Eye on Eli

If taking someone at face value has any credence in the maturation process of a young quarterback, then Eli Manning's got it. Heck, the 24-year-old wonder kid with the pedigreed rocket arm even looks older and bigger.

Gone is the strained expression and hunched shoulders of continually answering when he's going to get his first win. He notched that in the last game with a last-second 28-24 win over Bill Parcells' Cowboys.

He's added an extra seven pounds, now at 227, during the offseason while hanging out with family and friends in New Orleans and Mississippi, plus a quick jaunt to the Caribbean.

In the words of an old Saturday Night Live skit, young Eli indeed looks tan, rested and ready to face a new season fully in charge.

We know because he said so. Several times.

"It's time to get back to work," Manning said, surrounded by the usual throng of reporters, but now sounding more confident than W at a Republican rally in Texas. "We obviously didn't play well last year, so there's a lot of work needed to get better. We've got to see what we can do in the offseason to put us in a position to win more games this season.

"I'm excited and look forward to get back on the field with the coaches."

When asked if he thought crusty coach Tom Coughlin would change and be less surly with the players than he was last year, Manning answered like a veteran.

"I don't think so," he said. "I think once you get on the field it's time to work. That's how football is and I know he works very hard and he expects us to work hard."

Manning's got lots of reasons to feel confident about the new season and the renewed commitment to improve on last season's 6-10 record – specifically because of two new big free agent pickups to help bolster his offense.

While Kareem McKenzie's massive 6-6, 327-pound frame and sound fundamental play should shore up a line that gave up 52 sacks last year, the free agent pickup Manning's most excited about is the 6-5, 226-pound former Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress. Not present for the first week of offseason conditioning, Burress just needed to take one look at the locker room to quickly grasp who his new best friend will be.

Manning. Considering that the coaches conspicuously adjoined their lockers, the two will no doubt get to know each other.

"Obviously, he's a playmaker," said Manning about his new Giant neighbor. "He's a big guy, he's a physical guy, he's a guy in the red zone you can throw a fade to and let him jump up and make plays."

Last year, an off year for Burress, the former Michigan State star hauled down just 35 passes for 698 yards and 5 touchdowns but still sported an eye-popping 19.9-yard average. His previous three seasons, Burress averaged 68 catches for 1,064 yards.

The Giants hope a fresh start for Burress will help brighten a stale receiving corps. Cruel maybe, but if there is one stat that sticks out like Marty Schottenheimer at a Manning family picnic, it's the prehistoric goose egg that last year's starting receivers, Amani Toomer, and recently cut veteran Ike Hilliard, put up in 2004 – totaling 100 catches for 1,184 yards and, shockingly, zippo TDs. Suffice to say, they were the only starting duo in the league who never got to dance in the end zone.

Now with Burress, Toomer and tight end Jeremy Shockey all 100 percent healthy, Manning suddenly has three towers of power to throw to, which should improve last year's paltry 48 percent completion rate.

"It's definitely good having big receivers and guys who can get down the field, go across the middle and make plays. And also guys who can break tackles and go the distance," Manning said. "We have a lot of weapons on this team and now it's just a matter of getting with them and using their ability. It's my job to get them the ball as much as I can and let them be athletes."

Taking ownership of the team is something Manning is more than prepared to do. He realizes it's his team now and exudes a calmness and steely focus that was difficult for him to possess last season.

With the competition between ultimate team player Kurt Warner over, Manning has another strong quarterbacking support crew. Newly signed veteran Jim Miller and Jesse Palmer will vie for the second QB spot with gravity challenged youngster Jared (insert your own favorite nickname here) Lorenzen, who's hoping to stick with the team as a third- or fourth-backup.

Along with the big-name free agent pickups, the Giants brass did a couple other smart things this offseason. They resigned Palmer and fullback Jim Finn, both friends of Manning's.

"We've had a chance to become pretty good friends," Palmer said. "We live in the same building so we have a chance to spend a lot of time hanging out. Dinners, things like that. It helps that we're both quarterbacks, go over the playbook together. The unique thing about this locker is everyone gets along well."

If Palmer does have one complaint about his buddy Manning, it's his busy schedule. "We were supposed to go to Europe together this offseason, but he dropped the ball," Palmer smiled. "So I went by myself and had a great time."

Hey, the kid can only share so much face time with everyone.

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