Manning impressive in battle for QB job

ALBANY, N.Y. -- It wasn't quite a throwdown, a can-you-top-this exhibition, a head-to-head duel in the morning sun in which two worthy quarterback contestants march off 50 paces in opposite directions and commence to firing.

But anyone who saw the seven-on-seven segment of the New York Giants' practice on Thursday morning here had to come away from the drill acknowledging that, while Kurt Warner almost certainly will open the season as the team's starter, rookie Eli Manning could give first-year coach Tom Coughlin something to think about.

Warner began the drill by connecting with wide receiver Amani Toomer on a skinny post. Then he came back to Toomer on a quick-cut slant. To conclude the sequence, the two-time league most valuable player hooked up with tight end Marcellus Rivers on a nifty seam route.

Not to be outdone or outgunned, Manning blistered an out to wide receiver Ataveus Cash, followed that with a bullet up the middle to David Tyree, and then hung out an absolute frozen rope of about 30 yards to tight end Joe Dean Davenport. Minutes later, during the "team" drill, Manning authored what was arguably the throw of the session, firing a deep seam pass, one that had more RPMs than a revved-up NASCAR ride at the start of a race, to Ike Hilliard.

The throwing performance of the two quarterbacks left this impression: If this was a beauty pageant, the youngest member of the renowned Manning Family Quarterback Tree would be in the huddle when the Giants start the regular season at Philadelphia on Sept. 12. Manning may not have a JUGGS machine hanging from his right shoulder, but he is the master of replication, every pass coming out crisply, whistling through the humid air, defining the term "spiral."

"I think," Manning said later, between practices and with an industrial-sized dose of understatement, "that my arm is good enough."

With the reborn Warner, attempting to salvage a career whose parabola has closely followed that of a supernova, there is less muscle on the pass attempts. But there is no less fascination in examining with some degree of wonder the physical characteristics of how he gets the football, unerringly in some stretches, from Point A to Point B.

It flutters, it wafts, and there is the occasional knuckleball thrown in as well. But the ball gets there and is delivered into the small spaces that typically are the test of a quarterback's raw arm strength. On Wednesday afternoon, Warner fired a deep curl-in to Hilliard, and the ball seemed to be in the air so long that you felt you could walk the entire expanse of real estate here at the SUNY-Albany campus and still be back to the practice field in time to witness the culmination of the play. But the ball slammed into the chest of Hilliard, precisely within the six-inch margin of error with which Warner had to work, and a nanosecond ahead of the closing cornerback.

Over the past few days, Warner has taken to icing down his arm, from shoulder to elbow, between practices. No telling what Manning is doing while he diligently reviews video during the middle of the day, but one senses he just reloads the bazooka and prepares for the ensuing bombardment.

"He can bring some heat, for sure, man," allowed Toomer. "But Kurt, he still has it, too. He still gets it to you. And he puts the ball right where you want it, in stride, and where you can do something with it. But, yeah, they sort of are contrasting styles. But only one of them can be the starter."

Coughlin has set no timetable for officially determining who that will be. Most coaches in such situations usually suggest a decision will come around the third preseason game. Coughlin, a terrific coach who has restored order and design to a franchise that arguably was the NFL's biggest disappointment in 2003, only offers that he will make a decision, well, when he makes a decision.

Suspicions are that Warner, ignominiously jettisoned by the St. Louis Rams after two seasons of injury and borderline ineptitude, will start the season behind center. The private hope is that Warner, whose last NFL start was, ironically, in Giants Stadium, where he tossed 52 passes but fumbled six times and was sacked on a half-dozen occasions, can survive an early schedule that features a couple of blitz-crazed coordinators. And, really, that he can remain the starter for the season, allowing Manning the kind of apprenticeship that his older brother never got when he entered the league.

Warner, still only 33 despite the perception in some quarters that he is significantly older, is predictably politic when asked who leads in the competition after a week of camp. He does acknowledge that his experience probably provides him some modicum of an edge. But the message Warner wants most to convey is that, despite the critics and the skeptics, he can still play, and play at a high level.

Unlike baseball pitchers such as Steve Blass or, more recently, Rick Ankiel, he has not "lost it," Warner insisted.

"It doesn't happen like that," Warner said. "There are quarterbacks in the league who play 15, 16, 17 years ... and you don't hear them talking about 'losing it,' you know? It's just not the case in football. Maybe you compensate some, change a few things, but you still figure out a way to get [the ball] there. I think my accuracy is every bit as good as it was, say, four years ago."

Maybe so since, even in a 2002 season that signaled the beginning of the end with the Rams, he completed 65.5 percent of his attempts. But if Warner has answered most of the naysayers in terms of physical prowess, a bigger test is yet to come. Yet to be determined is how Warner will hold up when the bullets are live. Scouts around the NFL contend that Warner has been psychologically scarred by all the hits he took in St. Louis, damaged by his own courage in the pocket, and a penchant for waiting as long as he could for wide receivers to uncover downfield.

"His eye level is lower now," assessed one NFC pro personnel director. Translation: Warner is more aware now of the pass rush.

What the callow Manning is aware of is that he needs to keep hitting the playbook and keep hitting receivers in stride with those lasers he's been throwing. He may also need to lean a bit on the patience he demonstrated when he redshirted his freshman season at Mississippi.

There is no doubt that Manning represents the future of the franchise. General manager Ernie Accorsi authored a landmark draft day swap to secure his rights and then signed him to one of the most lucrative contracts ever awarded a rookie. The temptation for the organization, of course, is to begin reaping dividends on that investment as quickly as possible. And the temptation for Manning, almost assuredly, is to want to play now.

Coughlin might have to be patient, though, this year. And Manning might also need to re-learn the fine art of biding time.

"Whatever happens, I'll accept it, but that doesn't mean I'll stop competing," Manning said. "I've gotten more comfortable with the offense, the cadence, everything, and I feel like my progress has been good. But I'll never allow myself to get too comfortable with not playing."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.