When looking at the 2008 final standings in the NFC East, it's hard to call a 12-4 finish and division title a letdown.
But after leading his team to a fabled run through the NFL playoffs and claiming a Lombardi Trophy as the Super Bowl MVP a year prior, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning would beg to differ.
"We learned from last year that it's not how you start, but how you finish," Manning said Thursday. "Last season, we really started the season strong. But at the end of the year, we weren't playing at our best. Now we're really focusing on playing our best football at the end of the season."
There's no denying who the face of the organization is these days, as Manning's likeness can be seen on any street corner of New York City.
The former Ole Miss great has made "the City that Never Sleeps" his home, but often finds time to make his way back to Oxford – the place where he stamped his place in Rebel lore.
"Everything's going real well," Manning said of the offseason. "It's a joy to be back in Oxford. I've been working out at the IPF. It's fun. I get to see the guys, the coaches and some former players. Mostly I use the afternoons to relax and play some golf. It's just a nice time for a little relaxation before training camp."
Ole Miss fans will never forget the years of the prodigal son, when Manning led his team to a 10-3 record and Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State in the 2003 Cotton Bowl Classic.
He was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year that season, while finishing his career with 10,119 passing yards and setting 45 single-game season and career records. He also grabbed the Maxwell Trophy as a senior, awarded to the nation's best all-around player by a panel of media and head coaches, shortly after.
It catapulted the New Orleans (La.) native to the top selection in the 2004 draft by the San Diego Chargers, before Manning was dealt to the Giants in a draft day trade.
While he is no longer afforded the chance to don the Red and Blue, one of Ole Miss' greatest alumni has continued to find ways to follow his former team.
Even Eli will admit of getting somewhat caught up in the excitement across campus.
"They've got some great players and good leadership from guys that have been there for a while," Manning said of the Rebels' upcoming season. "Last year was their first taste of winning in a while. But they're excited about that and worked hard for it. I can still sense that they're competitive. I've been watching some pass scale and they really get after it. The guys are hungry. They understand they have something special about this group and don't want to waste the opportunity"
Having been through the trials of stardom as the man under center for the Rebels, Manning understands the pressures facing current starter Jevan Snead as he enters his junior season.
Snead has taken over the team similar to that of Manning in his playing days, but Eli warns against getting caught up in the emotions of high expectations.
"Jevan came in last season and you saw him grow as a player throughout the season," said Manning. "When you think about it, he hadn't really played at the collegiate level until last year. It took him a little time managing the game and getting into the college flow. As the year went on, he got better and better. By the end of the season, he was playing as good as anyone. Hopefully he has that same attitude and doesn't force things. He just needs to continue to play within the system and trust his guys.
"I had a little trouble my junior year trying to do too much. You get a little over-confident. You can't try to make plays when something's not there. When you try to make something happen that's not open, that's when you get in trouble. He just needs to continue to play within the offense. Hopefully the defense puts him in a good position too. You can play aggressive and have confidence in your ability, but play within yourself. They have a good coaching staff that will put him in the best position to succeed."
Manning has had to adhere to his own advice this summer, as the Giants cut ties with controversial receiver Plaxico Burress early in the offseason.
The team took North Carolina wide receiver Hakeem Nicks in the first round of April's draft to help offset the departure of Burress, but returns a core of wideouts with no real star power.
But despite the appeared concern, Manning feels the current group can help open up OC Kevin Gilbride's offensive playbook.
"I'm excited about our group of guys. We have a different feel at the wide receiver core this year," he said. "I really think we've become quicker and more explosive. It's a new look to the group. They're young and still learning, but they have some big playmaking ability. I think we'll be able to hit more deep throws with guys in stride. We'll have an ability to make some big plays out of some big throws and some more opportunities to have a more explosive offense. It'll be a receiver-by-committee approach."
However, regardless of who lines up beside him, Manning is focused on becoming better as an overall player in his sixth season.
"You know, I just want to continue to grow," Manning said. "Every year presents you with new challenges and opportunities. I want to grow as a leader and a quarterback. You never know what you'll go through in a season. Hopefully we'll get to the playoffs and make a run to another Super Bowl."
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