It sounds a little silly now, but there was a time when the New York Giants had to have a talk with Eli Manning about his lack of emotion. Before he led his team to a Super Bowl title in '07, Manning's hang-dog expressions after failed plays bothered fans and even some of his teammates.
It got to the point in '06 where the Giants actually talked to Manning about how his body language had become somewhat of an issue. Of course, all of that went by the wayside when Manning led his team to a championship. He'd won a lot of respect in the locker room even before that season started because he called out former running back Tiki Barber, who'd been critical of him in the media.
Manning is one of three captains on the team and he commands a lot of respect from his teammates. But what he did Monday morning was a little out of his nature, according to defensive end Justin Tuck. In the aftermath of last Sunday's 38-31 loss to the Eagles, Manning asked coach Tom Coughlin for permission to speak to the team alone. He didn't rant and rave, but his words touched a nerve with his teammates.
"He's definitely more assertive and confident," veteran defensive tackle Barry Cofield texted me Thursday. "I think he fully understands that he is the face/cornerstone of this organization."
Tuck said that some of the players even stood and applauded when Manning was finished. I assure you that general manager Jerry Reese was pleased to hear about Manning's speech. Following the '06 season, Reese was trying to figure out the best way to encourage Manning to be more demonstrative without asking him to change his personality. Heading into Sunday afternoon's huge game in Green Bay, the Giants (9-5) once again need Manning to work his magic. He led the Giants to an NFC Championship Game win at Lambeau Field three seasons ago, so he has great memories of the place.
In fact, Manning's always indicated that he enjoyed the NFC title game win as much, if not more, than the Super Bowl. It was minus-1 degrees at kickoff in '08, but it's only expected to be in the low 20s (with 15 mph winds) on Sunday afternoon. Coughlin called it a "heat wave" while meeting with reporters Wednesday. Manning was asked if playing in the frigid weather three seasons ago will have any effect on his preparation for this game.
"Just knowing that the last time we played, it was a very cold game," said Manning. "I don’t think it will be as cold as that day, so we should be able to handle whatever the weather conditions are."
In '07, it was definitely Coughlin who set the tone for the Giants' playoff run. But three seasons later, Manning has taken on a much larger role in terms of leadership. It was important to him to remind his teammates Monday that a loss to the Eagles hadn't ended their season. And Manning didn't need any prompting from management or the coaches to deliver that message.
He's still somewhat uncomfortable in front of cameras because that's just his nature. But he doesn't bring that timid approach into the locker room. Players such as Tuck and Antrel Rolle provide better sound bites, but they would both agree that Manning's the lead voice.
The downside to Manning's season is that he's currently leading the league in interceptions with 20. Some of those have bounced off the hands of receivers, but it's still a staggering total. And with Brett Favre likely on the shelf for the final two games, it looks like Manning could hold onto the interception title. For whatever reason, he's still capable of making back-breaking mistakes with the football. Against a desperate team such as the Packers, a mistake or two could get you beat.
I looked back at Manning's career numbers in December and they're not all that impressive. His best passer rating was a 107.4 that he posted last season. His best rating in December after that was a 79.1 in '06. We all remember what he did in January and February following the '07 season, but December has been an issue for Manning. He lost Plaxico Burress in late November of the '08 season, so that helps explain a 69.8 passer rating and only two touchdown passes to go along with two interceptions.
For his career, Manning is 14-16 in December with an average passer rating of 75.1. He's 45-26 in all other games with an 82.6 passer rating. If Manning can win at Lambeau Field on Sunday, fans won't really care about those numbers. But they do provide an interesting backdrop to a career that remains difficult to define.