Patience is a virtue

Joe Theismann remembers exactly when it happened, when everything finally clicked for him on an NFL field. It was like magic, like something inside him snapped and he suddenly understood everything. The cornerbacks seemed slower. The receivers seemed faster. The open spaces downfield were bigger. He felt like he had all day to throw.

Now that would be a real nice story if that all happened in his first NFL start. But it didn't. In fact, it didn't until his third season in the league. By then Theismann had already been a backup for most of two seasons and seen plenty of action.

But the first time he took the field for real, there was nothing magical at all.

"The first time you set foot on the field the thing that jumps out at you is how when you see a hole, how quickly it disappears," said the ex-Redskins quarterback, now an analyst for ESPN. "If you see a window to throw the ball, how quickly that window can disappear, or when you're throwing an out route, how quickly the corners can close. Those are things that jump out at you."

"I call it the ghost syndrome," added Boomer Esiason, the ex-Bengals and Jets QB who now works for CBS. "It's when you think you saw something that didn't happen. You think there's a player standing in a certain spot, then when you look at the film the next day you say 'Damn, I thought … well, I guess not.' It's all of that indecision and anxiety wrapped up into one."

Those are just some of the things that must have been going on inside Eli Manning's head on Sunday when the rookie made his first start at quarterback for the Giants and began what everyone expects will be a long and productive career in the NFL. No matter what the result was against the Falcons or how he performed, most former NFL quarterbacks guarantee he'll eventually endure some rookie struggles.

And they all believe it could be several years before he's truly settled in to his job.

"When this year's over he'll come back and say, 'You know what? As a rookie I had no clue,'" said former Colts, Vikings and Chargers quarterback Sean Salisbury, now an analyst for ESPN. "Even if he throws for 320 three games in a row, he'll tell you he had no clue. Because you really don't. There's times it's easy to hyperventilate and create things that aren't there. You start to think 'Gosh they're going to blitz' when they're nowhere near blitzing."

There are arguments against that, of course. But other than Hall of Famer Dan Marino and Pittsburgh rookie Ben Roethlisberger, there are very few rookie quarterbacks who have made the game look easy. Throw in the weight of expectations on Manning's shoulders, the inevitable comparisons to his father and brother, the pressure because of the knowledge that the Giants could have drafted Roethlisberger, the inherent pressure of New York, the current dilapidated state of the Giants' offense, and the number of top defenses they're playing the next few weeks … as Salisbury said, "You couldn't draw it up worse" for his first year.

"That will make it a little nerve-wracking for Eli, and I think it'll probably make it a little nerve-wracking for the coaches," Esiason said. "But you know what? You might as well do it now and see if he can get it done. If he can't, at least you know you're going to have a battle-tested guy for next year."

That can be a good thing, too, as Troy Aikman learned when he was a rookie with the Cowboys in 1989. He was the first overall pick and he excelled in his first preseason. The game seemed slow. At times it was easy. "It really just felt like an extension of college to me," Aikman said. "And I thought, 'Wow, I don't know why everybody makes such a big deal about this NFL stuff.'"

The regular season was a different story. On a bad Cowboys team, Aikman - who broadcast Manning's NFL debut as an analyst for Fox Sports, went 0-11 as a starter and took a beating behind a bad offensive line that he wasn't expecting to take. "It was unlike anything," Aikman said. "I couldn't have prepared myself. Preseason did not prepare me for it. And I don't know that anything could have.

"It's just something we all went through," Aikman added. "There's going to be some growing pains for him. It won't be seamless. But I really expect that he'll be fine."

That was the other consensus among the former NFL quarterbacks, that eventually Manning will be comfortable and fine. There will some trying times in the immediate future, no doubt. "He'll have some moments that really look good to Giants fans and he'll have some moments of, 'OK, where's he throwing that one?'" Esiason said.

But in the long run, they all said everyone should remember that Manning is the Giants' quarterback of the future for a reason.

He's probably going to be a great one. But it's going to take some time.

"The only way that he is going to get better is by going through the process, making the mistakes, looking at himself on film and saying, 'OK, I should've thrown it here,'" Theismann said. "Because he's the only one that can see what's in front of him. Kurt (Warner) could stand there and explain it to him, but it wouldn't do him any good unless you do it. It's truly a baptism under fire, and an education as well."

"You're going to grow and you're going to learn and you're going to ache and you're going to be frustrated - all those things that young quarterbacks do to you," Esiason added. "But this is fun time for Giants fans because the future is going to be unfolding before their eyes."

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