Is Eli coming?

If the Giants had found a way to get the Cowboys off the field in the final minute of the fourth quarter, if the Giants had won the coin toss in overtime and if Eli Manning had gotten his hands on the ball and finished what he started by directing a game-winning drive, you can bet headlines would have been far different after the game of December 3rd.

No one would have called for Tom Coughlin's job. No one would have obsessed about the importance of a timeout called by Plaxico Burress or dissected whether or not Brandon Jacobs should have cut inside rather than get dropped for a loss when he ran outside. The four personal foul penalties would have been footnotes, not an indictment of a team that can't control itself. And, most significantly, those corny "He's the Manning'' headlines or "Eli's Coming'' back pages would have been all the rage.

The way Manning, trailing 20-13, engineered a seven-play, 63-yard drive, getting the ball with 3:28 remaining and proceeding to connect on all six of his passes, is why the Giants fell in love with him in the first place. His decisions were quick, his throws were decisive and his accuracy was true when with pinpoint precision he hit Burress, who wasn't completely open against Dallas cornerback Anthony Henry, for a 5-yard touchdown pass with only 1:06 left in the fourth quarter. Of course, a defensive meltdown in the last minute cost the Giants the game and, despite his solid play, pushed Manning back behind Cowboys sensation Tony Romo as the quarterback of the day.

Manning needed that performance in the worst way. In his nearly three years with the Giants, he was allowed to experience the traditional rookie growing pains and the way he closed out the 2004 season offered reason for great optimism. The way he started out 2005 stamped Manning as the rising star the Giants knew he'd be. The way he finished up the 2005 season, low-lighted by his ineptitude in the playoff loss to the Panthers, opened up a can of doubt. The way he started off this season, Manning was labeled as older, wiser, more experienced. The way he slumped in the second half of this season provided more fodder for the theorists who never liked Eli in the first place.

Notice a trend developing? Following the bouncing ball of Manning's evolution is dizzying stuff, except for the fact that his head is never spinning. His low-key personality has been poked and probed, his monotone delivery and seemingly dispassionate take on nearly everything studied for signs of life. Is he a leader or merely the quarterback?

It was interesting that after their epic collapse in Nashville, the Giants the next afternoon held a players-only meeting. Michael Strahan called it and the intention was for the veterans to assure the younger players that all is not lost and to attend to business and not get distracted by the hubbub surrounding the team.

The roll call of speakers at the meeting contained few surprises. Strahan. Tiki Barber. Antonio Pierce. Shaun O'Hara. Bob Whitfield, the aged tackle, spoke. Even injured tackle Luke Petitgout, rarely the loquacious type, offered his take on the situation. One player was noticeably seated and silent. Eli Manning.

Sure, this was a veteran production, designed to snap the younger players to attention, calm the hysteria and demand urgency. The question is this: Now in his third full season, doesn't Manning qualify as a veteran, considering he's the face of the franchise? The position of quarterback, by definition, must include leadership qualities, yet Manning was content to listen.

Perhaps Manning at the time was playing too lousy to get up and exhort the troops or maybe he properly deferred to the elders who have been through the football wars.

None of this, no study of his body language, no theories of Eli as the slacker younger brother, no raw data comparing him with Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger would mean a thing if Manning wasn't able to reverse his personal downward trend and pick up his performance. He did that by tossing two touchdown passes, no interceptions and making the strong comeback against the Cowboys, but the deal wasn't sealed in a 23-20 loss, the Giants' fourth straight. Still, Manning the next day was able to talk about a game he played that didn't make anyone wonder if the Giants made a huge mistake in trading for him.

It is on the field where Manning must thrive, yet as his struggles mounted, everything about him as a player and a person was ripe for analysis. His easy-going manner, praised as a wonderfully calm demeanor when he's leading the offense on a game-winning drive, was viewed as woefully meek.

Manning never acknowledged that what he'd endured recently was a slump but, prior to the Cowboys game, what else could two touchdown passes, six interceptions and 50 percent completions during a three-game skid be interpreted as? He sure looked like he was slumping, with his drooping shoulders and hangdog expression.

"I have talked to him about that,'' Coughlin said. "He normally doesn't show much, there's not much one way or the other, he has shown a little bit of that the last couple of weeks. He is human, he is young.''

Always consistent, Manning insists if he changed his demeanor to prove anything to anyone it would smack as phony and his teammates would see through him.

Prior to the Dallas game, linebacker Antonio Pierce predicted that Manning would snap out of his funk. "Just because I believe in him,'' Pierce said. "You only can take so much from getting pounded. Eventually you're gonna stand up. You can stomp on a guy for three straight weeks, but he's the same guy everybody was praising after five weeks and at the end of the season last year. The comeback against Philly, it was 'Eli, the coming has came.' Now it's gone?''

It wasn't gone, but it was hidden, until it resurfaced in a near miss against the Cowboys.

The Giants Beat Top Stories