Offseason investment paying off for Eli

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan continually emphasizes three core components with Eli Manning: leadership, accuracy and decision-making.

During Manning's eight-year NFL career, there have been times when he's looked like a master of all three. And there have been other times when he's looked like a master of none.

Last season -- an abysmal campaign in which he threw a career-worst/league-high 25 interceptions and his team folded down the stretch, missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year -- Manning's leadership, accuracy and decision-making were all highly scrutinized and called into question.

"What happened to the Super Bowl MVP we saw in 2007?" the fans wondered.

"How long until this guy gets run out of town?" the pundits asked.

Determined to improve and turn things around, Manning began rigorously working on his game during the offseason.

Despite the absence of both OTAs and minicamps due to the lockout, Manning gathered his teammates together and organized makeshift workouts at Hoboken High School. He even met up with Hakeem Nicks and Jerrel Jernigan at Duke University in June for three days of two-a-day drills under the watchful eye of Manning's old college coach at Ole Miss, David Cutcliffe.

It was at Duke with Cutcliffe, now the Blue Devils' coach, that Manning got back to the fundamentals, honing his footwork, release point, rhythm and timing.

"He looked rejuvenated," Cutcliffe, who also coached Eli's brother Peyton at Tennessee, told ESPNNewYork.com during a telephone interview Thursday. "He looked fit and healthier. He's tougher than a lot of people think, although I think he may have been more beat up and hurt than he leads on. I think the lockout may have helped him a lot."

Fresh, upbeat and confident, the normally reserved and often vanilla Manning hit the airwaves like never before prior to the start of the 2011 campaign, telling ESPN 1050's Michael Kay that he considered himself in the same class with New England Patriots future Hall of Famer Tom Brady.

"I know he believes that," Cutcliffe said. "And he can be."

Six weeks into the season, Manning has been. Currently, the 30-year-old ranks third in the league in passer rating (101.5). He's on pace to establish career highs in both passing yards and completion percentage, while his five interceptions are 14th most in the NFL. In fact, Manning hasn't thrown a pick in three of his last four games.

And he's doing all of this without Steve Smith and Kevin Boss, two of his most reliable targets in years past; and Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert, two of his most trusted offensive linemen.

Last week against a Buffalo Bills squad that led the league in takeaways, Manning completed nearly 66 percent of his passes, didn't turn the ball over and wasn't sacked in the Giants' 27-24 victory.

"We were very, very pleased with his ability to make great decisions, be smart with the football, and be accurate," Sullivan said Tuesday. "When he's had time to throw, I'll put his accuracy and his ability to spot the ball against anybody in this league and put it on a target."

Last season, the play that defined Manning's year was the foolish left-handed interception he threw against the Tennessee Titans in the end zone.

This season, however, it's his game-winning TD pass -- one of 11 TD passes he's thrown in 2011 -- to Hakeem Nicks down the left sideline on a go route facing single coverage in Arizona that may have saved the year. The one where he recognized blitz, knew it was man-to-man coverage and threw over the top of Patrick Peterson for the score that gave the Giants a 31-27 lead over the Cardinals late in the fourth quarter.

"I'm trying to make smart decisions and be careful with the football," Manning said Tuesday. "No matter what the circumstances of the game, it's never worth it to force the ball into tight places."

Manning has already taken 14 sacks this year, two fewer than he did all of last season, but he certainly doesn't have nearly as many mental gaffes.

Said Sullivan: "If it's not there, you don't want to force it. There's a time and a place where maybe you want to try to push the envelope a bit or take a chance. He has great confidence in his ability -- and he should -- and the ability of his receivers and offensive line. I think when a no-win situation presents itself, it's best to go ahead and move on to the next play. I think he's done a great job with that."

Manning may not have the weapons he once had, but he's making do with young unknowns like Victor Cruz and Jake Ballard. The growing pains have been there, but Manning is quick to point something out to Cruz or Ballard after the youngsters make a mistake.

"I think he got confidence in them early on and they're getting comfortable with him," Sullivan said.

You may not see it, but Cutcliffe said Manning is one of the best leaders he's ever seen.

"I call him a crossover leader," Cutcliffe said, "because everybody likes him. It doesn't matter who you are, what position you play or where you're from. He's just a really good teammate. As good a teammate as I've ever been around. He's an encourager. He'll be engaging with the defense. Eli may come off as a private person, but he's very personable."

Manning told reporters he was headed down to see family and friends in Mississippi during the team's Week 7 bye. A well-deserved vacation for the player who has meant more to the 4-2 Giants than any other so far in 2011.

"I'm really excited for him," Cutcliffe said. "His strength level is excellent and he's really just hitting stride."