- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- After winning two Super Bowl titles in magical ways, Eli Manning has made his bones as a franchise quarterback. But that doesn't mean he gets to remain the Giants' Teflon man at a time like this, when his team is off to a stunningly bad 0-4 start and he's tied for the NFL lead in turnovers at 11 -- the same number as that rookie quarterback the Jets are starting, Geno Smith.
The Giants have so many problems right now. The fact that they're winless doesn't fall only on Manning. And the days are gone when people drive themselves crazy wishing that the team captain who asked Tom Coughlin to speak to the team Monday had been Eli rather than Antrel Rolle.
Coughlin praised the veteran safety for how "he's kind of put his arms around this team" and spoke about not being "afraid" of the ditch the Giants' season is now in. (That said, even Coughlin might've coughed a little had he known that just before he met the press Monday afternoon, Rolle had stood down the hall in the Giants' mostly deserted locker room and told reporters "I believe we can go 12-0" the rest of the season.)
Manning long ago proved he leads in a different way.
But while Rex Ryan stood at the podium after Smith's brutal game against Tennessee on Sunday and said at some point Smith and the rest of the Jets don't get to keep saying these games are a "learning experience" -- Ryan barked back that they have to learn the lessons already and stop repeating the same mistakes -- nobody is publicly calling out Manning even though he's thrown one more pick than Smith (9 to 8), and they've been sacked the same number of times (14).
That's not good.
But here's what's worse: Manning's turnover tendency is nothing new.
Giants general manager Jerry Reese -- who's had his own role in the Giants' slide -- declined to speak to reporters on Sunday after the Giants' solid start in Kansas City crumbled into a 31-7 loss. But if he had, he might've said he's seen this game tape before, after Manning committed three more turnovers, two of them fumbles.
Though the Giants' personnel around Manning is significantly different now, this season is starting to feel like the Giants' 2010 season that ended without a spot in the playoffs, in large part because of their NFL-high 42 turnovers -- 30 of them Eli's. The day after that season ended, Manning admitted to reporters, "I've got to be smarter at times and be more careful with the ball. ... I need to get better. I am not a 25-interception quarterback. I think, honestly, that has got to be changed, we've got to fix that. That's on me and the receivers and everybody doing that. Most of it's on me."
Manning went on to argue that injuries to his receivers and a tendency to "probably try to do too much" late in games contributed to the problem. But Reese wasn't buying that explanation -- "This is a business about making decisions and making adjustments and he has to make the adjustments and we expect him to do that. I don't care who is in there -- we expect him to make the adjustments" -- and neither was Coughlin. Speaking weeks earlier after a mistake-strewn loss to Philadelphia, Coughlin said, "The careless disregard for the ball ... has been going on for probably a year and a half here" -- a timeline that pushes Manning's turnover problems back to the 2008 season.
"No one seems able to do anything about it," Coughlin said then.
Now would be a good time for Manning to start.
The Giants are lucky the rest of the NFC East hasn't been great so far, either. Amazing as it sounds, they're still only two games out of first place, there's a lot of ball still to play, and the Eagles come into Sunday's game riding a three-game losing streak themselves.
But while Eagles QB Michael Vick has thrown only two interceptions all year, Manning could at this rate match his total last season of 19 interceptions by the midpoint of this season, and pass his previous career worst of 25 by the three-quarter mark. And while Mark Sanchez was absolutely torched for how often he turned over the ball before losing the Jets' starting job to Greg McElroy, and now Smith, did you know Manning actually has more turnovers (103) than Sanchez (95) or anyone in the NFL since 2009, Sanchez's rookie year?
The problem just seems even more imperative than ever for Manning to fix now because the Giants team around him isn't as good as it once was. The slender margin for error the wildly erratic Giants had all those other years that Manning bailed them out with his late-game, Hero Ball comebacks feels more slender than ever, too.
Second-year back David Wilson hasn't given the Giants the running attack or big plays they hoped he would as a starter. The Giants' pass rush has so far been a shadow of what it used to be. The linebacking corps doesn't feature any game-changers, and the secondary -- though it always seems banged up -- has actually held up better than expected, crazy as it sounds given the Giants have given up 30 points or more in all four games.
"I think the defense has been playing well," Manning said Monday. "We [the offense] haven't been doing our jobs."
Coughlin conceded the offense was the last part of the team he and his staff thought would be a problem this season.
"We're all going like this," Coughlin said, using his right index finger to pantomime how he and the other coaches are scratching their heads. "Why aren't the results better than they are?"
But it's not really that hard to figure out, is it? Fewer turnovers and penalties, and some better play from Manning would help.
Victor Cruz has been the Giants' best player so far, not Manning. For the Giants to go anywhere this season, Manning has to be.
And he knows it.
"We've got to get it fixed," Manning said.
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