- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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In the winter of 2007, Eli's father, Archie, predicted that his boy would grow as a leader in the pros just as he'd done at Ole Miss. In the spring of 2009, Giants general manager Jerry Reese ordered his quarterback to assume control of the locker room, to shepherd his young receivers through their growing pains and to even make his presence felt with teammates on the defensive side of the ball.
"We're going to put it on you," Reese told Manning.
"You can count on me," Eli responded.
So the Giants have given their quarterback much more than money and the ball; they've challenged him to take ownership of the team. And if Manning believes his team has a better chance of winning the Super Bowl without Plaxico Burress than with him, the Giants should let Burress catch passes for the Jets, the Steelers, the Niners, the Eagles or whatever mystery franchise might grab him in the dead of night.
"We have a lot of receivers who can make big plays," Manning said Saturday, when he launched a passive-aggressive assault on Burress right around the time the receiver was sitting down with Big Ben Roethlisberger for lunch.
Lunch? Friday evening, Manning didn't even bother to poke his head out of a conference room to say hello to the new recruit and old friend. Burress spent an hour at the Giants' training facility with Tom Coughlin, 15 minutes apiece with Reese and co-owner John Mara, and shared hugs, high-fives and small talk with his former teammates and coaches.
But Manning buried himself in his X's and O's, choosing to remain oblivious to the visit. He wouldn't even acknowledge his former locker room neighbor, never mind thank him for taking painkilling shots in his knee on Super Bowl Sunday before catching the winning pass.
"We had meetings; we are working around here," Manning said. "I didn't know he was in. I didn't know when he was meeting. ... I didn't know when he was here, when he wasn't. I didn't know the circumstances."
The quarterback should have said the dog ate his playbook.
"I've got 10 receivers here that I'm trying to get prepared to practice today," Manning continued, "and offensive linemen, so that's what my focus is on."
Manning forever gets criticized for saying little of consequence, for trying to bore reporters to death. But while trying to say nothing Saturday, Manning said a ton about the receiver who spent 21 months in prison after accidentally shooting himself in the leg in a Manhattan club.
While Roethlisberger has all but offered to let Burress call the plays in Pittsburgh, and while Michael Vick has declared he "absolutely" wants the 6-foot-5 target on his side, Manning has dumped a bucket of ice water on the notion that the Giants should be all in for Plax the Sequel.
Asked what he thought of a possible Burress return, Manning said, "It's not up to me." He mentioned that he'd called Burress a few weeks back to see how post-prison life was going, but that he wouldn't be making any recruiting calls in the coming days.
Manning did agree (without much enthusiasm) that having an athletic 6-5 receiver who can bail out a quarterback under duress is "always a nice thing to have in your back pocket." But no matter how often people referenced all the playmakers his tormentors in Philly were assembling, the quarterback wasn't about to stray off message.
Manning wasn't bending on Burress because he threw 25 interceptions last year, or because Ahmad Bradshaw and Kevin Boss remain unsigned. He wasn't bending on Burress because another free agent, Steve Smith, is coming off microfracture knee surgery, or because there are a lot of new faces on the offensive line.
"I think we have the manpower to be an explosive offense," Manning said.
Without Burress, he meant.
"People see the final results of the '07 year when [Burress] didn't practice all year," Manning said, "and they say, 'Well, you won a championship.' Well yeah, we went 10-6 and barely made the playoffs. It wasn't like a breeze and we went 14-2. It was tough, we struggled, we went through low points, and everything was not always perfect.
"So it is about being dependable, being committed to the team and showing up to practice, working hard, and doing everything you can to get yourself and the team prepared to play the next game."
Manning wasn't talking here about the Burress who was foolish enough to carry a loaded gun into a club, blowing up the Giants' chance of repeating as Super Bowl champs.
The quarterback was talking about the Burress who threw up his hands in disgust when he didn't get the ball. The Burress who was repeatedly late to practices and meetings. The Burress who got suspended for failing to show to work, and who then declared that he'd enjoyed his time off. The Burress who berated Coughlin on the sideline.
"You don't want distractions," Manning said. "Distractions, whatever they may be, can hurt a team."
The Giants haven't won a playoff game since Burress got himself arrested, the main reason Justin Tuck and a parade of fellow Giants cut against Manning's grain Saturday and campaigned for Plax's return.
But Eli doesn't want to insult his current receivers, and he doesn't want to commit to a former teammate who had betrayed the team's trust. Maybe Eli will come around on Burress soon enough. Maybe the quarterback will remember that an injured Burress helped him make that $100 million score.
Either way, this is Manning's team, Manning's offense, Manning's ball. Giants management should let the franchise player make this franchise call.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."