EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - The old saying is that time flies when you're having fun, so it's no surprise that Eli Manning sometimes feels his Giants career is traveling in the fast line of the Autobahn. Playing football is both Manning's profession and passion. He enjoys nothing more than studying a game plan, working on the practice field and playing a game of football.
He joined the Giants via trade, less than an hour after he was the first overall selection of the 2004 NFL Draft. Despite that lofty status, Manning arrived with the same blank canvas as any rookie, hoping to paint a masterpiece but uncertain exactly how it would look.
Although he still looks younger than his age – Manning turned 30 on Jan. 3 – he is a wizened veteran and one of the most seasoned players on the Giants. Only three teammates – Rich Seubert, David Diehl and Osi Umenyiora – predate his arrival.
"It's definitely gone fast, and it's been a quick seven years," Manning said recently. "It's been fun – good years, bad years. But you kind of tend to remember the good things over the bad ones. It's been a learning experience. Different players have come in. Guys when you first got here are no longer here - Amani Toomer and Plaxico (Burress), Tiki (Barber), (Michael) Strahan, Luke Petitgout. Just different guys who came in and all of a sudden they just slowly, one by one, they were let go or retire. And new guys have stepped in and I feel good about them. We have a good, young receiving corps and it's fun."
The Giants' top four receivers his rookie season were Jeremy Shockey, Barber, Toomer and Ike Hilliard. Burress arrived in 2005. When Toomer and Burress left the franchise following the 2008 season, Manning was suddenly older and more experienced than the players he was throwing to – Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham.
"It's different from when I first got here," Manning said. "You kind of had an older receiving corps, veteran guys who knew a lot, played a lot of football and were game tested. And now all of a sudden you kind of have a young crew who I've gotten to work with, kind of build with, work with, talk with, and I like the way they work. They still listen to me, which is nice. They want to get better. They know I'm trying to help them catch the ball and get touchdowns, and so it's fun watching them grow up and get better every year."
Fun – for Manning, it's been a constant since those first whirlwind days of rookie minicamp to the stretch run of this season. No other player spends as much time at the Timex Performance Center lifting weights, studying opponents, talking strategy with coaches, dissecting defense with his receivers, working out his soreness in the trainer's room and bonding with teammates in the cafeteria.
Few jobs can compare with NFL quarterback for testing a man mentally, physically and emotionally on a daily basis. The job is one that demands long hours of preparation (innumerable meetings, practices and reviews), mental challenges, physical hardships, fan adulation and enmity, and the euphoria of victory and the anguish of defeat. It's an all-encompassing profession that Manning wouldn't trade for any other.
"It's definitely fun," Manning said. "I love being around the facility. I love being around the players, our coaching staff, being around the same guys for seven years with Coach Coughlin, Coach (Kevin Gilbride, the former quarterbacks coach and now offensive coordinator). They're great relationships now. I've had a few quarterback coaches along the way, but now I have Coach (Mike) Sullivan. He had been here working with the receivers. It's been great working with him and building on our relationship since he became the quarterbacks coach. I have to get him thinking like a quarterback, not a receiver, which he's been working with the last six years. So you have new receivers, new guys coming in, new challenges every week – it's all fun. I love being here. I love practicing every day. It's competitive, and we take it seriously. Nothing is a walk in the park. I'm trying to get better. I'm trying to learn and get us prepared each week to go out there and play the games, and that's where it's fun. Throwing touchdowns, winning games - there's still not a better feeling than getting a win on a Sunday."
Because of all the work he puts in, Manning's improvement has been rapid and steady. With all due respect to Phil Simms, Manning is on track to become the most accomplished and productive quarterback in Giants history.
He ranks second among all Giants quarterbacks in pass attempts (3,332), completions (1,932) and yards (22,646) and is third with 156 in touchdown passes. He holds or is close to seizing all of the franchise's single-season records. Manning is the only quarterback in Giants history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in six consecutive seasons. He is one of only six quarterbacks in NFL history to throw at least 20 touchdown passes six years in a row. Manning led the Giants to an upset victory over New England in Super Bowl XLII following the 2007 season and played in the Pro Bowl a year later.
In 2010, Manning set franchise single-season records with 339 completions and a 62.9 completion percentage. His 31 touchdown passes were the third-highest total in Giants history. Y.A. Tittle threw 36 in 1963 and 33 in 1962. Manning finished the year with 4,002 yards to become the first Giants quarterback with two 4,000-yard seasons. He threw for 4,021 yards in 2009. Kerry Collins (4,073 in 2002) and Simms (4,044 in 1984) are the only other Giants to pass for more than 4,000 yards.
On Nov. 13 vs. Minnesota, Manning reached another milestone when he became only the sixth quarterback in history to start 100 consecutive regular season games (he ended the season with 103 starts in arrow, the second-longest active streak among quarterbacks behind his brother Peyton, who is 208). The number itself means little to Manning. But he's proud of the commitment, durability, reliability and production that can come only with 103 straight starts.
"I take pride in being there every week and playing," Manning said. "That's just from my work ethic in weight room and in the offseason and conditioning, just kind of doing everything to make sure I get everything that I need – whether it's my maintenance and little stretches and my weightlifting, my running, the flexibility to ensure that you stay healthy. Obviously, you take hits and get into treatment and kind of being committed to being out there every week."
Giants Coach Tom Coughlin spends less time each week pondering individual statistics than he does hiking on Bear Mountain, but he is impressed with Manning's 103-game streak.
"It speaks very highly of him," Coughlin said, "but also his awareness, his alertness, his ability to be able to function when things break down and still resurrect the play or save the play, his ability to change protections, the job that the backs have consistently done, the tight ends – all of those things factor into this. But there isn't any question, it's the will to play. It's the will to line up and play and he's got it. He's been down and he's been injured and you see where perhaps the question would be that they doubted whether he's been able to make it and he's been able to make it."
He always does. In seven years, the possibility that Manning might miss a game has arisen just twice. In 2007, he injured his shoulder and didn't finish the season opener in Dallas. But he started the following week against Favre's Green Bay Packers. Last season, he hurt his foot in a victory at Kansas City. The next week vs. Oakland, Manning played only the first five series, his shortest stint as a starter. But he completed eight of 10 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns for a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
It's that consistency, that determination to play every game that teammates admire more than his touchdown passes or gaudy statistics.
"People don't realize how tough he is," Smith said. "He's battled through a lot of different things - shoulder, AC joint, little things that people don't know about. He has always been out there leading us."
His calm demeanor in the face of any adversity was apparent throughout the 2010 season. The Giants were hit with an outbreak of injuries and played three games without Nicks and Smith, their two leading receivers, and several games without three Pro Bowl offensive linemen David Diehl, Shaun O'Hara and Shawn Andrews. Because of the missing players, Manning was forced to adjust. But he downplays the extent of the changes in planning and execution.
"It was different in a sense," Manning said. "I think sometimes your game plan is a little different. You might have a little bit different philosophy with your personnel, but a lot of it's the same plays. You still go out there and play. You can't start doubting guys or being worried about this and that. It's just a matter of you still have the game plan, you prepare the same, you have to go in positive and just, hey, I like our matchup with Kevin Boss. I like (Travis) Beckum, he's doing good stuff. Derek Hagan knows the offense. We have linemen who are blocking well. The new guys are out there, you find what their positive (is), what do they do well and you adjust. And it's not always what plays are best or you can't always keep doing the same things you're doing. You got to adjust to the strengths of the guys that are in there."
Just as importantly, Manning helps the newcomers to the Giants and new starters adjust to their larger roles simply by including them in his weekly route. Every Thursday during the season, he chairs a post-practice meeting with the running backs. The following day, he huddles with the wide receivers. The goal is to ensure that no game plan goal or opposition nuance goes unnoticed.
"It's just to kind of go over calls that I might make, or checks, or some things that maybe you get done in practice, maybe you don't, but you like to talk about it," Manning said. "You like to see a blitz on film and talk about how we're going to protect it – who do you get. We go over routes with receivers, kind of why we're putting in certain plays, this is the coverage. It might be done with the receivers' coach. I don't know everything that's done in those meetings, but I just kind of like to talk it over with them myself so we're on the same page. They're hearing it come from my mouth – what it should look like, what I expect. You do it on a weekly basis to kind of show how a different team has their own little way of playing things. I think it also helps in understanding the concepts of what we're doing a little bit better. So I hope it helps. I think I feel more comfortable after doing it, and I try not to take up too much of their time and make it very productive and kind of show maybe new plays that we have or just have them think through all the coverages we might see for that play."
Manning's maniacal study habits during the week pay off in every game. The quarterback gets everyone lined up, calls out the protections and can change the play once he sees the defense.
"He gets us in the right play a very high percentage of the time, as long as he has the clock in his favor," Coughlin said.
So 103 starts into his career, is Manning ever surprised during the course of a game? Does it happen a couple times a week? Or is it rare?
"It's tough to say," Manning said. "Some teams will have different blitzes or new things, different coverages. But it's not like a surprise. It's not going to throw you off. You just see what they're doing, make your reads, and you should have someone that can get open versus that coverage. Or you should have a good run versus things. So sometimes they'll have something new, you go to the sideline, you talk about it, and you kind of say, 'Hey, if they do that again, let's go to this.' So we do a good job. And having been here for seven years, having been with a lot of these guys – these offensive linemen – for that long, receivers going into their third and fourth years, Kevin Boss has been here for four years, we can make adjustments on the sideline. Say, 'Hey, we got to run this play this week. It's not in the game plan, but now it is.' And that's the good thing about having that chemistry, having guys who've been here for a while. You can make adjustments quick on the sideline and we can get into things to give us a chance to have some good plays."
In seven years, Manning has improved significantly in his understanding of the Giants' offense and his ability to read opposing defenses. His study and preparation often enable to stay a step or two ahead of the defense and gives the Giants the upper hand.
What has not changed is his dedication to the game's and his position's fundamentals. Manning wants to ensure that his pass drops are as precise as his coaches demand and his throwing motion is as smooth and flawless as possible.
"That's the most important thing," Manning said. "You never lose that. In the offseason the first thing you work on is your drop. You don't even throw the ball for the first two weeks - it's just drops, footwork. You drill those things, and you get into throwing – not even throwing routes, just throwing to coaches, throwing certain passes as you work on keeping two hands on the ball. It's all kind of getting back to the fundamentals, the basics, and you make sure you keep those core things and then you get into throwing your routes and doing all the work with the receivers. So even in practice now, it's all you can work on is your mechanics and make sure everything is sound in that and then you go from there."
For a quarterback, nothing is more basic than taking a five-step drop and without pressure, throwing a simple out route to an uncovered receiver. Of course, that's occurs in a game about as often as a 90-yard reception.
"That's why we work a lot of movement," Manning said. "In practice, we rarely take a five-step drop and throw it. It's five steps, move a little, shuffle and you have targets, but you don't really know where you're going to throw. All of a sudden a receiver flashes his hands and you have to be ready to throw it. Now you're going through your reads, you're getting to your second-third receiver, which a lot of times that's what you have to do."
Because of his detailed preparation and his knowledge of the offense and the opposing team, Manning is excited, but not nervous the night before and the morning of a game.
"I sleep real well," Manning said. "When we get done with our meetings, I do probably an hour and half to two hours of study. And when I've gone through all the plays and thought about what they're going to look like versus coverages - what are the problems, what are checks I might have to make – kind of when I've done that for every play, I think I have a little peace of mind and say I'm ready and I sleep pretty peacefully. So that's just kind of my routine, what helps me. I think part of what helps me sleep well is I feel I'm ready to play that next morning."
Not all NFL players are big football fans, but Manning is. When he isn't playing, he enjoys watching games on television. Not surprisingly, he is a connoisseur of quarterbacks. His eyes will naturally gravitate toward the quarterbacks when he's watching a game.
"I think it's just a neat fraternity of quarterbacks," Manning said. "There's not many of us, and I think you have an appreciation of how hard it is, sometimes. And having a drive, throwing a touchdown, throwing a higher completion percentage, it's hard. It's not easy. It's not something – sometimes it can look easy, but it's a lot of work and preparation and things have to go right. The offensive line has to block, receivers have to get open, and it's not just that one receiver getting open. It's everybody, other receivers, doing the right thing to open up lanes. So a lot of things got to go your way to get completions. So I think you root for quarterbacks, and you watch them just because you've been in situations that they've been in before."
Manning is certainly one of the metropolitan area's most popular professional athletes. In his relationship with the media, he is often compared the Derek Jeter of the Yankees. He's accessible and patient and can fill up a notebook or tape recover, but in an average season, he'll make viewer controversial quotes than field goals. Manning admits he's developed a thick skin to help deflect what's written and said about him.
"You learn that from an early age," Manning said. "Now it's almost humorous with the media. That's how you have to treat it. The questions they ask, you just got to laugh at it. You have to someone laugh about how they think. There's just such a difference between how an athlete thinks and how someone from the media thinks. It's totally opposite. I thought at first they might understand one day, and now I've realized they never will. And so you just got to take it for what it is and you have to answer your questions and be patient with them. They got to do their job, and I got to go do my job."
Away from his job, Manning continues to do much good work. He was the Giants' 2007 and 2008 recipient of the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award, given to the player on each team who displays excellence on the field and in the community. Manning has given his time to numerous organizations and two he is closely affiliated with are the March of Dimes and the Guiding Eyes golf tournament. Eli has become the Giants' leader in supporting the National Football League and American Heart Association's campaign, What Moves U, a national youth movement and awareness initiative designed to promote physical fitness and healthy living to an increasingly inactive generation of children. His father, Archie, and bothers Cooper and Peyton annually host highly popular passing game in Louisiana for high school quarterbacks and receivers.
Manning and his wife, Abby, have given $1 million to an academic scholarship program at their alma mater, the University of Mississippi.
"I try to find things that are important to me or have a meaning, whether it's things up in New York-New Jersey area or things down south in Mississippi or New Orleans (his hometown)," Manning said. "Pretty much all of it's in the offseason. During the season, you focus on football. I've never missed an organized workout up here. If I've missed it, I've made it up or I've always had a 100-percent workout in our offseason program. I'll get my workout on my own or whenever I'm traveling, whether it's late at night or early in the morning, that's the number one priority. My job is to play football and win games for the Giants. You can't forget what your job is here even if you're doing a few other things in between."
Manning's signature endeavor is his year commitment to raise $2.5 million for the Eli Manning Children's Clinics at the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children in Jackson, Mississippi. It is the only hospital in the state devoted exclusively to the care and treatment of sick and injured youngsters. More than 150,000 children from the state's 82 counties come to Children's Hospital each year. Manning hosts a fundraiser each spring that is the social event of the year in the Jackson area.
"I think we have one more year," Manning said. "I think we're $20,000 short. So we're very good. So next year, we'll do the event and we'll make our number easily and have a little bonus that will just go to the hospital for whatever they need. So we've done very well down there, had a great success, and it's been fun. And after this year, we'll see kind of if there's something else to do down there or kind of see what another project can be."
This spring, Eli and Abby will have a special project of their own: they are expecting their first child.
"We're definitely excited about it," Manning said. "It's a new challenge. Abby and I knew we wanted to start a family and this was the time. We were ready, so we're looking forward to attacking that challenge and that next step in our life. We'll be excited when that day comes."
Yes, Manning has traveled quickly from rookie to veteran. But he still has a long way to go.