- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Nobody knew Eli Manning would grow into this kind of superstar, not even Eli Manning. In charge of a team fixing to repeat as champs, Manning spent part of Wednesday painting a portrait of a young and insecure quarterback, cracking open an old window on his thoughts that he prefers to keep jammed shut.
Manning almost never invites the public into his huddle, but two Super Bowl MVP awards have a way of compelling even the most private of franchise players to relax and offer an occasional sneak peek. And so it was in the New York Giants' locker room that Manning admitted he was once more concerned about tending to the dueling divas, Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress, than he was about winning games.
No, Manning didn't name Shockey and Burress, but he didn't have to. Nor did he have to point out this was a bigger problem with Shockey, whom Eli didn't need to win a championship, than it was with Burress, whom Eli most certainly needed on the rocky road to Super Bowl XLII.
Manning was talking about his play-no-favorites approach with Victor Cruz and friends when he was asked if he'd always been such an equal-opportunity distributor of the ball.
"Early on," Eli answered, "we probably had receivers where in practice you try to force it to get them balls so they don't get down, or you keep them happy, and I think you create bad habits doing that.
"And so as I got older and we got younger, new guys in, you evolve to doing it the correct way. And it's going through the reads, saying you've got to earn the right to get open, and it's all based on the coverage and the reads. I've got to do that to make sure I'm doing the right things and not doing bad habits."
To see the younger, pre-parades Eli preoccupied with the receivers most likely to show him up is to see a quarterback who couldn't possibly fathom what he'd become all these years later. Today's Manning is the best clutch quarterback in the NFL, and enough people believe that word, clutch, is an unnecessary qualifier.
Manning is the master of the fourth-quarter comeback, master of the win-or-else game. Is he better than Phil Simms was back then? Better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and, gulp, Peyton Manning are in the here and now?
It's a pretty amazing thing that the questions are even being asked. In the not-too-distant past, Manning was widely assumed to be a failed gamble, a No. 1 overall pick who threw off his back foot and who lacked his brother's presence and leadership and his father's athleticism.
Archie Manning did predict Eli would grow as a leader, just as he had at Ole Miss, but he never predicted the greatness for Peyton's kid brother that, say, Richard Williams had predicted for Venus' kid sister.
Peyton? At his one-and-done Super Bowl MVP news conference, he declared Eli would drive the Giants to the big game more than once. Nobody within earshot took it seriously, not when the conquering hero was so clearly covering his kid brother's back.
Tom Coughlin? He likes to tell a story from 2004, when his beleaguered rookie quarterback responded to a series of dispiriting defeats by walking into his office and saying, "Coach, I want to be good. I want to be the quarterback of the New York Giants. I want to lead the New York Giants to victory."
Only three years later, Manning was only leading his coach out of town. The Eli-Coughlin Giants still hadn't won a playoff game when, on Nov. 25, 2007, the quarterback threw four interceptions against the Minnesota Vikings, who returned three for touchdowns. Another season was careening out of the Giants' control, and the scene was so grim that the retired executive who had acquired Manning, Ernie Accorsi, fled the game early because he couldn't bear to watch.
Just as Cruz was done Wednesday explaining how his quarterback's belief in him was just what an undrafted longshot needed "to settle down in this offense and on this team and find a niche," Manning revealed how he built trust with Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and the rest. He said he told them the following:
"I don't have favorites. I'm not going to force it to one guy. I've got a read in the progression. If you want to know what my progression is, I'll be happy to tell you, and I'm going to stick to that. And if you're my first read, it's your job to get open. And if you're not (open), then I'm going on to the next guy."
That's the voice of maturity, the voice of a quarterback who can turn Cruz into a high first-round pick on a Sunday afternoon, and then turn Ramses Barden into Megatron on a Thursday night in Charlotte.
Eli isn't merely an elite player anymore; he might be the elite player in the league. He aw-shucksed his early MVP candidacy ("It's not something I'm going to get caught up into," he said), and perhaps deep down he suspects his numbers will never be mind-blowing enough to claim the same regular-season award that has eluded his local role model, Derek Jeter.
Whatever. Eli's big brother is a four-time MVP, but Peyton is also 9-10 in the postseason and 1-1 in the Super Bowl compared to kid brother's 8-3 and 2-0. Eli is comfortable enough in his own skin, in his own huddle, to have teased Peyton in a text message after Denver's dramatic comeback victory over San Diego.
"You pick one play that I thought was his best throw or best play," Eli said of the text. "It was the one where he kind of hurdled the guy and made the throw, then had his little cocky smile after. That was the one."
Peyton returned the favor with a congratulatory text after Eli's 77-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Cruz beat the Washington Redskins. Washington's DeAngelo Hall wasn't so impressed, telling reporters that the play didn't require the brainwork of "a rocket scientist" and that the Redskins had given away the game.
"I appreciate him giving it to me. Thank you," Manning said to the rarest of news media sounds around his locker -- laughter. "No, I didn't think it took a rocket scientist to figure it out, either. We had a guy running open and you hit him."
Someday, it might take a rocket scientist to figure out how Manning -- the least athletic quarterback in his own division -- developed into a league-wide superstar, a Hall of Famer, and a guy who could finish his career with three, four, maybe five championship rings.
Way back when, nobody had any idea how good this quarterback was going to be, a young and insecure Eli Manning included.