Eli Manning had replaced veteran Kurt Warner a month earlier and the New York Giants' once-promising season was rapidly disintegrating around the first-round draft choice who had been brutalized by the aggressive defenses of the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Ravens.
"Eli was frustrated," Coughlin recalled. "He hadn't played well, had kind of lost his poise a couple of times. He just sat there in my office, [saying] 'Coach, I want to be good. I want to be the quarterback of the New York Giants. I want to lead the New York Giants to victory.' You saw some of that emotion come pouring out."
The next week, Manning posted a sterling 103.8 passer rating in a narrow loss to the powerful Pittsburgh Steelers. Two weeks later in the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, he won his first game.
Last Sunday night, the 27-year-old from New Orleans and Ole Miss won his first Super Bowl, outdueling 2007 MVP and three-time world champion Tom Brady of the previously perfect New England Patriots by producing two fourth-quarter drives, both of which Manning finished with touchdown passes, the second with just 35 seconds left, to give the Giants a stunning 17-14 victory.
"Eli Manning has now etched his name in history," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.
The New York media's favorite whipping boy just two months ago is now its darling after equaling his older and more accomplished brother, quarterback Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, by being named Super Bowl MVP after completing 19-of-34 passes for 255 yards and the touchdowns to David Tyree and Plaxico Burress.
Said defensive end Michael Strahan, the longest-tenured Giant, "Champion! Champion! That's Eli Manning, not Peyton Manning's little brother, not Eli who slumps. Eli Manning is the World Champion. I hope everybody remembers that, respects that, understands that because this team goes nowhere without him."
Although the Giants went to the playoffs in each of Manning's first full seasons as a starter, it wasn't like they were really going anywhere. Visiting Carolina whipped New York 23-0 in a 2005 wild card game as Manning – after a solid season that produced an NFC East title – was sacked four times and threw three interceptions. Manning was better in the 2006 playoff loss at Philadelphia, but the Giants still wound up 8-9.
And 2007 was certainly full of negatives: the 17-3 halftime deficit in Week 3 after an 0-2 start; the four interceptions in Week 12 against Minnesota and the 111 yards at Buffalo in Week 16. Despite his four touchdown passes in the narrow loss to New England that concluded the regular season, before the playoffs began few outside of the Giants' organization thought that Manning, who had been acquired in a draft-day swap with San Diego for fellow quarterback Philip Rivers in 2004, could lead New York to the ultimate glory.
"Whether we're up by 20 or down by 20, Eli is always cool and always calm," Tyree said. "That's what I love about him. A lot of people would question his leadership skills, [but] I always say he has proved his mettle."
Manning certainly did that in beating division winners with Pro Bowl passers Tampa Bay (Jeff Garcia), Dallas (Tony Romo) and Green Bay (Brett Favre) on the road and then the Patriots and Brady. Manning's numbers were MVP-like: six touchdowns, one interception and a 95.8 rating, all much better than his brother put up in winning last year's title.
Manning was unflappable in the fourth quarter against the Patriots at University of Phoenix Stadium. After struggling to a 44.4 rating through 45 minutes, he was a different quarterback in the clutch. Manning's fourth-quarter numbers: 9-of-14, 152 yards, two touchdowns. His spin out of a seemingly sure sack by Jarvis Green on third-and-5 at the New York 44-yard line and subsequent 32-yard connection with the leaping Tyree with 59 seconds left saved the day.
"Eli has done it so many times for us, won the game in the fourth quarter," said center Shaun O'Hara. "Before we went out for that drive [which began on the New York 17 with 2:42 to play], he was walking the sidelines saying, ‘This is what we play for, this drive, this moment.' "
Coughlin said that Manning's even-keeled personality helps in such circumstances and the quarterback didn't disagree.
"I never doubted myself," Manning said before accepting the Cadillac Escalade at the day-after MVP press conference. "I never lost confidence. As a quarterback, that's the most important thing. When you're not playing well or you're losing games, they're looking at everything you do and dissecting it: my demeanor, how I am on the sidelines, my personality. I'm never going to change. I'm very comfortable in my own skin. I love being in New York, my teammates and the organization. I knew I was in the right place. It just takes time. It's not an easy game. It's not an easy position to play."
Manning certainly hasn't made it look as easy as his brother has. His 20 interceptions this season tied for the most in the league and his 73.9 passer rating was lower than those of such lesser lights as Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller and Brian Griese.
"Eli's development has been very, very steady," Coughlin said. "There have been some games that weren't what he or I would've wanted, but he comes right back and applies himself again."
And despite his newfound stardom, applying himself again is Manning's plan for 2008. He might be going to Disney World, but he doesn't plan on an extended vacation.
"I gotta become a better quarterback," he said. "Towards the end of the season, I was playing well, but I've got to do it over a whole season, cut down on my mistakes. That's what I'm going to try to work on this offseason."
David Elfin, immediate past president of the Pro Football Writers of America, covers the Redskins and the NFL for The Washington Times.
MVP Eli has Come a Long, Long Way
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