CHANDLER, Ariz. - Never was it about the arm strength. Or the accuracy. Or the footwork. Or the downfield vision. It wasn't about the decisions he made, either.
No, what seemed to get everybody riled up about Eli Manning was the way he would hang his head if something went wrong.
"I think a lot of people talked to him about that, what he looked like," said Jerry Reese, who one year ago was promoted to general manager of the New York Giants. The team had just been ousted in the first round of the NFL playoffs for the second straight season and as he pondered his to-do list, Reese penciled in a talk with the team's high-profile, often-maligned young quarterback.
"I told Eli, 'Be yourself. You can't be anyone else, but you are the leader. Show that leadership,' " said Reese, who had worked in the Giants' front office since 1994 and was well wired into all matters concerning Elisha Nelson Manning, son of Elisha Archie Manning III, brother of Peyton Williams Manning.
Reese was privy to the thinking that went into the Giants' move at the 2004 NFL draft, when Manning was chosen No. 1 by San Diego, even after the University of Mississippi quarterback said he would not sign with the Chargers. Choosing fourth that spring, the Giants took quarterback Philip Rivers, then initiated a deal with the Chargers. Rivers went to San Diego, Manning came to the Big Apple and if both franchises appeared satisfied, no one was happier than the dogged New York media, for it not only had a No. 1 draft pick coming to play quarterback for a historic franchise, but one who hailed from arguably one of the most famous football families in the country.
Talk about easy targets.
"If he listened to the things said and written about him, they might have to put him a white jacket," said Chris Palmer, the Giants quarterback coach. Sipping an iced tea while standing in a lobby at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass, Palmer and the Giants are just a few days from a date in Super Bowl XLII with Manning as their unquestioned leader. Armed with a calm demeanor and 35 years of coaching experience, the last 17 of which have come at the NFL level, Palmer reminds reporters that Manning has helped the Giants into postseason play all three seasons in which he has been the starter, yet the wolves still seem to be at the young man's door.
"Some people in New York would throw Racquel Welch under the bed because she can't cook," said Palmer, shaking head.
Not 10 minutes earlier, the 27-year-old Manning stood in a ballroom not 100 feet from Palmer and faced a fourth straight day of media interrogation in advance of Sunday's game. So heavily critiqued for each of his first two seasons as a starter, both of which had concluded with wild-card losses, it has taken three playoff wins on the road to earn Manning begrudging respect - though some can't get that "hang-dog" demeanor out of their minds.
Palmer smiles and suggests that that image needs to be edited.
"He's grown from last year," said Palmer. "He's not putting the head down, looking for worms. He has confidence in himself. He has confidence in his teammates. I can't speak for those guys, but when I go through the locker room, [Eli] is the leader. They put that 'C' on his chest for a reason."
Family strengthHis father, Archie, is a state treasure in Mississippi, where he was born and where he led Ole Miss to football glory. Oldest brother Cooper went to Ole Miss, too, only he had to curtail his football career because of a spinal illness. Middle son Peyton? He's completed a million passes and won a thousand games for the Colts, one of them last year's Super Bowl that only helped him maintain pace with Tom Brady for the title of "best quarterback in the NFL."
A sparkling trio. Gifted athletically and fiercely competitive.
As for Manning's third son, it's apparent to those who know the family Eli has a closer bond to his mother, Olivia. It's just not something he focuses on. The bigger picture, he'll tell you, is the family life he had.
"I think our parents did a great job of not putting expectations on us," said Eli. "They wanted us to be ourselves and do whatever we loved to do."
That was football - by his choice, he insists. And the fact it took him to Ole Miss is something he's proud of, no matter he was going to play in 30-year-old shadows cast by his father. Those who question Eli's willingness to take on a challenge, said Palmer, should consider that decision to go to the University of Mississippi and the acceptance of the challenge of playing in New York.
"If I had a son who was a quarterback, I'd never want him to be the first pick in the draft," said Palmer. "I'm sure there are even guys in our locker room who say to themselves, 'Boy, I'm glad I'm not Eli Manning,' but I think he has handled it all very well."
Having backed up Kurt Warner the first nine weeks of 2004, his rookie season, Eli Manning was pronounced "the future of the New York Giants" by coach Tom Coughlin and was handed the starting job with the team 5-4. The Giants proceeded to lose six straight, introducing the young quarterback to the ferocity of the New York media. The fact he threw for just six touchdowns and nine interceptions in his rookie campaign was proof he was not cool under pressure.
Or so stated members of the press.
Hard to pleaseIt didn't get much better in 2005 or 2006, when Manning combined to throw for 48 touchdowns and 35 interceptions and failed to generate a passer rating beyond 77. Granted, the Giants won their division in 2005 and slipped into the playoffs in the other, but Manning was viewed as a young man who let miscues bother him so much, the attitude filtered throughout the team.
He disagreed, but he knew the scrutiny came with being not only a quarterback, but a quarterback chosen with the first pick of a draft.
"You can't get caught up in it," said Manning. "You're not going to be able to fill everybody's expectations of what you're supposed to do. I think having watched Peyton and some of the growing pains he went through . . . I think a lot of people forget about those first couple of years in the league and what was going on [with the Colts], because he's had recent success."
Eli raises a good point. Peyton Manning, after all, only helped the Colts into the postseason in two of his first four seasons and it wasn't until his sixth year that he won a playoff game. That Super Bowl victory for which Peyton Manning is most proud? It came one year ago, in his ninth season, so arguably baby brother is on a better pace.
Then again, the less he is compared with his older brother, the better.
"Eli is mentally tough," said Reese. "He can't go out there and be Peyton. He's got to go out there and be Eli."
Riding with his teammates on a 2007 roller coaster - two losses to start the season, six straight wins, a 4-4 stretch over the final eight games with all the losses at home, then three consecutive playoff victories on the road - Manning has settled into the final few hours before Sunday's game at the University of Phoenix Stadium. He knows the critics are still out there, pointing to the 20 interceptions and 23 touchdown passes or the 73.9 rating in the regular season. But so, too, does he sense the sentiment that perhaps the young man is going to be fine. After all, in the three playoff wins, Eli Manning completed 62.4 of his passes, four for touchdowns, none getting intercepted.
Palmer dismisses suggestions that Manning has become new and improved, that he has done things differently in these playoff wins. "I don't see a big change in him. People [in the media] are putting it all on Eli, but as a group we're playing better," said Palmer.
No, he doesn't have the Brady résumé, but who among current quarterbacks does?
What Eli does have is the Manning name, but Palmer will argue that that's not a deterrent, that Eli Manning learned long ago how to handle that situation.
"A name is a name," said Palmer. "He's his own man. He's a talented player, but he just has to be himself."
With the head up, of course.
Jim McCabe can be reached at email@example.com.