The spotlight on Eli Manning, in some ways, couldn’t be brighter. He plays in the shadow of New York City. He is a former top overall pick in the NFL draft. He is a member of the first family of quarterbacking and his pro football résumé includes a Super Bowl triumph.
Yet it does seem, curiously, that a good portion of his NFL career has been spent as the “other” quarterback, his play quite often obscured by the feats of someone else. He has been the league’s other Manning brother, regularly overshadowed when Peyton was winning an unprecedented four most valuable player awards.
This season, he has been the other NFL quarterback crafting a superb season, with the bulk of the attention going to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, New England’s Tom Brady and Drew Brees of New Orleans.
But the season that Eli Manning is putting together deserves notice as well, experts say.
“It’s phenomenal, the year he’s having,” former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. “He’s throwing the ball as well as just about anybody, next to Aaron Rodgers.”
He has thrown for 4,105 yards and 25 touchdowns. Manning has joined Brees, Brady and Rodgers on pace to top 5,000 passing yards this season. To date, there have been only two 5,000-yard passing seasons in league history, by Dan Marino for the Miami Dolphins in 1984 and by Brees for the Saints in 2008. Manning has a trio of 400-yard passing games this season, tied for the most ever in an NFL season.
Manning has done all of this while cutting down markedly on his interceptions. He threw 25 of them last season, but has only 12 through 13 games this season.
“This year, he’s very, very conscious” of avoiding turnovers, Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said at a news conference early in the week. “He’s been very accurate. And I think one of the things you saw [during last Sunday night’s comeback victory at Dallas] was he can move around and create some things for himself. But when he finds that that still hasn’t solved all of his issues, he throws the ball away.
“That is a real, real positive step for a quarterback to be able to recognize that you’ve pushed a bunch of buttons and nothing seems to answer anything for you and before you get yourself into trouble and lose yardage, throw the ball away. That is something that I think I have noticed,” Coughlin said.
Manning has had little help from the Giants’ usually reliable running game. They’re ranked last in the league in rushing offense. But he has two wideouts, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, already over 1,000 receiving yards apiece for the season.
“His receivers are healthy,” said Theismann, an analyst for the NFL Network. “He has a chance to stand in the pocket. He’s not always running for his life. Even when he’s on the move, his throws are right on the money. He is throwing the ball with uncanny accuracy. He throws the ball with guys right in his face, and it’s right there. He has very good receivers. The Redskins will certainly have their hands full this weekend.”
In crunch time, Manning has been as good as any quarterback in the league. He has 14 fourth-quarter touchdown passes, matching the single-season league record. One of them came a week ago against the Cowboys, when the Giants overcame a 12-point deficit in the game’s final six minutes to win, 37-34, and prevent Dallas from all but wrapping up the division title.
Manning said after the game he’d responded to a matter-of-fact directive from offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.
“He said: ‘Hey, we need two scores. Go do it,’ ” Manning said. “That’s what we needed. We needed two scores, and that was the mind-set. We’ve been in these situations before. It’s nothing new. I don’t like being in these situations. It’s becoming a habit and a bad habit, but we find ways to overcome it. It’s a fun way to win. But I’d like to have a lead and try to hold on to one for once.”
Manning’s late-game brilliance against the Cowboys came after he threw a fourth-quarter interception that could have ended the competitive portion of the Giants’ season.
“It’s just his mental toughness,” Coughlin said. “He comes over. He’s not happy. A lot of times he’s not happy. Something has taken place and he wants to control everything and sometimes there’s things you can’t control. He’ll come to the sideline and be disappointed and upset. But he’ll get his nose right in the book and look at all of the pictures and see and discuss with Kevin what has to be done, what could have been done differently and, ‘What do you see? What do I see? What’s everybody see?’ Then he goes back out there and just directs traffic on the field and the response on the part of his teammates is obvious.”
Giants guard Chris Snee said after the game in Dallas: “He was just calm. . . . Everyone’s aware of the situation, the circumstance and what’s at stake in this game. He didn’t even say anything. He just called the play and we went up to the line and blocked it up.”
Manning never has been known as a fiery, combative on-field leader. But clearly, whatever he is doing late in games is working. Five of the Giants’ wins this season have been achieved with fourth-quarter comebacks, and Manning orchestrated a sixth game-winning drive to break a fourth-quarter tie.
“I don’t think I ever feel pressure when I’m playing football,” Manning said. “I think, you know, I know my assignments. I’m trying to read the defense. I know my plays and I try to make plays. I try to get the ball to my receivers’ hands, my backs’ hands, and let them do their jobs. It’s exciting. It’s fun. I’m competitive and I’m just trying to do whatever I can to get a win.”