All alone and on the move, Eli Manning never wavered. With every step through the throng of autograph hounds and well-wishers idling near the players' parking lot at Giants Stadium on Sunday, hours after New York's 14-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the rookie quarterback droned on about the mistakes he'd made, shouldering all the blame for the defeat and emphasizing his need to "watch more film" and "play more games," the better to "gain confidence" and "comfort" with the "speed of the NFL." It was a familiar refrain--seeing as he'd delivered exactly the same message to the assembled media just minutes before. It was also vintage Manning: displaying grace and poise for the cameras, parrying questions like a 10-year veteran and, now, beating a retreat even while hitting his talking points with numbing consistency.
Until, that is, he arrived at his slate-gray SUV and, alone and distracted, finally let his feelings show. "How long will this first loss sting?" he was asked. He sighed and, for once, abandoned the spin. "I don't know," he said, "but I'm not looking forward to finding out."
It was a startling admission, coming from a member of such an image-conscious family, and on a day steeped in intrigue: the first NFL start of the top pick in the 2004 draft; the continuation of an unprecedented family tradition; a desperate city's long search for a true NFL superstar; and, not least, a tailspinning team's fight for its playoff life.
Afterward it was tempting to judge Manning as he's always been judged: in comparison with others, be it his father, Archie, the New Orleans Saints' alltime passing leader; his brother Peyton, the Indianapolis Colts' prolific passer; or Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers' stellar rookie signal-caller, who is 8-0 as a starter.
But the Giants care only how Manning's performance compared with that of deposed starter Kurt Warner. After Manning's solid debut (17 of 37 passing, 162 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), it seems fair to say that the team, while in able hands, hasn't yet found the cure for its fading fortunes. Sunday's loss was the third straight and the fourth in five games for the Giants (5-5), whose road gets no easier this week, when the NFC East rival Philadelphia Eagles (9-1) come to the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Still, the precocious rookie's opening bow won rave reviews from teammates and opponents alike. "All year we've seen his ability," Giants tailback Tiki Barber said. "The way he stepped in this week was awesome--not just on the field but in the locker room, with the things he said or didn't say. He didn't try too hard, didn't force anything. Yeah, we're in Eli's hands now."
Said Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking, "All week long we'd say among ourselves, 'Let's welcome Eli to the NFL.' We didn't talk to him, we acted like he wasn't there. But we came away with tremendous respect for him. You could see it. Nothing fazes him."
The same could no longer be said for Warner, the two-time league MVP as a St. Louis Ram who'd looked like a shell of his formerly productive self in the last month as New York's starter. While most of the responsibility for the Giants' league-leading 40 sacks allowed before Sunday lay with the line, Warner was also to blame. Besides having trouble holding on to the ball--he has fumbled 12 times this season--he looked increasingly feeble in the face of a pass rush. Too often he either missed or ignored open receivers downfield. Despite completing 62.7% of his passes, Warner had thrown only six touchdown passes in nine games--and none to starting wideouts Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard.
Following a 17--14 road loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 14, Giants coach Tom Coughlin had seen enough. He called Warner into his office the following day and told him he was being benched, and then he summoned Manning to tell him of his promotion. Oddly, Coughlin didn't announce the move to the team, instead letting word of the switch leak into the locker room. Many Giants were caught off guard, but "it wasn't a situation where anyone was pointing fingers at Kurt," Barber says. "Coach obviously felt like he needed to make a change. As players, it's our job to make that change as seamless as possible. With his work ethic and personality, Eli made that easy."
Easy is, in fact, Manning's nickname, which he picked up as a youngster in New Orleans. Even as his first NFL start loomed, Manning seemed as excited as a mortician, strolling through the locker room wearing his usual hangdog expression. But that mien, say his veteran teammates, belies his preparation and unflappability. "There's a reason this guy was drafted where he was," Hilliard says. "He's the real deal."
Indeed, from the preseason quarterback competition through the recent weeks, when New York tabloids and talk-radio mouths were howling for Warner's head, Manning remained the picture of calm. After all, comfort in the spotlight is a family hallmark. Manning knew his every move would be scrutinized, so he followed his brother's example, inhaling the playbook and throwing himself into film study.
But the true test wouldn't come, of course, until he stepped on the field, and on Sunday he started shakily. While his mandate was clear--drop back quickly, make reads quickly, throw quickly--he looked skittish in the pocket and sprayed several passes in the first half. "I was so concerned with getting rid of the ball," he said, "that I was throwing when my guys weren't ready. I made some mistakes." So, too, did his receivers: In the first half alone they dropped five catchable balls. Meanwhile, Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was playing Superman, using his arm and feet to lead two touchdown drives (both of which ended with scoring throws to tight end Alge Crumpler) and put Atlanta up 14-0 with 9:09 left in the second quarter. After that, said Giants tackle David Diehl, "Eli settled down, and we started playing the way we can in the second half."
With 12:30 remaining in the third quarter, a decidedly more comfortable Manning took the Giants on a 16-play, 72-yard drive that ended with his first touchdown pass, a six-yarder to tight end Jeremy Shockey. New York's defense forced a Falcons punt two minutes later, and the Giants looked ready to tie the score at 14 when disaster struck. On second-and-five at the Falcons' 28, Manning made a mistake against one of Atlanta's rare zone blitzes, throwing a quick slant to his left that Falcons end Brady Smith intercepted (box, left). Though on their ensuing possession the Giants drove the ball to Atlanta's eight, they had to settle for Steve Christie's 24yard field goal with 6:28 left.
That would be the closest Manning would come to guiding his team to victory, despite having a final shot with the ball at the New York 26 with 1:52 remaining. On fourth-and-three at the Atlanta 42, Manning's pass to Shockey was batted away by Brooking.
Surrounded by cameras as he left the field, Manning was already in full self-abuse mode. "I was disappointed," he said, "because as a quarterback that's what you want: the ball in your hands, with a chance to win the game." But Coughlin, for one, was sanguine.
"I asked for a great effort and got a great effort," the coach said. "But we needed guys to step up and help [Manning] make plays, and they didn't."
If the Giants are to make the playoffs, they'd better step up soon. Their $54 million man can't afford a lengthy learning curve. The ship is taking on water by the day. If Manning is to keep it from sinking, he'll have to be much better next week.
Just ask him.