- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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If you've listened to Eli Manning over the years, then compared what he had said to the Eli Manning who is speaking in training camp interviews these days, you will see a change in the Giants quarterback. It's impossible to miss, even if he is delivering the new message in that same old Easy Eli voice of his, that Louisiana drawl that sometimes sounds so low key it should be covered in Spanish moss.
Manning is publicly cracking the whip on the Giants more than he has at any other time in his career. And it's starting to look like the best argument yet for why the Giants will be able to avoid a Super Bowl hangover.
Plenty of Giants are still scowling and shaking their heads at how some experts recently picked them to finish no better than third in the stacked NFC East. They've been asked whether they've ever seen a defending Super Bowl champion that's been respected less, and many of them have flatly said no. "We know some people think us winning the Super Bowl was a fluke," Giants safety Antrel Rolle has said.
Manning could confess more irritation about it than anybody. He's coming off the best season of his life, carrying the Giants for long stretches last year. He's won two rings in the past five years and eclipsed Tom Brady as the best clutch quarterback in the game. He could fire off something as bold or defiant as last summer's preseason declaration that he considered himself in the same elite class as Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.
And yet this is how Manning keeps answering the Disrespect question instead:
"We've got to get better -- we know that. We've got to improve," Manning has said again and again and again. "We can be better than a 9-7 team or a team that barely makes it into the playoffs."
Now granted, that's not electric or as attention-grabbing as Jerry Jones' saying the other day that his Cowboys are gonna kick the Giants' asses. (When ex-Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett, who's now with the Giants, was asked if he wishes he had a dollar for every big statement Jones has made, Bennett shot back: "I don't know. I'm pretty wealthy right now.") It's not even as fun as Giants owner John Mara taking another poke at the equally underachieving Jets by making fun of how Tim Tebow's arrival has turned them into even more of an attention sponge than they already were.
But what Manning's "We Gotta Improve" mantra does suggest is that he doesn't just hear the critics who still don't treat the Giants like a perennial Super Bowl threat because of their their regular-season inconsistencies. He actually agrees that there's some legitimacy to the rap. And on top of that, he's determined to do something about it.
Another example? Take a look at this exchange Manning had with a reporter after collaborating with Victor Cruz on a flashy completion in practice; Cruz made the grab after slipping, then scrambled back up before reaching behind him to catch the ball:
"Do you at all say, 'Wow that's pretty amazing?'" the reporter asked.
"I mean yeah, he makes some good plays," Manning allowed. "You look at the good part, which is the catch, and why did he slip also? There's two different aspects of the play, looking at his body lean, and all of those things. You try to correct that and then congratulate him as well."
Good circus catch, Victor. But about that body lean
Manning is sounding more like Giants coach Tom Coughlin all the time. He's unimpressed by success. Undaunted when things get tougher. Unsparing about his conviction that no matter how good things may look, they are not good enough. Everything could be done better. Did you catch how Manning even groused that he's glad the TV cameras are at the Jets' camp and staying away from the Giants because "this is my time to work on football"?
That additional edge and the more frequent peeks into his personality are the public change in Manning right now. And they're good for the Giants.
Manning has always shown more leadership behind the scenes than he has ever gotten credit for, especially when it comes to bringing along his rotating cast of young receivers. But the team's perennial inconsistency -- magical postseason runs after inexplicable regular-season swoons or clunker losses -- is the last remaining smirch on Coughlin's and Manning's New York careers, and a very relevant problem to solve if they're going to have a Super Bowl repeat. They've always been terrible front-runners.
That pattern doesn't make the Giants' Super Bowl run a "fluke". It wasn't.
They still had to win all those playoff games on the road, and they were damn impressive doing it. They persevered through numerous injuries last season and a murderous schedule, and they got healthy at the right time -- most notably when Osi Umenyiora's return boosted the pass rush. Manning became the best clutch QB in the league and Coughlin again looked as though he's the best big-game coach in the business. Better than Bill Belichick, better than Sean Payton. Better than any of them.
But Manning is behaving as if the all-purpose answer to all the questions that lay ahead of the 2012 Giants is easy. What do they do for an encore? How do they avoid being another one of those Super Bowl teams that miss the playoffs the next season? How do they handle the perennial lack of respect?
"Each year you try to improve and get better," Manning keeps saying.
It's not electric. But it's accurate. So get used to it.
Considering how often Manning has already said "We've got to get better," this seems clear: He'll admit that he finally feels as though he's made his bones in the NFL. And he seems determined to keep cracking the whip on his team all the way back to the Super Bowl.
A brand new Eli Manning has emerged at Giants camp this summer.