EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Of course Eli Manning knows which quarterback's 208-gamer is the longest active consecutive-games streak in the NFL. That would be his big brother, Peyton, and you don't have to be a member of the Manning family to have heard something about that streak coming to an end this weekend.
But when pressed on it Wednesday, Eli Manning said he didn't know what the second-longest active consecutive-games streak by an NFL quarterback is. Which was hard to believe, because it's a 103-game streak by Eli himself.
"I don't know what my number is," the New York Giants' quarterback said after Wednesday's practice. "You try to be out there every week on the field with your teammates. It's not something that I'm keeping track of."
Eli's durability currently stands him in almost comical contrast to the rest of his team. Since the start of training camp, the defense has lost four cornerbacks, two linebackers and defensive end Osi Umenyiora to injury. One of the cornerbacks, Terrell Thomas, was a starter, as was linebacker Jonathan Goff, and both are gone for the season. Defensive injuries became the dominant Giants storyline in the second half of the preseason, after the story in the first half was the number of key players they'd lost on offense in free agency.
With all of that going on, Eli Manning and his remarkable durability become more important than ever. The Giants enter this season with the thinnest roster they've ever given head coach Tom Coughlin. And if they're going to overcome that, they're going to need the people on whom they really count to play at the highest possible level for them. Coughlin believes Manning to be such a person, and that the consecutive-games streak shows it.
"It means he's been able to display toughness and competitiveness," Coughlin said. "One week, he was out all week with a shoulder injury and he still played. He has that desire and he has that toughness, both physical and mental. He said the first time he walked into my office that he wanted to be the quarterback of this team and the leader of this team, and he has demonstrated that consistently."
For some reason, outside the organization, Manning takes a lot of grief. There's a perception among fans, Giants and otherwise, that he's somehow not as good as he should be. And the consensus public opinion surely diverged with his own last month when he said that thing about considering himself an "elite" quarterback and in Tom Brady's class. The 25 interceptions he threw last season obviously don't help the outside perception, and he knows that. But lost among the criticism is the fact that Manning is under center for his team every single week, no matter what.
"You try to work hard during the offseason, prevent the pulls, those things can be prevented a little bit," Manning said. "Also, I'm not running as much as a lot of these guys and doing as much cutting. The quarterback, you can play with a lot of big injuries. But if you get a little injury, like an index finger or a thumb that most people can play with, sometimes you can't. I've stayed away from some of those."
It's not just that Manning never misses a game. He also happens to perform at a very high level. He makes no trouble for the organization off the field. He puts an excellent face on one of the league's proudest franchises. He's looked at without question as the leader of the team by everyone in the locker room. More than half the teams in the league would be happy to swap their quarterback situations for Manning straight-up, right this minute. The Giants are, in fact, playing such a team Sunday.
"Eli is an excellent quarterback," Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "But one of the things about being a quarterback in this league: If you don't take your team to the playoffs there will always be some questions. When you don't make the playoffs, people are going to look at the quarterback, and that's just the nature of this business. But I think Eli showed everybody with what he did in the Super Bowl, and I'm sure he'll get back to that type of play."
The Giants need him to, if they're to have any hope of making the playoffs for the first time in three years. Injuries have ravaged their defense. The salary cap inhibited them in free agency. They are, very simply, not as strong or as deep a roster as we have come to expect the Giants to be. But they still have Pro Bowl-caliber players on whom they can rely -- players like Justin Tuck and Hakeem Nicks and Ahmad Bradshaw, to name a few. And at quarterback, they have Eli Manning, who's been there for them for 103 straight games and counting. More than ever, as the 2011 season dawns, they're counting on him now.