EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jake Ballard's no dope. If you're a New York Giants tight end and the starting tight end signs elsewhere and they don't bring in anyone to replace him ... well, that's an opportunity. Ballard figured this out pretty early in August. Then he figured the best way to cash in on that opportunity would be to go wherever the quarterback went. Eli Manning has a film study session every Friday after practice, and Ballard starting sitting in.
"I don't really do much talking," Ballard told me after Giants practice Wednesday. "He talks. He does the talking. 'This is this play, this is what we expect you to do here,' that kind of stuff. I just listen and learn."
That approach is working out for Ballard, who on Sunday caught two of the most important Manning passes of the season on the game-winning drive against the Patriots in New England. No one saw Ballard coming, just as few imagined Victor Cruz could step so effectively into such a prominent role as a wide receiver. And the fact that those two things have happened -- that the Giants have been able to regenerate their passing game on the fly and race out to a 6-2 start -- is a credit to Manning, the reliable constant.
"You never felt any kind of doubt that he had the confidence in us to get the job done," Cruz told me. "You know, he's a veteran guy. He's used to winning. He could have been dissatisfied with the talent we had left over and could have complained. That's not him. He looks around, this is what we've got, and he's going to work with you and make sure you're as good as you can possibly be."
Back when Kevin Boss signed with the Raiders and Steve Smith signed with the Eagles and everybody (including Manning, by the way) was wondering how the Giants were going to replace the passing-game weapons that were walking out the door, the tight end talk was of Travis Beckum. He appeared to be the first option to replace Boss. But Manning wasn't ranking his new tight ends. He was yammering at both of them, pulling Beckum and Ballard aside during practices to correct mistakes and make clear what it was that he wanted done on certain plays. Manning might have a reputation as a quiet, soft-spoken, kind of dull sort, but during practices he apparently never shuts up.
"He's not shy about telling you what he wants you to do," Ballard said. "And so after a while of him teaching us, in the preseason, he just decided to start throwing me the ball and see what happened. And I thought it was pretty cool, him giving me a shot like that, and I wanted to make sure I did something with it."
Ballard has caught 23 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns, including Sunday's game-winner. He's become a vital member of the passing game in a short period of time. He credits Manning's tutelage, on the practice fields and in the meeting rooms. Manning declines that credit, but does acknowledge that developing trust with new receivers is a complicated process that involves work from both sides.
"You want to make sure that, when new guys have the opportunity to contribute, they're as prepared as they can be to take advantage of that opportunity," Manning said. "And once that happens and you start to have success, it's a lot easier to go back to it."
With Cruz, it was about student-teacher ratio. He showed up at the loosely organized workouts Manning set up at local New Jersey high schools during the lockout. There weren't a lot of players there, and the fact that Manning threw so many passes to Cruz during that time really helped them develop chemistry and trust.
Then in training camp, with Smith gone, the Giants believed Domenik Hixon was the most likely candidate to take over his slot receiver role. But Hixon was rehabbing a knee injury and they didn't want to overwork him in camp. So Cruz got those slot reps, which meant even more work on timing and trust with Manning. By the time they got to Philadelphia in Week 3, Manning was chucking passes Cruz's way and Cruz was converting them into huge touchdowns in huge spots. That didn't happen overnight, and it didn't happen without a lot of help from the guy throwing the ball.
"All those offseason workouts, all that time we spent, I think that made a big difference for me," Cruz said. "Just being able to be with him and hear the terminology and getting to understand what he sees in coverages, that was a huge help. And then out on the field, just his confidence. When he gives you a specific route, he makes it real clear: 'If you're open, I'll hit you.' And the way he says it, he has a way of kind of getting you geared up to make sure you do your job."
It would be foolish and simplistic to say that the Giants could have brought anyone in to play these two roles and Manning could have made them into stars or at least reliable contributors. That sells short the abilities of Cruz and Ballard themselves, and I don't want to do that. But when you lose key pieces and replace them with the backups you already had on your roster, that says a lot about whatever element of the equation remained constant through the change. In this case, that's Eli Manning, who's the biggest reason the Giants have been able to weather all of their changes and retool on the fly.
"He has confidence in his guys and makes sure they know they can get the job done," said star receiver Hakeem Nicks, now in his third year with the Giants. "He makes sure he stays on top of the things he needs to get through to them, and he's good at making sure his message gets through. That's him. That's Eli."