INDIANAPOLIS - The pen bounced off the head of a reporter in the front row, not exactly one of Eli Manning’s better passes. The football had fared better, ending up in the hands of its target, a garishly dressed Nickelodeon superhero character who requested an autograph for his grandmother.
Manning acquiesced, seeming at home at the podium on Super Bowl Media Day, hardly a mass of nerves. The Giants quarterback was affable and accessible, endearing himself to a stadium full of fans already devoted to his brother, a stadium full of fans who cheered multiple times as he praised the city and its favorite quarterback.
It is clear, so far, that Manning hasn’t taken anything too seriously. Since he has been in Indianapolis, Manning has covered Victor Cruz’s towel in soap and encouraged uninitiated Giants to “load up on the cocktail sauce’’ while eating the famous sinus-clearing shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s Steak House on Monday night.
“Some people started sweating, kind of half-choking,’’ Manning reported. “No major injuries.’’
That’s good for the Giants, who are heading toward Sunday’s showdown with the Patriots led by a relaxed and confident quarterback who is hardly cowed by New England, a team not known for its frivolity.
Perhaps that is why Manning has been so good in the fourth quarter this season, with the win over the 49ers in the NFC Championship game standing as his seventh fourth-quarter comeback of the season.
“He’s always been a guy that kind of thrived in the fourth quarter,’’ guard Chris Snee said. “He loved being in that situation. He loved being in the two-minute situation at the end of the game. He’s always been that presence for us.’’
Said offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, “When people talk about toughness, they talk about linebackers or a fullback - they don’t think of the quarterback.
“The willingness to stand in there and focus on your job, which is delivering the pass and knowing that you’re going to get hit, is a different kind of courage. And Eli definitely possesses it.
“As a coach, you appreciate the toughness that he shows and his willingness to do whatever it takes to win the game.’’
And he has won a lot, demonstrating the ability to make those around him better, a trait he has possessed since his days at Ole Miss. It was a key reason the Giants targeted him.
They saw what he could do with a less-than-impressive receiving corps against teams with more talent. As Giants general manager Jerry Reese said, “You go watch him at Ole Miss, and he’s not playing with a superior cast. You could see that he’s a superior player, but he’s got some receivers that look like me out there.’’
And still he stood in against LSU and Florida.
It’s something that was clear from reports by former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi before the draft, as owner John Mara recalled: “He has something that very few players have - the ability to put a team on his shoulders and carry them.’’
Now Manning is leading players who have the talent but not the experience, taking a group of raw wide receivers and - in between pranks - guiding them to the Super Bowl.
Manning had one of the most productive seasons of his career, amassing 4,933 passing yards and a 92.9 passer rating, making up for a rushing attack that wasn’t always there for the Giants.
He took a team that looked all but lost in December and led it to the Super Bowl. He rallied his teammates and they listened. They needed him, and he led.
“Eli has been tremendous for us,’’ said running back Brandon Jacobs. “He has a ferocious-like, assassin-like mentality. To watch him grow was something special. The man is doing some things that not a lot of people have done. I’m honored to have him as my quarterback.’’
Jacobs has been there since the last Super Bowl, the 2008 version, in which a young Manning engineered a last-second win over the Patriots.
Back then, Manning might have been nervous about everything surrounding the Super Bowl.
Now, he gets it. He can smile. He can relax. He has been there before. He can be the leader the team needs, in the fourth quarter and in the locker room. As player after player has said this week, the Giants’ success all begins with Manning.
And the quarterback has hardly seemed burdened by that, even as he has been repeatedly asked about his legacy, about his place in the game should he win two Super Bowls. (That, and questions about his brother Peyton.)
His answer? “You put every other teammate, every other coach, in the organization above yourself and what it would mean for them,’’ Manning said.
His humility aside, if he continues to do what he has been doing, Manning might just push himself into the upper echelon.
“I think for Eli it would be a great endorsement for the quality of football player he is, what kind of football season he has had, and what he means to our football team and our franchise,’’ coach Tom Coughlin said.
Added kicker Lawrence Tynes, “They are going to put you on a pedestal if you have two. They put you on a pedestal if you have one. He would go down as one of the best. I’d assume with two rings that would put him in the top five or 10 guys.’’