All Manning Needs is Time

Let me first say that I never wanted Eli Manning on the Giants. I wanted Ben Roethlisberger and extra draft picks, and was baffled by the team's love affair with Peyton's little brother.

I started to change my tune last season. Eli Manning was the real deal, my eyes told me. Look at the way he throws the ball, the way he comes through in the clutch, the way he wins. Then Manning promptly led us through a miserable final month punctuated by a shutout loss to Carolina in the playoffs.

So now I find myself somewhere in the middle separating Manning's critics and fans. It is the worst possible place for an opinion-maker to be, like rooting for a tie in the presidential election.

But I have a considerably stronger take on the fashionable criticism flying toward Manning from all directions. Fashionable, convenient and shortsighted.

We all know the guy hasn't exactly shredded defenses the way he tore apart the 2004 NFL draft with his silly power play. Lately he has been especially bad, conjuring images of his starting debut two seasons ago.

And yes, as we are reminded on a near minute-by-minute basis, he's no Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers, the guy who helped lead San Diego to a whopping two games better than the Giants after 10 games. (By the way, I have news for the Eli haters: If he traded starting running backs with Rivers, the Giants would be two games better.)

Anyway, a whole bunch of us are breaking New York records for short memories, if not attention spans. Manning is in his second full season as starter. He led the Giants to an 11-5 record and their first division title since 2000 in his first season as starter. That's not so bad.

We all know the flaws he took out of last season, with inaccuracy and inconsistency heading the list. But we are still talking about a guy who made big strides after starting only seven games his rookie season.

Manning highlighted this season by taking the Giants on a five-game win streak following the brutal game in Seattle. The Giants were 6-2 and all was right in the world of young Eli Manning.

Two games later pundits are trying to work out a do-over on the 2004 draft. Reactions vary from whining over losing out on Rivers – succeeding Roethlisberger as this year's Giants fan/media QB of choice – to benching Manning.

More than one fan has delivered this inquiry: "Who's the Giants backup quarterback, again?'' Told it's Jared Lorenzen, commonly known as the ''Hefty Lefty'' or ''J-Load,'' the fan replies, "Yeah, put him in.''

Yeah, and watch the Giants go from struggling to pitiful in a New York minute. Nothing against Lorenzen, but the only place he might be able to help the Giants is at left tackle.

Somehow lost in the equation is the affect a key injury has on the offense. Replacing left tackle Luke Petitgout with Bob Whitfield has hurt Manning's protection and the team's running game. Both problems can negatively impact a quarterback's play.

Most of the Manning critics, meanwhile, spend too much time discussing whom the team didn't choose in the draft. For those fine folks, I offer a simple question: How many NFL quarterbacks would a logical-thinking person rather have on his team than Manning?

I came up with six, tops: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Matt Hasselbeck.

The number certainly would be higher if you were solely going off Manning's worst stretch since his rookie season. In fact I'm inclined to remove Rivers, whose sparkling season represents his entire NFL résumé. How many division titles has Rivers won?

The point is that for all his flaws, you aren't going to find many quarterbacks better than Eli Manning. There may be a few better short-term solutions: Marc Bulger, Trent Green, Steve McNair, Brett Favre and Tony Romo come to mind. But they either don't offer the long-term upside or, in the case of Romo, haven't proven much in the league.

Yes, Manning has played average to atrocious the last month or so. Yes, he has discovered old habits that absolutely frighten Big Blue loyalists. Yes, he made a couple Joe Pisarcik plays against Jacksonville. Yes, he remains maddeningly inconsistent.

And yes, every single one of his flaws can, and I believe will, be fixed.

Nobody wants to hear it, not fans, not teammates, not Tom Coughlin and certainly not the media: But the boy needs time. Only the most rare NFL quarterback has the entire package by age 25. Manning turns 26 on Jan. 3, and guess what New York, he's going to have more bad days.

* * *

What Tiki Barber hoped to accomplish by his latest criticism of coaches is beyond me.

Just like I can't understand his motive following the playoff loss to Carolina, I'm baffled at why Barber would once more decide to complain about the coaching staff. Has Barber simply waited for the worst possible times to rip the bosses? First after a crushing playoff loss, then after a second straight loss, Manning's worst game all season and a crisis point for the team.

Barber has grumbled about a lack of carries on other occasions. The fact that he went public with his comments – again – after playing miserably at Jacksonville is unfathomable. The way Barber was stumbling around, he didn't deserve the 10 carries he got.

He wanted to compare the Giants' situation to that of San Diego. The Chargers continue running the ball when they are behind, Barber noted. That's because they have a breakaway back named LaDainian Tomlinson, who doesn't get caught from behind, who has moves and speed and quickness Barber could only dream of having.

The issue isn't even whether Barber has a sound point or not. If he needs to voice his displeasure, do so behind closed doors. Nothing can be accomplished by spouting off publicly.

Maybe it is time for Barber to retire. He sure sounds like he's auditioning for an analyst job.

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