Manning Holds Key to 2007 Success

Let's make a deal. Let's not mention Michael Strahan again until he's actually wearing a Giants uniform. OK? I mean, my goodness, this story has become as tired as overweight linemen on the final afternoon of two-a-days.

Of course, those were activities foreign to Strahan this year, which makes you wonder how much the appreciation for him has eroded in the locker room. But that's another debate we can save for when Strahan actually ends his silly holdout.

The Giants were way ahead of us on this one. They started moving on the day after Strahan sent the late-night phone message that Tom Coughlin probably assumed was a crank call. They handled the Strahan nonsense beautifully, giving him space while doling out $14,000 fines, neither criticizing him nor massaging his all-world ego.

So it's about time we talk about the Giants without mentioning the Hall-of-Fame defensive end. It's about time we talk about the people who showed up to Giants Stadium the other night when the Jets made that exhaustive trek from Hempstead.

One of those people is a 6-4, 225-pound quarterback who wears Giants jersey No. 10. His name is Eli Manning, though known in several circles as Unfulfilled Potential. He's the guy who draws more debate than the Hall-of-Fame defensive back and the former running back combined, mostly under the heading, "Can he be the Man(ning)?''

And now more recently, he's the guy who got into that overblown spat with last year's distraction, back turned football philosopher turned player-coach turned analyst/soccer dad – Tiki Barber.

There is no sense rehashing the tiff. But it should be noted that Manning's pseudo-rant in response has no bearing on him earning his leadership badge. Come on, seniors fighting for parking spaces at the mall on Christmas Eve talk tougher than Manning's rebuttal.

Manning is never going to pull any Rockne speeches from his jock. Please accept that and move on. If he wins games, he'll be a hero, and the leadership issue will disappear faster than patrons at a Vegas strip club when Pacman arrives.

That said, until he decides to retire to Bourbon Street, Manning will be the most important player on the Giants.

Not Strahan.

Not new left tackle David Diehl.

Not new linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka.

Not new feature back Brandon Jacobs.

Not Plaxico Burress.

And not even everybody's favorite rebel without a cause, Jeremy (What's this week's injury?) Shockey.

Manning can turn the rest of them into virtual non-stories. He can hide the team's flaws or painfully expose them. It's up to him. The season is, essentially, up to him.

There is no prettier football picture than the quarterback in rhythm. There is nothing that brightens a fan's mood more than the quarterback, their quarterback, taking the team upfield with consistency and confidence.

Manning did that against the Jets. He made strong, accurate throws. He made great decisions. He wound up 17-for-25 for 146 yards and a touchdown in the first half before watching backups turn a 12-6 lead into a 20-12 Jets win.

Coughlin moaned about the team's struggles getting into the end zone, and the affable coach certainly has a point. Manning allowed two drives to stall inside the Jets' 30. But on this night, Manning made us realize what could be instead of what has been.

He would have had the score at 18-6 if Lawrence Tynes had made 40- and 43-yard field goals. Tynes certainly couldn't blame the wind on this steamy night, though the snap-hold could have been responsible for one miss.

The point is that Manning and the Giants will win a lot of games playing as they did against the Jets. This wasn't Manning keeping the Giants out of the end zone. He didn't get nervous in the pocket or throw to the wrong receiver or flat-out miss receivers the way he's done for parts of three seasons. Only once, in eight incompletions, did he miss an open receiver, a ball that went over Steve Smith's head on third-and-seven at the Jets' 25 starting the second quarter. Two passes were dropped. Five balls had a chance of being completed if not for nice defensive plays. Manning didn't give the Jets a chance to intercept him.

He didn't attempt one long pass. And though that could in part be attributed to Burress' absence, you get the feeling the Giants are going to play it close to the vest with Manning. And why not? Manning was fluid and looked confident with quick throws. He was really accurate.

On one play, he saw tight end Michael Matthews in the mid-flat area. Jonathan Vilma stood off Matthews' right hip almost daring Manning to give it a try. So Manning threaded a ball to Matthews' left side for a 16-yard completion.

A couple times Manning stepped up in the pocket against pressure and hit receivers in stride. He didn't exhibit any of the nervous Dave Brown feet. Manning didn't once throw a ball off his back foot. He played like a fundamentally sound, poised, smart quarterback, the way we see Tom Brady play almost every week of his career.

Manning is going to get a lot of help on offense. He could make this offense something to see, assuming the line blocks and Burress and Shockey, who also missed the Jets game, are healthy. The feel-good story of the night was seeing Amani Toomer out there catching balls and looking as wonderfully efficient as he was before last year's terrible knee injury. This kid Smith is going to be a good one and Anthony Mix, the free agent out of Auburn who spent last season on the practice squad, is going to help the Giants as well.

The running game will be fine. Brandon Jacobs is going to be way more than a great Fantasy League player.

But it all comes back to Eli Manning, the 6-4, 225-pound quarterback who wears Giants jersey No. 10. He can make us forget about the past two seasons that began so brightly and ended so miserably. He can make us forget about the Hall-of-Fame defensive end.

Manning brought us back to the present against the Jets. Now he can take us to the future.

Kevin Gleason covers the Giants for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.

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