- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning will never project the vibe of robo-certainty that defines his big brother or seize the role of whirling dervish mastered by his next opponent, Michael Vick, assuming the concussed quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles earns the doctor's trust by Sunday afternoon.
Eli will never make it look Peyton pretty or Michael magnificent. The younger Manning is a prisoner of his own limitations, not to mention the leader of a team that is physically breaking down around him.
Entering Monday night's home opener with the St. Louis Rams, a game Eli absolutely had to win, he wasn't exactly surrounded by the kind of playmakers who would inspire Vince Young to draw comparisons to the Miami Heat or Chuck Daly's Jordan-Magic-Bird team in Barcelona.
The New York Giants were the Dream On Team even before two wide receivers went down, Mario Manningham with a concussion and Domenik Hixon with a leg injury. Manning is quarterbacking without a credible tight end and trying to survive with receivers suspect enough to require the signing of Brandon Stokley, a 35-year-old slot guy facing retirement.
So Eli has a tough job, a point highlighted by his general manager, Jerry Reese, who said he expected Manning to "take this team on his back." The franchise player has to carry the franchise, and even in a 28-16 victory over the Rams, it looked like a burden too heavy to bear.
"Eli absolutely knows what he's got to do," his father, Archie, said outside the winners' locker room. "He knows he's got a big job, and he knows [the Giants] are in transition. He keeps sawing wood."
The crowd didn't necessarily appreciate the sound of that sawing. After Manning was intercepted on an underthrow to Manningham, and after a third-down pass was batted down at the line, fans were already booing by the middle of the first quarter.
"I didn't hear any of it," Eli said. His old man did.
"When I was a rookie," Archie said, "I played in Green Bay, and I heard them boo Bart Starr. That day I said, 'There are no sacred stars.'"
Eli Manning recovered from those boos he said he never heard ("A lot of times I thought they were booing someone else," he swore) and threw two touchdown passes, one to Hixon near the end of the half that bounced off the receiver's chest and twice off his right hand before settling into a completion that registered on the Tyree scale of absurdity.
Hixon got hurt on the play; of course he did.
The Giants have been decimated by injuries and hurt by personnel losses (Kevin Boss, Steve Smith, Shaun O'Hara, Rich Seubert) on Eli's side of the ball. To reach the playoffs for the first time in three years, they need Manning to honor Reese's faith.
"I expect this to be your best year," the GM told him before the opening loss to Washington.
Manning did just enough Monday night to save his team's season, to keep the Giants on the 1-1 pace shared by Philly and Dallas. But at the end of a big day in New York sports, Mariano Rivera's day, Manning was hardly a convincing closer.
He was fortunate that Sam Bradford wasn't a year or two older, that Steven Jackson didn't play, that Steve Spagnuolo doesn't have better defenders to work with and that Michael Boley ran 65 yards with a fumble the Rams mistook for an incomplete pass.
"I had some throws I missed," said Manning, who finished 18-for-29 for 200 yards. Eli underthrew another ball to Manningham in the second quarter that, he said, "I wish I had back. That could have been a touchdown."
Manning took two third-down sacks on his first two possessions of the fourth quarter but ultimately made it to the final gun in better health than Vick and another division rival, Tony Romo, who's dealing with a broken rib and punctured lung.
Eli is scheduled to make his 106th consecutive regular-season start, the longest streak in the league and the longest in Archie Manning's home.
"My guess is Peyton's got plenty of time to counsel [Eli] now," Archie said of his older son, the one who might be lost for the season after multiple surgeries on his neck. "I'm sure he will. They'll talk. They don't overdo it. ... I'm sure he'll be a sounding board for Eli. He always has been. I don't wear that hat because Peyton's a lot more qualified than I am."
Archie said that he'd just visited Peyton in Indianapolis, that he's not sure whether Peyton will play for the Colts by season's end and that Peyton is just trying to figure out how much he should be around the team. "He doesn't want to overload," Archie said, "and he doesn't want to be out of place."
Eli is suffering no such identity crisis. If he doesn't have the strongest arm or the quickest feet or a computer chip for a mind, Manning does have a Super Bowl MVP award, a nine-figure contract and a team that desperately needs him like never before.
The Giants need him to be better than he was against the Rams, even if they have to follow through on coach Tom Coughlin's postgame suggestion and pull a tight end out of the crowd.
Coughlin also could grab a wideout while he's at it. Manningham and Hixon are hurt, Hakeem Nicks is running around on a bum knee and Stokley is running patterns that aren't in his playbook.
"Obviously there's much to be improved upon," Coughlin said.
Starting with his quarterback. Manning failed to convert on 15 of his first 16 third-down conversion attempts this year and Monday night threw an interception that had the feel of a rookie mistake.
"I had everything right," Manning said. "Had the right check, had the right protection, right play. Just really a bad throw on my part."
So the fans booed him a bit, just as they used to boo the quarterback of the 1986 championship team honored at halftime. Phil Simms was tough enough to get past it.
If the Giants are to return to the playoffs, Eli Manning had better be the same.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." Sunday Morning with Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.
21hBy Ian O'Connor