By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Maybe it was an illusion, but did Eli Manning's face get leaner, and his back straighter overnight? On the morning after the Super Bowl, he stood at a podium to accept his most valuable player award, somehow older in a dark suit with a white handkerchief peeking from his pocket. When Manning won the game of his life over the New England Patriots, he lost something else: his baby fat.
In the fourth quarter Sunday night, Manning went from sensitive kid brother to an icon with his own unique place in NFL history. There will be no more questioning comparisons with his father Archie and older brother Peyton, no more wondering if he has what it takes. The Giants' 17-14 victory transformed our perceptions of Manning; the qualities that he was once criticized for are suddenly assets. Just a few games ago, he was said to lack competitive fire. Now his absence of temperament looks like an unshakeable calm. That gangly, ambling ease of movement? Previously, it seemed passive, maybe even careless. Now it's the nonchalance of a smooth improviser. Lastly, there is his manner, so still and self-effacing. Once it was mistaken for timidity. Today, call it poise.
"Everybody wants to compare him, he's always being compared to somebody," center Shaun O'Hara said Sunday night. "I think Eli built a platform today for others to be compared against him."
A story circulates about Manning in New York City. Supposedly, one night some of the Giants met for a party at one of those downtown nightclubs with a velvet rope out front. When Manning arrived, the bouncer mistook him for an adolescent party crasher, and refused to let him pass. Supposedly, Manning stood there quietly, unwilling to throw a "don't you know who I am?" tantrum. When word reached the rest of the Giants that Manning was outside and couldn't get in, they rallied to his rescue, angrily telling the bouncer, "Hey, he's our quarterback."
Of course, Manning didn't become a different person overnight. He's still the same puppyish player who struggles to be a big presence on the field, and who threw 20 interceptions in the regular season, stumbling comically and flapping his arms in frustration at times. He got a little lucky against the Patriots -- he was nearly intercepted more than once -- and benefited from what may have been the greatest catch in Super Bowl history, when David Tyree made that leaping 32-yard reception with 59 seconds left. But give Manning this, and don't ever take it away: He earned every bit of the toughest Super Bowl victory, against the longest odds, we've seen in a some time. Maybe ever.
"I never doubted myself, never lost confidence in myself as a quarterback," he said. "You're going to go through a lot when you're not playing well and losing games, [critics] will look through everything and dissect it, like my demeanor on the sideline. But I'm very comfortable in own skin, and I am the way I am. I love being in New York, I love my teammates and the organization. It just takes time, it's not an easy place and easy position to play, but [if] you stay committed to it, good things will happen."
Manning hasn't changed -- rather, he has developed, right before our eyes, sort of like an emerging photograph. Two strong, distinct characteristics became evident in this postseason: He tends to be at his best in some of the worst circumstances, and he likes to compete against big-name quarterbacks. Consider what he did in only his third full season. He led the Giants to 11 road victories, and a wild-card playoff berth despite a slew of injuries to key starters, and threw just one interception in his last four games. The list of players he outperformed in the postseason was a Who's Who. He outgunned the Dallas Cowboys, led by Tony Romo and a record number of Pro Bowlers, and future Hall of Famer Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers, in 23-below conditions at Lambeau Field.
"He's one of the most competitive people I've ever been around," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "He's got it deep inside and he masks it very well. There have been some games that have not been what he or I would have wanted, but he comes right back and applies himself again. And as he went into the playoffs, he focused, and concentrated, and literally eliminated those turnovers, and he did it in all kinds of extremes. . . . He was able to play his game despite what else was going on around him. That was a great lesson for himself and teammates and the world to see."
The most interesting thing about Manning is the contradiction between his outward passivity, that lazy-sleepy-easy manner, and what's inside. Just because he's accommodating doesn't mean he's weak. "He's never wavered in the criticism he's faced," Peyton said. "He's always been the same Eli, so consistent, which is unbelievably admirable."
Manning quelled any lingering doubts about his mettle -- and whether he would revert to his previous uneven form -- with a game-opening drive that lasted 9 minutes 59 seconds, the longest possession in Super Bowl history. It was an emphatic signal that the Patriots had their hands full with him. In the fourth quarter, he time and again made big third-down plays -- four in all -- and completed 9 of 14 passes for 152 yards, the only quarterback other than Joe Montana to engineer two touchdown drives in the final period of a Super Bowl.
On the third-down throw to Tyree, the key play on the last, momentous, 83-yard drive, the Patriots had him in their grasp, not once but four times. For a moment, he seemed to disappear altogether in their massive clutches. "You try to get small and see if you can squeak through," he said. But Manning wrenched his shoulders around, tore free, and scrambled out of the pocket like a man frantically climbing out of his own freshly dug grave. He stumbled, regained his feet. He gathered himself, squared up, and found Tyree in the middle of the field.
A few seconds later, he stepped forward and delivered a perfect 13-yard lob to Plaxico Burress, for the game-winning touchdown with 35 seconds left.
"I'm really happy for the kid; number 10 proved his mettle," Tyree said. "Everyone tried to put him to shame the past three years. He's always cool. We love him. He was a shining leader today."
Manning was well groomed when he appeared at the Monday morning news conference to accept the MVP award, but he hadn't slept much. When he finally got to his hotel room Sunday night, he was too keyed up to close his eyes, so he turned on the TV and watched highlights. Even after he turned off the lights, he lay with his eyes wide open, replaying the game in his head. "I'm just living on, I don't know what I'm going on right now," he said, "Just emotion and excitement." He seemed in shock at his reversal of fortune, and confused as to what comes next. But this much is sure: he'll never be the same player again. From now on, he's a Super Bowl legend.