in his third start as quarterback of the New York Giants, Eli Manning played his rookie role to the hilt. It was an Oscar-worthy performance. He was erratic and ineffective, the Giants generated no offense and the Redskins had their biggest victory, 31-7, of an otherwise dismal season.

“An educational experience,” Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi called it.

Manning, who has yet to be a starter for the equivalent of a full season, still is learning. And the blitzing Redskins might harass him into another long afternoon when they play the Giants on Sunday at the Meadowlands. He is the 13th-rated passer in the NFL, which is far better than last season, but not elite status.

“I’m still not where I need to be,” he said this week. “I’m still making mistakes, still struggling at times.”

But any resemblance between Manning and last year’s model is purely coincidental.

“I just feel more comfortable with the offense, and everything,” he said. “The protections and the routes and how quickly you have to go through the process. I’m moving around the pocket a little better and finding lanes, knowing when you can hold on to the ball or when you have to get it away or when you have to dump it down to your check-offs.”

The Giants’ offensive line, a shambles last season, has come together. Tight end Jeremy Shockey is playing the way he’s supposed to and wide receiver Plaxico Burress, a free-agent addition, provides the home run threat the Giants have forever lacked. Both give defenses more to think about than just running back Tiki Barber.

Now there is Manning to think about, too.

“He’s a lot better and he definitely looks more comfortable,” Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington said.

Said Shockey: “He’s done an exceptional job running the team.”

Said CBS commentator and former Giants quarterback Phil Simms: “He’s a little more calm, which comes with time. And physically, he’s progressed. He’s definitely gotten stronger. Last year, I didn’t think he was physically ready to throw the ball. I remember after a game against Pittsburgh, [Giants coach] Tom Coughlin said, ‘We’ve got to get him stronger, he’s got to be stronger in the hands.’ I can see that he’s thickened up just enough to give him more of a physical presence.”

Coughlin, a stern guy who, like his old boss Bill Parcells, tosses out compliments like they were barbells, waxed nearly rhapsodic in describing Manning’s improvement.

“Just by virtue of the experience of playing games, to manage the game, to play at the speed of the game, to make key plays when key plays are necessary to be made, his ability to maintain his cool under pressure, his ability to rally his teammates around him, with the belief that if there’s enough time left, he has the capability of leading us down the field and putting the ball in the end zone,” Coughlin said. “He’s made tremendous progress that way.”

Whew. But Coughlin wasn’t finished.

“He’s a student,” he said. “He works hard at the game. He practices well, he has questions about what’s going on. He’s taken these experiences as a young player, good or bad, and he’s learned from them.”

Like when he played against Baltimore after the Redskins last season and was even worse, going 4-for-18 with two interceptions and a passer rating of zero. During the next week, Manning asked the coaches to simplify the playbook, giving him plays that better suited him. Even though the Giants would go on to lose to the tough Steelers, Manning had his best game of the season. Then, after taking a step back against Cincinnati, he finished the season strong in a win over Dallas.

It was Manning’s only victory. He was 1-6 as the starter after replacing veteran Kurt Warner, who now is with Arizona. But this season, secure knowing the job is his alone, Manning is living up to the hype and negating the pressures inherent in playing in New York and being the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft who shunned the San Diego Chargers and forced a trade to the Giants.

As if that weren’t enough, Manning has had to delicately manage the two-edged sword of coming from a famous family and the inevitable comparisons to two other quarterbacks — his brother, Peyton, the Indianapolis Colts’ All-Pro, and his father, Archie, the most beloved player in the histories of both the New Orleans Saints and the University of Mississippi, which Eli also attended.

It helps when your genetic map leads to all the right places, and you can benefit from a favorable environment while growing up.

“The great thing about both [Peyton and Eli] is the unbelievable character they get from their family,” Accorsi said.

Said Eli: “I just try to handle my business. I can’t worry about what Peyton and my dad have done.”

The three Mannings are close and frequently speak to each other. Archie, who was displaced from his home in New Orleans to Oxford, Miss., because of Hurricane Katrina, tries to keep up with his sons in person. Recently, they’ve had a lot to talk about. Last week, Eli rallied the Giants (4-2) from a 23-10 fourth-quarter deficit against Denver, leading a 15-play, 83-yard drive that ended with a backpedaling Manning hitting Amani Toomer in the end zone on a 2-yard pass with five seconds left to win 24-23.

The previous week against Dallas, Manning led a late comeback to tie the game, but the Cowboys won in overtime. In both games, Manning did not play particularly well until the end.

“The good ones rally on a bad day,” Accorsi said.

Said Archie, who watched the Denver game with his wife, Olivia, at Giants Stadium: “I told Eli, ‘I hope you get to play a long time and win a bunch of games, but you’ll remember games like these more.’ I think a quarterback remembers his comebacks the most. It’s kind of like a notch in a quarterback’s pistol. It’s like a walk-off homer.”

Archie won’t return to the Meadowlands this week because Peyton’s number is being retired by the University of Tennessee (along with Reggie White’s and Doug Atkins’) during ceremonies at the game against South Carolina in Knoxville. Archie’s boys were groomed to be quarterbacks, but he said he now limits his advice to the basics.

“I told Eli when training camp started, ‘Just keep sawing wood,’ ” Archie said. “It’s an old saying. There are so many ups and downs in this profession, so just keep plugging. It’s just baby steps, especially last year when he was struggling so much. It was hard for anyone to see progress, but there was.

“Now he’s getting to play, and he’s doing some good things and doing some bad things. This is kind of his team now. Kurt is gone and [Eli] was in the locker room the whole offseason, and he had the whole training camp where he was the starter. I kind of look at it where he’s still a first-year starter.”

Who no longer plays like one.

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