More than ever, Eli needs to be the Mann

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They held their annual preseason talk on Tuesday, Eli Manning and Jerry Reese did, and the general manager of the New York Giants was not afraid to give it to the franchise player straight.

Reese knows Manning can take a hit. "Eli's seen it all," the GM said. Nothing was going to make this room-temperature quarterback go hot or cold.

"I expect this to be your best year," Reese told his most valuable employee.

In previous face-to-face meetings, Reese had challenged Manning to be a more demonstrative leader, to make his presence felt with the defensive unit, and to elevate the play of his receivers and fellow teammates like he did as a college boy at Ole Miss.

Only the Giants need Eli Manning this year like they've never needed him. Old reliable receivers named Steve Smith and Kevin Boss and Plaxico Burress are running routes for other teams, Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert are gone, and enough critical defensive players are down and out for the Giants to offer workouts to everyone but Sam Huff and LT.

No, Eli can't just be Eli this time around.

Eli needs to be Peyton, and not merely because Peyton won't be available Sunday to assume the role.

"We just talked about, 'Hey, it's your team,'" Reese said of his talk with Eli. "He doesn't need a caddie anymore. There's been a lot of chatter about the [25] interceptions last year, and we talked about taking care of the ball.

"But I told him, 'Still be a ballplayer out there. Don't be afraid to go out there and let it go. You can't be out there worrying about it, when to protect the ball, take care of it. ... We don't want you being a statue back there, so go out there and play.'"

Eli Manning has gone out there and played 110 consecutive games, and the first snap of Sunday's road game with the Washington Redskins will officially notarize his streak as the longest in the league.

Peyton Manning's run of 227 starts with the Indianapolis Colts will die a slow and painful death because of Peyton's neck injury, leaving his kid brother to carry the family legacy of toughness and durability -- established by Archie, of course -- on his own.

"I think that's always the goal," Eli said, "to be there on Sunday."

At his locker Wednesday, Manning said that he wasn't keeping track of his starts streak, and that his recent communication with Peyton had been limited to some back-and-forth texts. One brother has been busy dealing with a serious health issue, the other with a widening perception that his team is coming undone.

Jonathan Goff's season-ending knee injury hardly allayed the fan base's concern that the Giants are destined to miss the postseason tournament for a third straight year. The defense has been decimated, and the Philadelphia Eagles are supposed to be the Showtime Lakers of the NFC East.

With perception gaining fast on reality, Reese took up for his team Wednesday and told ESPNNewYork.com the Giants are good enough "to go all the way."

Reese delivered the same message in the summer of 2007, and looked like one happy prophet after Manning's touchdown pass to Burress turned the 18-0 New England Patriots into the 18-1 New England Patriots at the end of Super Bowl XLII.

Does Eli share Reese's optimism this time around? "Yeah, I think there's always a chance," Manning said of winning the next Super Bowl, held in Peyton's place in Indy. "It's just a matter of how you go out there and do it, and taking advantage of the opportunity, and young guys stepping up. You need everybody committed to excellence, but I like our talent."

Not as much as Reese likes his quarterback.

"I expect a huge year out of the guy, I really do," the GM said. "He's done everything. The guy's had some tough times, and he's had some terrific times, and in eight years there's nothing he hasn't seen in the National Football League.

"I expect him to take this team on his back, and get us to where we want to go."

Manning wouldn't say much of his conversation with Reese, other than calling it "a good talk." But the GM acknowledged that he advised Manning to trust his instincts and throw the ball without fearing the potential consequences.

"Don't be afraid of throwing an interception," Reese told Eli.

The box score reports Manning wasn't afraid of throwing them last year, not even close. Eli is on record saying that he's not a 25-interception quarterback, that he considers himself an elite player at that position, and that he belongs in Tom Brady's class.

"I absolutely liked that," Reese said of Manning's un-Manning-like quotes. The GM liked the fact that his former Super Bowl MVP finally talked like one for public consumption.

Now Manning has to play like the quarterback he claimed to be. Ever since he first walked into Tom Coughlin's office and stated his desire to lead the Giants, Manning has honored his chief responsibility by showing up for work every Sunday whether or not he was in good health.

Eli played through shoulder, foot and other injuries that might've stopped lesser men. "I always felt that I could go out there and perform at a high level," he said, "and be the best option for the team."

As it turns out, Manning is the only option for the 2011 Giants, a wounded and worried team in dire need of greatness out of the sport's signature position.

So Eli can't just be Eli this year. For once, he needs to be Peyton.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." Sunday Morning with Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.