Thursday January 31st, 2008

PHOENIX -- If you're a faithful reader of Snap Judgments, by now you probably know that I cringe at the mere mention of the media's determined effort to declare that Eli Manning has (take your pick) come of age, turned the corner, arrived, or just this very second produced his breakthrough performance as the Giants' franchise quarterback.

We in the media are like the hyper kids in the proverbial back seat of the car on a family vacation yelling "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?'' We've been so eager to define Manning's defining moment that most of the past three seasons have been given over to taking an almost week-by-week temperature reading of his development as an NFL quarterback.

So it's Wednesday of Super Bowl week, and here I am asking the Giants respected quarterbacks coach, Chris Palmer, about Manning's development as an NFL quarterback. And to my mild surprise, Palmer isn't buying the notion that Manning's past four games constitutes his, ahem, career breakthrough.

For reasons I don't completely understand, I'm encouraged by this, which represents yet another swing and a miss in terms of NFL-style conventional wisdom.

"From a coach's standpoint, I don't know a lot has changed,'' said Palmer, sitting virtually alone at New York's media session at the Giants' Sheraton Wild Horse Pass hotel in nearby Chandler. "Up at training camp in Albany (N.Y.), I made the statement that Eli can take you to the promised land. I was confident he had all the tools to be an excellent quarterback in this league. I don't know if I've deviated at all from what I thought back in August.''

You want a turning point for Manning? Palmer, a first-year Giants coach, knows what he considers Manning's most pivotal test this season. It actually took place long before the pads went on. Back in April, or maybe May, he and Manning spent 13½ hours pouring over the video of every pass Manning threw in 2006. It was a long and painful process, said Palmer. Akin to a quarterback's version of root canal.

"I know I would not have wanted to be in his shoes,'' Palmer said. "I know it had to be terrible for him. He was grilled. I kept saying, 'What are you doing here? What were you seeing on that pass?' There's no way he enjoyed that. It was tough. That was probably the toughest session of my 18 years in the NFL of going through with a quarterback and making him come out of his shell.''

The point of the exercise was to build trust and communication with Manning, a rapport that has served them well through the ups and downs of the Giants' rollercoaster of a 2007 season. Palmer had to learn his quarterback well enough to almost think like him, and still be able to challenge or coax him when need be.

"I was just trying to get inside his head,'' said Palmer, the former Browns head coach who over his NFL career has worked with four different quarterbacks who went first overall in the draft: Drew Bledsoe in New England, Tim Couch in Cleveland, David Carr in Houston and now Manning. "Get him to communicate with me so I could understand what he was thinking. And I was trying to build some trust. I wanted him to have the feeling that he could speak his mind without being chastised or criticized or hung out to dry.

"I think now he's more verbal in meetings, he's more verbal in his communication with (Giants offensive coordinator) Kevin Gilbride, and he's expressing himself and feeling confident. I know when I saw how the other players reacted to him, what they did for him, how they looked at him, there was no question in my mind that he was the leader of the team.''

I definitely got a glimpse of the more confident, more verbal Manning this week. On Monday, in the Giants' first media session of the week, I asked him if his playoff success was satisfying to him in that it validated his more laid-back style of doing things. This is a guy after all who has had everything about his play severely critiqued in his four NFL seasons, from his body language to how he speaks in the huddle. His own general manager, Jerry Reese, said he looked "skittish'' earlier this season, and ex-teammate Tiki Barber went before NBC's cameras and called Manning's past attempts at leadership "comical.''

"I think it just proves it even more,'' Manning said. "If you win, they'll be off your back. If you lose, they'll be right back on it. It's all what have you done for me lately? As long as you keep winning, you'll be fine. But if something happens and you lose a game, they'll be back on it.

"So my deal is this even teaches you more that you can't try and be someone you're not. You can't try and act a certain way to please everybody. You've got to be yourself. You've got to act the only way you know how to play and just got to do it the way you know it. If you're fake, it'll be obvious and the players will see that.''

I'm not positive, but that sounds like a corner turned to me. Manning has figured out who he is as a quarterback, and thanks to what he called "the pull and push'' of Palmer's coaching style, he's a player who is no longer searching for an identity.

"He's a young guy who's been to the playoffs three times in his career,'' Palmer said. "He's a very, very good player, and there are great quarterbacks who have played in this league who have never won a Super Bowl. Some of them are Hall of Famers. I don't know if Eli Manning has been given enough credit for what he's accomplished.''

Good to know we can now all skip the "are we there yet?'' questions regarding Eli Manning. Defining moments can be such tricky little calls to make.

• Speaking of much ado about nothing, the whole Plaxico Burress prediction story is energy wasted on something that won't actually amount to anything come game day. For the record, Burress would have gotten my vote as the Giant most likely to say something useful to the Patriots, but that doesn't mean him predicting a 23-17 Giants win is the breathless news that it has been made out to be.

"It was the first thing that came to me, that's all,'' said Burress, in explaining how he arrived at his final score. "It's all entertainment. Look at how much fun everybody's having with it. I'm having fun. (The media's) having fun. It's making national headlines, international headlines.''

The crazy thing is, he's right. They're probably playing this one up big in Prague.

• Perhaps unwittingly, Burress gave us the companion quote to Bill Belichick's "it is what it is'' gem. Burress on Wednesday came out with: "What I said was what I said.''

Everybody understand?

• Super Bowl reality check: How crazy is it that the Giants are getting a lot of underdog love despite having lost at home to the Patriots just five weeks ago, in a game in which they gave up 38 points and blew a 12-point third-quarter lead? And they were universally lauded for doing that.

Is it all just everybody wanting so much to believe it's going to be a close game?

• My favorite observation making the rounds here in the Super Bowl city is that now that Dave Campo has rejoined the Cowboys, Dallas might be the first team in NFL history that has its present, future and past head coach all on the same staff. That would be, in order, Wade Phillips, Jason Garrett and Campo, who went 5-11 for Dallas each year from 2000-2002.

• Unless the NFL eventually goes to a 17-game regular season, the Patriots perfect season of 19-0 (if they win Sunday) will be an unbreakable record. Randy Moss made that point for us this week, when asked what would be left for New England to accomplish in 2008?

"If for some reason we do win this game, we can't improve,'' Moss said. "But we get to come back and see if we can duplicate it.''

Mike Vrabel might be the bravest man at this year's Super Bowl. The Patriots linebacker actually busted on Belichick and the almost ever-present gray hoodie. Either Vrabel was hoping his comments would be lost amid the deluge of Super Bowl quotes, or he's got a guaranteed contract that has gone previously unreported.

"That's his little woobie,'' Vrabel said of Belichick's sweatshirt. "That's his little security blanket. He's got that pouch and he keeps all his stuff in it. You'd like to see what's inside that pouch, I bet.''

Or not.

• This just in: Giants guard Chris Snee, who happens to be Tom Coughlin's son-in-law, revealed Wednesday that his two small sons call the Giants head coach "Pop-pop.'' Snee prefers calling his son's grandpa the somewhat less personal-sounding "Coach.''

"When we're at Giants Stadium, he's the coach, and when we're off the field he's the father-in-law,'' Snee said. "We've been doing this for four years, and we've got a good relationship.''

Every once in a while, Snee still hears about it from his Giants teammates. "Coaches sometimes call people 'Son,' '' Snee said. "He does that quite a bit. He happened to say it to me once when I messed up, and everybody jumped on it.''

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