EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –
He had appeared in two games as a reserve, but Eli Manning's career really began 10 years ago today, when he made his first start for the Giants, against the Atlanta Falcons in Giants Stadium.
The Giants were 5-4, but with Kurt Warner at quarterback, had lost three of their last four games, including a 17-14 decision the previous week in Arizona, a game that Tom Coughlin believed the Giants should have won. Coughlin, then in his first year with the Giants, decided to replace Warner with Manning, the first overall selection in that year's draft (by the San Diego Chargers, who traded him to the Giants).
"It was a heck of a move by me, wasn't it?" Coughlin said today with a smile. "At that point in time, we had Kurt Warner, who was a great pro and a great human being. An excellent, excellent quarterback and I just didn't see what I wanted to see at that point. We were (5-4), and I felt that it was time for the good of the franchise to take the franchise quarterback and to put him on the field. So we did. It was an experience for Eli for that second half of the season. It was a good move in the long run because of obviously what happened the next year and years to come."
Manning had no idea the loss to the Cardinals would be his final game as the backup quarterback.
"I didn't know what was going to happen," Manning said this week. "I know we had lost a few in a row. That was a tough one in Arizona. The offense, we didn't play all that well, so I didn't know when my opportunity was going to come. I was preparing all the weeks prior to try to learn as much I could and learn as much from Kurt Warner and ask him questions and watch him as he prepared and played. But I didn't know when my opportunity would come, but knew I would try to be as ready as possible when it did.
"Looking back now, I probably thought I was very well-prepared and knew everything and had all the answers. Obviously, I did not. I think I was just excited to get in there and play for the first time and start your career. There are definitely some nerves going on. You want to just get that first completion and get things going a little bit."
Manning threw an incompletion and was sacked (by Patrick Kerney and Ed Jasper) before he got that initial completion. And no, he could not recall who caught the pass. It was an eight-yard slip screen to Ike Hilliard, who then fumbled the ball, which was recovered by the Falcons. But Coughlin challenged the call, which was reversed after a review by referee Jeff Triplette, so the play stood as Manning's first completion as a starter.
Manning did remember his first touchdown pass, which he threw with 4:47 remaining in the third quarter.
"I threw my first touchdown to Jeremy Shockey on a little stick nod pump," Manning said. "I hit him for a (six-yard) touchdown. I also threw an interception to a defensive end on a slant. (The ball was picked off by Brady Smith on a second down from the Falcons' 28-yard line.) I kind of learned a lesson, learned something on that one. They brought a zone blitz strong and the defensive end dropped. Back then, we always threw into the blitz, (we were told to) throw into the blitz when you're hot. I learned that lesson very well."
(Manning family trivia: The first NFL touchdown pass for all three Manning quarterbacks was six yards long. Archie Manning threw a six-yarder to Dave Parks on Sept. 19, 1971. Peyton Manning's six-yard touchdown pass went to Marvin Harrison on Sept. 6, 1998.)
Manning finished his first start with 17 completions in 37 attempts for 162 yards, the touchdown to Shockey and two interceptions. His passer rating was 45.1. He was much better in the second half, when he hit 16 of 23 throws for 116 yards.
The Giants trailed at halftime, 14-0. In the second half, they shut out the Falcons while scoring 10 points. But a controversial penalty called on linebacker Carlos Emmons for roughing Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick hurt the Giants down the stretch. The Giants did get the ball back at their own 26 with 1:52 remaining and moved to the Falcons' 42. But Manning's fourth-down pass to Shockey was broken up by linebacker Keith Brooking with 45 seconds left, effectively ending the game.
"I knew I had a lot to improve on," Manning said. "We had a little two-minute drive that we did okay on and moved the ball. But I definitely knew there was lots of room for improvement. That's what the first game is always going to be, there's always going to be lots of room for improvement after your first game."
Manning, of course, has not missed a start since that afternoon. On Sunday night, he will start his 162nd consecutive game when the Giants host the Dallas Cowboys. That is the third-longest streak by a quarterback in NFL history and the longest streak among active players, regardless of position.
"That is a most impressive statistic, to be able to line up and play all those games consecutively and to accumulate the number of games he has started in," Coughlin said. "It is a tribute to his toughness and his will to want to play and his desire to be on the field as the captain of the New York Giants and lead his team. I remember there was a time when the speculation was his shoulder was hurt and he wouldn't be able to play and he didn't throw all week, but he took the field and started the game (Week 2 in 2007) and threw the ball and did well. It is a great testament to his toughness and his desire and the inspiration and the motivation that he has to play the game.'
Manning has been far more than just durable. He's led the Giants to two Super Bowl victories, been selected to three Pro Bowls and he owns all of the Giants' significant passing records. Manning has also been a team leader and one of the franchise's most active players in the community.
And it really all started 10 years ago today.
"It doesn't feel like 10 years," Manning said. "It's gone by very fast. I'm still enjoying what I'm doing and still trying to learn something from every game."
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