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Friday, September 30, 2011
Eli leading offense in right direction

By Ohm Youngmisuk
ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning entered the 2011 training camp with a new center and a remodeled offensive line.

The New York Giants quarterback briefly had to deal with the distraction of Plaxico Burress. Then, two weeks into camp, he lost two of his most trusted targets -- Steve Smith and Kevin Boss -- to free agency.

With the lockout wiping out the entire offseason and valuable time with the coaching staff and any new free-agent additions, Manning had to get his offense and several new parts up to speed in a matter of weeks while trying to develop a new slot receiver and a tight end target.

Needless to say, this training camp was unlike any other for Manning. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride figured it would take longer than two months to get the offense clicking.

Manning, though, might be ahead of schedule. The Giants' quarterback has looked pretty comfortable since midway through the second quarter of the Giants' win over St. Louis two weeks ago and has the Giants riding a two-game winning streak heading into Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Manning returns to the site of his greatest accomplishment -- winning Super Bowl XLII and MVP honors -- on a roll.

Since starting the Giants' 28-16 win over the Rams by completing just 3 of 12 passes with one interception and a touchdown, Manning has gone 32-of-41 for 435 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. After his frosty start against St. Louis, Manning finished that win by completing a scorching 16 of 18 passes.

He carried that momentum into Sunday's NFC East showdown in Philadelphia, where he picked apart a defense featuring the likes of cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for 254 yards and four touchdowns.

"You just know as the quarterback you're still finding out what's your best personnel, what's the best thing that's going to work for us, what is going to be our best way of finding completions," Manning said. "Sometimes it just takes a little longer or you have to work at it, building confidence and guys getting more experience and game-time experience, understanding what it takes to get open."

"We're not exactly where we need to be," Manning added. "We're not playing perfect football. There are still areas of improvement. But as long as we keep getting better, keep getting stronger, making strides toward the right way, we'll be in good shape."

Manning entered this season in his prime but looking to prove himself at 30. As he has put it so many times in his own words, Manning was out to show that he is not a 25-interception quarterback after leading the NFL last season in that category with that number.

Despite passing for 4,002 yards and a career-high 31 touchdowns last year, Manning couldn't seem to escape the interceptions and the criticism.

After saying he believed he is an elite quarterback on the level of a Tom Brady during an ESPN New York 1050 interview, Manning finished the preseason without a passing touchdown in 55 attempts.

Then, in the season-opening loss to Washington, Manning had a quick short pass deflected and intercepted by rookie Ryan Kerrigan, who returned it for a 9-yard touchdown that snapped a 14-14 tie and sparked the Redskins to a 28-14 victory.

All the while, Manning had injuries to deal with -- not to himself but rather to those around him. His top wide receiver, Hakeem Nicks, missed several days of practice after the season opener with a knee injury. His best pass-catching tight end, Travis Beckum, was out for the first two weeks with hamstring injuries. And just as he began to hit a stride with his receivers, Manning lost his second- and third-best receivers to injuries as Mario Manningham suffered a concussion and Domenik Hixon was lost for the season to a torn ACL.

"With the turnaround that we have had this season, with guys lost during free agency, injuries, it seemed like he had a different set of wide receivers every week since we have been in camp," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "He had Hixon step up and then get hurt. It has been intertwining in our wide receiver corps."

But just when the odds were stacked against him, Manning had the New York offense humming like a Lamborghini against Philadelphia. Without Manningham and Hixon, he found a new weapon in Victor Cruz, who had three catches for 110 yards and touchdowns of 74 and 28 yards long.

Manning spread the ball around as he hit eight different Giants for completions against the Eagles.

"I always feel confident in what we're doing," Manning said of what has clicked since early in the Rams game. "No matter if at first you had a few incompletions or something happens. I always feel this series will be the one where I can complete every pass. I think we're doing a good job of putting guys in a situation to have an understanding of what their routes are, what our combinations are. Guys are understanding [the offense] and getting open in a timely fashion."

Manning has completed 53 of 85 passes for 745 yards and six touchdowns so far this season. He has two interceptions and has been sacked 10 times. If the offensive line, which has a new center and left tackle, can give Manning more time, the Giants' offense will be better.

He still admits to throwing an occasional risky pass, such as the one he lofted to Cruz for a 28-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that came with two defenders in the vicinity. Cruz had Asomugha and a safety over the top but ended up coming down with the touchdown after boxing out both Eagles at the goal line.

"Got fortunate on the one to Victor, and he made a big play," Manning said. "I'm just trying not to make a habit of that. Sometimes you get fortunate, sometimes you don't. You just don't want to take too many chances."

Manning should like his chances better with a healthy set of receivers. He should have Nicks, Manningham, Cruz and Beckum together Sunday for the first time this season.

"Now he is starting to see the same guys over and over again," Tuck said. "Obviously, he is going to feel more comfortable, and it showed on Sunday. He had a great game, and hopefully that is a sign of things to come."

Manning also historically plays some of his best football in October. Manning is 20-4 in the month in his career, the second-best record among quarterbacks who have made at least 15 October starts since 1950, behind Hall of Famer Otto Graham (22-4), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

A successful October after all the changes in camp would impress Gilbride, who believed it would take months for Manning and the offense to finally get to where he wants them to be.

"I thought it would be a lot longer," Gilbride said when asked whether he thought the offense would need a few weeks into the regular season to get on the same page. "I still think it's going to be a lot longer. I still think we have a ways to go."

"It's an ongoing process that we are getting better at," he added. "We are heading in the right direction."