As a freshman, Eli was more slightly built than his brother, not as strong yet, so Cutcliffe put him through extra strength training and mat drills. Everyone in the gym watched “to see how he was going to go about his business,” Cutcliffe said. Eli’s looks were deceptive. He was “absolutely tough, courageous, he had no fear,” Cutcliffe said. “But unless you’re with him day to day, he’s not going to display it. There’s just no show.”
Cutcliffe asked Manning, “What do you want out of this? Don’t answer now, because I don’t want lip service. Think about it.” He wanted Manning to consider: Did he merely want to be a starter? Did he want to be all conference, or all-American? Eli thought it over for two days, and came back to Cutcliffe, dead serious. “I want to be the best that ever played here,” he said. He went on to set 45 Ole Miss records. “He stood by what he said,” Cutcliffe said.
The pattern held in New York. Manning had every reason to seek a smaller, less exposing media market when he entered the NFL draft. Instead he rejected the San Diego Chargers for the Giants — and took a city loft in a Hoboken high rise with plate-glass windows.
Which made him all the more visible when he fumbled snaps and missed receivers. After he completed just four passes in a rookie debacle against the Ravens, New Yorkers brayed that he was an epic bust. Some were still calling him a disappointment, despite his 2008 Super Bowl MVP performance, when he threw 25 interceptions last season, though he also had 4,002 yards and 31 touchdown passes, and won 10 games.
Through it all he maintained the same even demeanor. To his critics it seemed like indifference; actually it was “calm under pressure,” offensive lineman David Diehl said. Manning never worried that he didn’t belong in the NFL, and even seemed to thrive on the heat. “I’ve never seen him in a situation where I thought he was insecure,” Archie said. “I don’t think I can ever get it across to people, and Eli doesn’t come out and say it a lot, but he loves playing in New York.”
What outsiders don’t see, friends and teammates say, is the extent to which over the years he has begun to quietly, firmly run the Giants, his attitude permeating them. “Don’t think for a moment he’s not a take-charge individual,” Cutcliffe said. During the offseason lockout, he organized workouts at Hoboken High School. In June he went to Duke for voluntary two-a-days with Cutcliffe. In sweltering Durham heat, Manning, with Hakeem Nicks and Jerrel Jernigan, held his own minicamp.
Manning is not only finally emerging as an “elite” performer, he’s a select one even within that category. No one has been more imperturbable in the face of pressure, on and off the field. He leads the NFL in third-down passing yardage. Asked how, he said, “You have to do your job and keep your eyes down the field and make sure you’re playing smart football and make sure, whether you’re getting hit or you’re getting pressure, [it doesn’t] affect your decision-making and your throws.”
He only gets better the more there is on the line. In this postseason, he’s completed 64 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns to just one interception. The mild, unflappable body language and lack of expression disguise a predator. Against the Falcons, Manning converted five straight third and longs. Against the 49ers, he threw 58 times without giving the ball away — and then competed a 17-yard scoring pass to Mario Manningham. On third and 15.
A second Super Bowl appearance has exposed Manning once and for all for what he really is: one of the league’s great competitors. He is finally getting his due. But just try telling him so.
“I’m not thinking about that,” he said. “I’m thinking about this team and this opportunity and how proud I am of the guys and what we both have overcome this year and what we have been through. I just never had any doubts and just kept believing.”
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.