Manning's come a long way in a year

As he walked the aisle of the train carrying the Giants back from their lopsided 37-14 loss in Baltimore December 12, quarterback coach Kevin Gilbride noticed Eli Manning sitting by himself, looking sullen. Gilbride saw an opportunity. He plopped into the empty seat to see if there was anything Manning wanted to talk about after completing only 4 of 18 for 27 yards with two interceptions and the quarterback rating of 0.0 that came with it.

"It was an ugly feeling after that game," Gilbride said. "I never had any question about his ability or what his potential was, but I did worry what might happen to him psychologically, emotionally or spiritually. We didn't play very well and he didn't play very well. We had a chance to have quite an interesting discussion on that train ride back home."

Gilbride used the trip to encourage Manning, the rookie starter who had lost his first four starts, to express his opinions more assertively, especially when it came to sharing concerns with his coaches and teammates.

"He's such a driven and respectful young man that I'm not sure he felt comfortable doing it," Gilbride said. "I told him we needed to know what his thoughts were. He needed to know we were going to go only as far as he could take us."

Manning responded by speaking up, requesting that certain plays he was more comfortable with be considered for upcoming game plans. Giants coach Tom Coughlin complied, but it still took three more weeks – and two more defeats – before Manning got his first and only victory on the final day of the 2004 season.

But now Manning is ready for bigger and better things, something the Giants, 6-10 in 2004, will be depending on once training camp starts in Albany July 28.

Manning was named the Giants starter Nov. 15 after two cameo appearances and struggled through some difficult stretches until engineering a last-minute drive to beat the Cowboys on the final play of the season for his first NFL victory as a starter.

With Kurt Warner now playing for Arizona – the two will be matched up at Giants Stadium in the season opener – it looks like Manning will be backed up by Jesse Palmer, in his fifth year, and Tim Hasselbeck, in his fourth. Ironically, the two have combined for eight starts in all their years, just one more than Manning.

"Last year I came to mini-camp and didn't know what I was doing," Manning said. ‘I was running plays for the first time, throwing to receivers I didn't know. Now I've got a better idea about it all. You feel comfortable and more confident and your fundamentals are much better."

His season of hard knocks led to an offseason of study and self-evaluation.

"He's taken quite a few opportunities to analyze our season and to look at our opponents," Coughlin said. "I feel it's been very beneficial for him. He's had a syllabus since the first day of workouts [March 21] and he's worked on it individually, with the other quarterbacks and with Kevin Gilbride. But he still has a bunch of stuff on his plate.

"His relationship with Kevin, John Hufnagel [the offensive coordinator] and myself should be enough [to help him develop with a veteran backup like Kurt Warner]. We need a backup who can play, if it came to that. But in terms of having a real veteran [to counsel him], I think Eli is beyond that.

"Quarterback is a position of leadership, but each player does it in a different way. They grow to be more confident in terms of expressing themselves. Now Eli is going to lead by his example, by making plays. That's the best way to do it."

Manning's coaches now say they see the natural growth they expected in the quarterback expected to lead the franchise for the next decade.

"Responsibility comes with the territory," Manning said during the team's three-day June mini-camp. "As a quarterback, you have to be a leader you have to make sure everyone knows what they are doing and that everyone is on the same page. That's the job and I'm comfortable with it. Right now, it's going fine. I think everyone is listening, I think everyone understands that I have to play better. I have to go out there and know what I'm doing and I think they expect me to."

Gilbride, a former head coach of the Chargers and offensive coordinator for the Oilers, Jaguars, Bills and Steelers, said he could see the difference in Manning in the way he carries himself around the practice field.

"His personality reminds me a little of Mark Brunell and Warren Moon in that neither was an outspoken guy who liked to yell," said Gilbride, who coached both in Jacksonville and Houston. "They would rather lead by example, but when they said something – and this isn't to say Eli has that status yet – his teammates knew they had to change. Eli's teammates can see the talent that maybe wasn't fully tapped last year because of his uncertainties. Now they are seeing the accuracy and the arm strength, the physical ability and the preparation he's putting in.

"If you watch him in practice now you'll notice how he'll walk over [to a teammate] whereas last year he may have been a little hesitant. That was coming on last season, but it's a gradual, incremental thing. His sense about things and confidence are enhanced."

Manning said he felt a little hesitant about expressing himself as a rookie, even after Coughlin promoted him to starter after the ninth game.

"As a rookie you worry how you might come across to your teammates. You're not a starter and the team really isn't your own," Manning said. "You have to get comfortable with your teammates, and as a second-year guy you've got a better feel for them, have a relationship with them that makes it easier for you to bring things up if you need to. You have a little more leeway. It might not result in anything, but at least you have the option to say what you're thinking.

"I'm not a big rah-rah guy if you score a touchdown. I'm more of a guy that acts like it's something you are supposed to do. I can get excited and I can get mad and get on people. But I try to stay under control."

Palmer, the Giants backup quarterback and Manning's closest friend on the team, said he's seen the change, too.

"You don't assume Eli would be the type of guy who might assert himself that way. But he's really able to do that," Palmer said. "He's a different Eli when he gets on the field. He's not the kind of guy who will grab your facemask and punch you in the face. But he can take control of the huddle. He wants to lead by example by letting his play speak for him and let his teammates rally around him in that way."

Manning combined his new approach with intense study during the offseason, which the Giants hope will improve upon his 48.2 completion percentage. He also had only six touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

"He's asking questions now that show how much he's progressed," Gilbride said. "He understands the system, the personnel, now he's looking toward the solutions for the specific problems. I'm not sure he was ready or able to ask them last year."

Said Manning: "At every level you play, if you're the quarterback you're expecting to get things done. That's what I like. That's why I wanted to come here and play quarterback."

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