EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - It’s not as though the man isn’t practiced at the art of evasion by now. Witness his Houdini job escaping from a grasping pack of Patriots just before he hurled The Pass to David Tyree that put the Giants on the path to a ring.
Eli Manning has been equally nimble this week, sidestepping questions that ask him to roll back the clock four years.
“You always want to focus on the future,’’ said New York’s affable but artful dodger. “That’s always the goal. Obviously, there’s fond memories of that year that you never forget, but when you’re getting ready for a game it’s about understanding where you stand right now and what you need to do.’’
What Manning and his blue-helmeted teammates need to do is to get through a brutal five-week stretch that begins tomorrow afternoon in Foxborough, where the Giants are 9-point underdogs against a New England team that has won its last 20 regular-season games there.
“All we’re trying to do is prepare for the Patriots right now,’’ said Manning, who’ll likely be without his top running back (Ahmad Bradshaw) and receiver (Hakeem Nicks). “We’re trying to get ready and go up there and play a great game.’’
New York may be off to its customary encouraging start, but it has yet to play a great game. And although the Giants lead the NFC East by two games, they easily could be 1-6. They’ve trailed in all of their victories, falling behind the Cardinals, 27-17, and the Dolphins, 14-3. What has saved them is Manning, who has produced four of his 18 career winning drives in the last five games.
Last week, with his team facing an 11-point halftime deficit to a winless team at home, Manning threw a touchdown pass to Mario Manningham eight seconds before intermission, then tossed the winning 25-yarder to Victor Cruz with less than six minutes to play. “He lit it up,’’ testified Cruz, who caught seven balls for 99 yards.
Manning has been the NFL’s best fourth-quarter signal-caller this season with a whopping 119.3 rating, more than 23 points ahead of Tom Brady, and he ranks third overall (102.1) behind Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Brady. Yet despite his ring and his stats, there still are questions about whether Manning belongs among the league’s top five quarterbacks.
“I don’t rank ’em,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who observed this week that Manning is “a pretty good quarterback.’’
More than three seasons after he was named the most valuable player of Super Bowl XLII, the 30-year-old Manning, who still could pass for a college sophomore, is working on his professional development.
“I’ve just tried to continue to learn and understand our offense, understand defenses and schemes,’’ he said.
Among quarterbacks, Manning is in the lead for the perfect attendance award, following the example of big brother Peyton, who’d started 208 straight games for Indianapolis before neck problems put him in street clothes this year.
When he takes the field tomorrow, Manning will be starting his 111th straight, tying Brady for fourth place behind Brett Favre, his own brother, and Ron Jaworski. Since he took over the job from Kurt Warner on Nov. 21, 2004, New York’s three divisional rivals each have been through seven starters at the position.
“I always want to be out there for my guys, for my teammates, and I expect them to do the same,’’ said Manning. “We have great character guys on our team. They want to be out there each week whether or not they’re banged up.’’
Manning himself wants to be there every day. “He comes in early, even on days off, seeing whatever team we’re playing,’’ said Cruz. “His work ethic is just unmeasurable.’’
Especially this year, when the departures of receiver Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss to free agency and injuries to the likes of fullback Henry Hynoski and now Bradshaw (foot) and Nicks (hamstring) have made for a variety of faces in the huddle. So much as Peyton did with his mix-and-match Colts offense last year, Eli has spent even more time giving tutorials.
“He takes the time literally from Day One to make sure everybody’s on the same page,’’ said coach Tom Coughlin. “He’s out there communicating and talking and adjusting, telling people what he sees, what he expects, making corrections. He’s doing it on the fly, literally play by play.’’
In a season where victories have been precarious, crossed signals or a blown assignment at the wrong time can be ruinous. So Manning has gone deep with the details with his receivers.
“Each week there’s going to be little tricks, little hints, little ideas that we have, that the coaches have, that I have, about how to get open,’’ he said. “Just so that they have an understanding of what to expect, how this defense is a little bit different, why this play is in.’’
The better his co-workers do their job, he says, the better Manning can do his.
“Our offense goes the way Eli makes it go,’’ said guard David Diehl, one of a handful of offensive holdovers from the championship season. If the Giants have been scoring points despite the league’s third-worst running game, it’s because Manning has been doing a superb job of managing drives with minimal mistakes, throwing for 13 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
“Not throwing it to the other team,’’ he said. “Just trying to be smart. I’ve worked hard on my accuracy, throwing the ball where it needs to be. Guys are doing a good job getting open, being in the right spot. The offensive linemen are protecting well, so I’m not having to throw it before I’m ready or throwing while I’m getting hit. Tipped balls are bouncing and hitting the ground and not going into the other peoples’ arms.’’
With the 49ers, Eagles, Saints, and Packers on the horizon, Manning can’t afford to play fast and loose if his teammates hope still to be playoff contenders in December. That’s been a slipsliding month over the last five seasons (10-12) and the main reason New York has played only one postseason game since that ecstatic night in Arizona.
Not that Manning doesn’t cherish the moment. “Those are always fine memories of just knowing that we stuck together, we fought through, we were able to win a championship,’’ he said.
But what the Giants did that year can’t help them tomorrow, which is why Manning has resisted stepping into the wayback machine. “I’m focused on this game, this team,’’ he said, “and what we’re going to do this week.’’