The 'other' Manning delighting fans

NEW YORK -- The play called for Giants QB Eli Manning to hand the ball off to RB Tiki Barber, who in turn would hand the ball to WR Tim Carter on a reverse, and Manning's job after that was to pivot and turn into a lead blocker for Carter.

Leading the Rams 10-7 late in the first quarter, the Giants attempted some trickery.
Manning did as he was told, not exactly blocking Rams FS Michael Hawthorne but impeding his progress enough to at least prevent Hawthorne from getting near Carter, who raced 22 yards to set up a touchdown in the Giants' eventual 44-24 victory.

"I didn't lay anybody out," Manning said afterward. "My teammates said if I would have laid somebody out and got a knockdown, there was some money involved for me. My guy didn't make the tackle, so that's what I'm proud of."

The way the other Giants figure, Manning will make plenty of money for them in the coming years, and if lead blocking is his only failing, so be it. As the Giants left behind the first segment of the season and cruised into their bye week at 3-1, Manning's ascension highlighted a start that has the legion of Giants fans salivating at the thought of having a franchise quarterback in the fold for the coming decade.

"You got Eli playing probably the best ball at quarterback right now," marveled LB Antonio Pierce. "You can compare him with Peyton [Manning], the way he's playing right now."

Pardon the hyperbole -- defensive players who know they can be bailed out by a dynamic offense sometimes get giddy. As the first overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft, Manning arrived in the league with great expectations thrust upon him. Even those most confident in his ability have taken notice of the quantum leap forward taken by a 24-year-old son of football royalty.

Manning as a rookie lost his first six starts and often looked dismally lost, but he improved down the stretch, finally won a game in the season finale and then spent the offseason intent on making that second-year improvement that many players anticipate but don't attain.

In the first two games of the season, the Giants went 2-0 more in spite of Manning than because of him. In the next two games, though, Manning put on the same display of poise and talent that so infatuated general manager Ernie Accorsi that he would not rest until he made the draft day trade with the Chargers to acquire him.

"I didn't know what to expect," Manning said. "I thought I had a better feel of things. In the preseason, I had some decent games but still didn't play as well. In the first two games I didn't move in the pocket and have my footwork where it needed to be. Things finally got to the point where I feel comfortable with what we're doing."

After four games, Manning was one of the NFL's top-ranked passers with a QB rating of 97.8, fueled by nine touchdown passes and only two interceptions. The Giants, averaging 34 points, were the league's highest-scoring team. Their 136 points was their highest total in the first four games of a season since they scored 154 points in the first four games in 1968. The Giants topped 40 points in a game twice for the first time since 1972, nine years before Manning was born.

Manning almost immediately developed a chemistry with WR Plaxico Burress, relit the spark in TE Jeremy Shockey and showed a grace under fire that belied his years.

"Our quarterback is playing so [well] right now … it's fascinating to see how he's improved exponentially every week," Barber said.

"I'm very fortunate I get to play with someone like him," Shockey added. "How young he is and the reads he's making are pretty rare in this league. He doesn't make mistakes, and that's very important at his position. It was a great decision by Ernie Accorsi and the Giants to bring him here."

Veterans singing his praises is a stark contrast to the long faces and skeptical shrugs that came prior to last season, when the Giants traded rookie QB Philip Rivers and three draft picks to get Manning, then shipped out the popular Kerry Collins, who led the franchise to the Super Bowl following the 2000 season.

It was easy to read between the lines and see concern in the faces of Barber, Amani Toomer and Michael Strahan -- stalwarts whose football clocks were ticking. They had nothing against Manning, but were not interested in coming along for the ride as a kid quarterback learned the harsh lessons of the NFL.

Last year's 6-10 downer is a distant memory for those who now see Manning as the answer.

"It's going to be exciting to see what he's going to turn into," Toomer said.

"It's amazing," Strahan added, "when he looks confident, the whole offense looks more confident. I think everybody feeds off the quarterback, and right now everybody is feeding off him."

The breakthrough game for Manning came amid the most hostile surroundings imaginable. He faced intense pressure in the week leading up to the Sept. 25 game in San Diego because of his radical decision to spurn the Chargers before last year's draft and then again after they made him the No. 1 pick.

Obscene anti-Eli T-shirts filled Qualcomm Stadium, and Manning was jeered loudly every time he stepped onto the playing field. The Chargers crushed the Giants 45-23, but Manning did not let the venom deter him, completing 24 of 41 passes for a career-high 352 yards and two touchdowns.

The front office felt vindicated. Teammates were struck by how Manning rose to the occasion. Manning was relieved that the episode was behind him.
"When we went into San Diego and he had all that adversity, it really brought out the best in him," Toomer said. "Now he knows how good he can be."

Dad Archie was in attendance at Giants Stadium the next week as Eli tossed four touchdown passes against the Rams, making throws on the run, sidestepping defenders and showing more mobility than he's supposed to possess. Some of that enormous pedigree handed down from Archie to Peyton to Eli is starting to show.

"Whatever those parents instilled in those boys, they've cherished, because they have great work habits and work ethic," Giants QB coach Kevin Gilbride said. "They roll up their sleeves and go to work, very quietly."

It's no wonder Manning arrived in New York with the nickname "Easy." If anything gets under his skin, it's kept well-hidden. Teammates call him unflappable, and the Giants' media relations staff never has to worry about going to him with a request. He shrugs and moves forward, unbothered. He's not demonstrative, but in his low-key way, he has taken more of a leadership role, directing traffic on the field and instigating meetings with offensive players to make sure they're on the same page.

"The guy has special talent," Burress said. "He puts the ball in places that you guys really don't understand from a receiver's standpoint with the throws he's making. You can actually sense he is being more vocal, he understands that it's his team, and he's kind of got a little, quiet Eli swagger about him going."

Paul Schwartz covers the Giants for the New York Post.

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