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Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Manning adjusting to expanded role

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

ALBANY, N.Y. -- I took one glance at New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning as he headed for lunch Tuesday and immediately recalled how he looked when he entered the NFL.

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He still had that same aw-shucks gleam in his eye. He also hadn't altered that casual stroll of his, the gait suggesting he always operated at his own speed. Even when he spoke, the words rolled out slowly and politely, without any hint of an edge. I really had to hand it to the guy. Three years in New York hadn't hardened him one bit.

What I did wonder, however, was how much Manning understood about the importance of this season. Simply put, the Giants' offense rests on his shoulders now. Gone are the days when Tiki Barber could provide the bulk of the leadership and many of the big plays that gave that unit stability. Now that Barber has retired, the Giants need their fourth-year quarterback to stamp his personality on this offense, which is something he hasn't done up to this point in his career.

The Giants will try to compensate for Barber's retirement with the backfield combination of Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns, but there's no guarantee they can be as consistent as Barber (who gained 1,662 rushing yards in 2006). That means Manning will have to provide more plays in the passing game and more guidance whenever possible.

"Tiki was a guy who led by example, but as the quarterback, I'm the guy who dictates how the game goes," said Manning, who has led New York to two postseason appearances in his two seasons as a full-time starter. "I have to get the team into the right play. I have to avoid mental mistakes. And I can't let my frustrations show up in my play. Even if things aren't going well, I have to let my teammates know that everything will be fine."

This all sounds good, but let's face it: Manning's problem isn't that he doesn't understand what it takes to play the position. The man has a former pro quarterback for a father (Archie) and a future Hall of Fame quarterback for an older brother (Peyton). He knows how to say the right things when asked about doing his job. The issue is that three years in the NFL haven't allowed him to shake the perception that he'd rather blend into the background than assume the reins of this team.

Eli Manning
The time has come for Eli Manning to establish himself as the leader of the Giants' offense.

If that image is to change, the first thing Manning has to do is improve his pedestrian career numbers (a 54.1 completion percentage and a 73.2 passer rating). Giants coach Tom Coughlin already has seen more consistency from his quarterback during training camp, but he also has stressed that Manning needs to lead the Giants on more scoring drives this season.

Wide receiver Plaxico Burress added that there's been a slight change in Manning's on-field demeanor as he adjusts to life in the offense run by new coordinator Kevin Gilbride.

"Eli knows this is his team," Burress said. "You can see that he's taking control of the offense and putting people in the right positions."

One point that needs to be made here is that Manning doesn't have to change his personality. There are plenty of mild-mannered quarterbacks who've found success in this league.

"I was around [former New York Giants quarterback] Phil Simms early in his career, and he never talked much," Coughlin said. "He just played well."

Added Manning: "You have to be who you are. I don't believe in talking just because you feel you have to say something. If something needs to be said, I'll say it because this is my offense. But I'm not going to rip into somebody just because I feel like doing it."

I do understand where Manning and Coughlin are coming from on this. But there also comes a point when every quarterback has to assert himself more than Manning has. Simms proved his mental toughness by dealing with the head games of former Giants coach Bill Parcells.

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young once had a heated shouting match with 49ers coach George Seifert after being pulled during a game early in the 1994 season, a moment Young later considered a turning point in his own growth as a leader. If you want a more recent example, look to Cincinnati's Carson Palmer. Nobody will ever describe him as loquacious, but you can bet he'll tear into any receiver who misreads an audible.

What I'm saying is that Manning needs to start picking his spots to showcase his own brand of leadership. When I look at the Giants, I see receivers such as Burress and Jeremy Shockey who would rather train in Miami than work out with Manning in the offseason. I see a head coach who is one bad season from looking for a new job. I also see 15-year veteran defensive end Michael Strahan sitting at home and threatening to retire. What I don't see is a team that can afford for Manning to carry himself the same way he has throughout his career.

Is this unfair? No. It comes with being a quarterback, especially one chosen with the first overall pick in the draft. After all, two other quarterbacks who came out in 2004 -- Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and San Diego's Philip Rivers -- already have established themselves as the leaders of their respective offenses. Now it's time for Manning to do the same for a team that clearly needs more direction this year.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.