EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Eli Manning is no longer living in the shadow of his big brother. Far from it.
The New York Giants quarterback enters the kickoff to the NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys on Wednesday night as a two-time Super Bowl MVP. He’s now unquestionably among the league’s elite after leading Tom Coughlin’s team to two titles in five seasons, and a third title is a distinct possibility with the 31-year-old seemingly getting better coming off a career season.
What’s even more impressive is Eli is still Eli. He’s hard-working, laid-back and looking for nothing more than doing it better than the year before.
“Each year you try to improve and get better,” Manning said during training camp. “There’s definitely room for improvement. There’s no question about it. Most of the things I’m working on are: decision making, eliminating turnovers, and being more accurate. Just continuing to try and work on my skills. Making sure you don’t have any missed opportunities. That when guys are open, I’m hitting them.”
Former Giants center Shaun O’Hara said most people don’t realize how hard Manning works. He usually is one of the first players at the team’s headquarters in the morning and stays as long as anyone.
“What adheres everyone to Eli is the way he approaches the game,” O’Hara said on Monday. “His confidence is never shaken. He knows his own abilities and his own limits. He comes to work every day and puts in the time. He never says, ‘I got it. I don’t need to work on that.’”
O’Hara said Manning doesn’t take much time off. In February and March, when most of his teammates are vacationing, Manning comes to the office and watches every snap from the previous season, O’Hara said, adding the work ethic rubs off on everyone.
“That’s one of the best qualities of a leader, to lead by example and to bring people together to accomplish the same goal,” O’Hara said. “That’s what Eli has done and has had fun doing it. He’s not a screamer and yeller. He comes in here and has fun and let’s guys make fun of him. He’s approachable and doesn’t put himself above anybody.”
O’Hara cracked up a couple of people when during his retirement speech on Monday, he joked how Manning made him change his football pants each half because they were too sweaty.
One of the major reasons the Giants missed the playoffs in 2010 despite a 10-6 record was that Manning threw 25 interceptions. He worked on ball security in the offseason and finished 2011 with 29 touchdowns and only 16 interceptions in a year in which he threw a career-high 589 passes.
Coughlin said Manning has all the intangibles a coach wants in his quarterback.
“You name it. He’s intelligent and he’s got great pride,” Coughlin said. “He has a burning desire to be the best that he can possibly be. He has great timing. He has the ability to understand exactly what you want to do and what the defense is doing. He’ll talk to you about it and get the ball into the right receiver. He does a great job in the classroom. He does a great job representing the Giants. He has outstanding character. He has outstanding leadership. People listen to what he says.”
Former Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett, who signed with the Giants in the offseason, has spent the past six months trying to get on the same page with Manning. When the quarterback is eating lunch, Bennett pulls up a chair.
In the preseason finale against the Patriots, Manning and Bennett weren’t on the same page on a third-down pass. Manning threw a deep seam and Bennett cut off his pattern.
Seconds after the pass hit the ground, Manning was standing in front of Bennett discussing the play.
“It won’t happen again,” Bennett said.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, a former quarterback, said Manning is a major reason why the Giants have had success.
“He’s an outstanding pocket passer; he can move around and make plays on the move,” Garrett said. “He’s a very smart player. He can make any throw that you need to make on the football field. He clearly makes his teammates better, makes his team better.”
While not the buffest of players, Manning is as tough as they come. He has started the last 130 games for the Giants, a run that dates to his rookie season in 2004. He has led New York to five playoff berths and three division titles in his seven full seasons as a starter.
“We know we have to improve,” Manning said. “We were 9-7 last year in the regular season and that’s not good enough. We’re a better team than that, and we obviously showed that throughout the playoffs. We’ve got to have that urgency and consistency throughout the whole season, play our best football through 16 regular-season games.”