EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –** The Giants players don't begin their offseason conditioning program for another three weeks, but Eli Manning believes he is already ahead of where he was last year.
In 2014 Manning had to learn a new offense, but the process was delayed because of the rules spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement. And Manning still had pain in his left ankle, which he had sprained in the 2013 season finale. Manning underwent arthroscopic surgery on April 10.
But Manning is now looking forward to his 12th season as the Giants' quarterback in good health and with a firm grasp of the system.
"I'm excited about this upcoming season," Manning said during a visit to the Quest Diagnostics Training Center, where he taped a public service announcement for the March of Dimes. "Last year during the offseason, I was coming off an injury and going into a situation with new coaches. And the way the CBA works now, you don't get much, if any, communication with the coaches. There were a lot of uncertainties and I didn't know how quickly I would heal. I had to learn a new system and new mechanics. There was a lot of anxiousness.
"This year I feel great about the system. My body feels good. I am excited about coming in and knowing what I need to improve on and make strides in, rather than learning a complete new system. I have been working hard and looking at some stuff from last year and keeping the plays fresh and in my head. I'm trying to keep it all fresh in my mind and I am excited about getting back."
Manning played his first 10 years in one offensive system. Kevin Gilbride was his quarterbacks coach for the first three seasons and his offensive coordinator for the last seven-plus years. Ben McAdoo arrived last year with new concepts, terminology and pass routes.
Throughout the spring and summer, Manning was asked about the challenges of staying on the learning curve. As he looks back, it was a daunting test.
"It is tough, because it is time consuming," Manning said. "Last year during the OTA's and practices on the field during the spring, there was a lot of preparation to go through. I think it paid off, but it is just a lot to know so you know what you are doing at practice. You can study it all, and every rep I would take I wanted to know exactly what I was doing. Every rep that (backup) Ryan Nassib or any quarterback took, I wanted to try to get mental reps and have an understanding. It was a lot of work and I think I am going in with the same mindset this year. I have to keep working hard to master the offense.
"This year will be a much easier transition, knowing that we have been through so much of it already. It's definitely a different starting point. I feel good about it. I feel that I have a good understanding of it, but there is still room to grow and that is why I try to keep it as fresh in my mind as possible. Looking at old game-plan sheets and calling plays in my head – throwing routes with receivers trying to call out plays to myself, so you don't let it slip away. It was new last year and it wasn't something I have been doing for 10 years, so you want to keep it fresh and go through your reminders and all your checks. So when we come back I haven't taken a step backwards and have to re-learn things. It is still all there. There will be new stuff and we will be taking it to another level."
Manning recently returned to New Jersey after spending time at his home in Oxford, Miss, where he starred in college at Ole Miss. Although he was removed in time and distance from formal Giants workouts, he was mentally and physically preparing for the season.
Check out the best photos of QB Eli Manning from the 2014 season
"I had some old game-plan sheets from last year," he said. "If I am out throwing with a receiver - I have been throwing to some of the Ole Miss receivers or some ex-Ole Miss receivers who are now in the NFL – you just walk on the field and tell them what route to run. But then (I) say to myself, 'Call the whole formation, call the motion, call the cadence.' Just do some stuff in my head to keep all that fresh as well."
With McAdoo calling plays and Manning at the controls, the Giants' offense was markedly improved last season. The Giants finished 10th in the NFL in total offense one year after they were ranked 28th. They averaged 367.2 yards a game, a 59.7 yards-per-game improvement over their 2013 average of 307.5. The Giants totaled 5,875 net yards in 2014, the fourth-highest total in franchise history.
Manning set Giants records with 601 attempts, 379 completions and a 63.1 completion percentage. He threw for 4,410 yards, the second-highest total in franchise history. Manning threw 30 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions, one year after those numbers were 18 scores and 27 picks.
But the only numbers that matter to him are 6-10, which was the Giants' disappointing final record.
"I'm not pleased with the amounts of wins. That is the important thing," Manning said. "There are still some situations that we need to get better at and that I need to improve on and, as an offense, we need to improve on. (We need to make sure) we are taking care of what needs to be done during the course of the game to put us in a situation to win, or if we got opportunities in the fourth quarter, to be at our best and win our games in those situations. There is definitely still some room for improvement, but I feel good that I can play at a high level in this system and can definitely make improvements and we can win a lot of games and play a lot better this year."
Last year, Manning started all 16 games for the 10th consecutive season. He has started 167 consecutive regular-season games, the longest streak among all active players and the third-longest by a quarterback in NFL history. He was sacked 28 times, bringing his career total to 280. So after the season ended on Dec. 28, Manning understandably took some time off – but not too much.
"Your arm needs rest and your body needs rest," Manning said. "I didn't start throwing again until mid-February. Just to keep the arm in shape and making sure it has all the strength and everything that it needs when we get back in April. As I get older, I take less time off, especially from my workouts and my conditioning (because) it is harder to get back into shape. It takes a little longer to get your strength back up. Take two weeks off, but even then I still enjoy the workout part of it. It is still exercising and moving around just to keep loose."
As he began to prepare his body for the coming year, Manning initiated a detailed review of the 2014 season.
"I look at everything," he said. "I look at games to see situations we need to improve on, whether it is a two-minute before a half or it is a red-zone or try to analyze certain games (to see) if there is a common trend we need to improve on from aspects of circumstances of the game. Then look a lot of cut-ups of the same play. If it is a play you ran 20 times in a season, you're seeing trends, what coverages it worked well against. Why it had success or why it didn't have success. So you can learn from those and get a great feel for it going into the season."
Last year, Manning had his top three receivers – Victor Cruz, Odell Beckham Jr. and Rueben Randle – together for only 1½ games. He looks forward to throwing to them for a full season.
"The good thing about having guys that are smart and versatile is that you can move them around in different positions," Manning said. "Victor and Odell can do a lot of the same things. The more guys you can have that are great athletes, the more you want to try to get the ball in their hands. You can change up formations, you can move them inside or outside. Victor can play outside, he can play in the slot. Odell can do both of those things, so I think that is an advantage to us. You can run similar plays or the same play, but having different guys do it disguises things."
Manning is also eager to work with running back Shane Vereen, who joined the Giants as a free agent after helping New England win the Super Bowl.
"I have talked to Shane a little bit and I have seen him play over the years in New England," Manning said. "He is very versatile. He can catch the ball well out of the backfield, run routes very well (when he is) split outside and he runs the ball well when you use him as a running back. I think it gets you excited because you can use him in a lot of different ways and move him around and create mismatches."
The real highlight of Eli and Abby Manning's offseason was the birth of their third daughter, Caroline Olivia, who joins sisters Ava (4) and Lucy (21 months).
"It has been interesting," Manning said. "It is a lot of pink and baby dolls, but it has been a lot of fun. When you come home, something is happening. There is a lot of energy, a lot of commotion, which makes it fun. It has been great. The two older ones have been wonderful to baby Caroline. It has been fun seeing their interaction and it is going to be a fun these next years. There will be some interesting moments and some chaotic moments keeping everything organized and prepared, but it has been a pretty smooth transition."
Manning is getting accustomed to those evolutions, on and off the field.