It's like summer school for Eli Manning as he learns new offense
Dressed in a white T-shirt, beige shorts and blue sneakers, Eli Manning is the picture of calm as he stands outside the Giants' cafeteria after a recent offseason workout. He smiles and speaks enthusiastically about the upcoming season, one he hopes has a far different outcome than the mistake-prone 7-9 disappointment of 2013.
Even so, there is a hint of anxiety in his voice and in his words. The Giants have a new offensive coordinator, and Manning is learning a new system for the first time since his rookie season in 2004.
Though he is six months into absorbing Ben McAdoo's West Coast offense, there is no longer the same comfort of running the only pro system he ever knew in 10 NFL seasons.
Now 33 and still in the physical prime of a career that is highlighted by two Super Bowl MVP awards, Manning admits moments of doubt crept up on him during this sometimes awkward transition.
"It's definitely different," he said. "It's a different feel than we've had in a number of years. Learning a new offense, I might as well be a rookie. There are some concepts you know and there are things that I understand from being a football player and having experience. But there are still a lot of things that are different in this offense."
Here's how different: The plays he ran in former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride's system were as familiar and comfortable to him as the pocket of a well-worn baseball glove, but simply getting a play out of his mouth in the huddle now is tantamount to speaking in a foreign language.
"Just hearing the play and being able to repeat it and visualize it," Manning said. "If you miss one word because you didn't understand that one word, it's a big deal. So there's a lot of learning, a lot of studying going on. Late-night studying, trying to get prepared for the next practice. That's the difference."
He was so comfortable with Gilbride's terminology that he would play mental games with himself to keep things fresh.
"The past couple of years, I didn't want to look at the script ," he said. "I didn't want to know what was coming tomorrow. I wanted to make it like a game, and I wouldn't be worried about not knowing a play. Now you have to look at the script and draw up every play and think about every possible situation that might come up and what your calls might be."
Yes, this is a challenging situation for any veteran quarterback, even one of Manning's championship stature.
He twice has been to the mountaintop of the NFL, culminating in signature playoff performances at the end of the 2007 and 2011 seasons with upset victories over the Patriots in two Super Bowls.
But after a mostly calamitous season in 2013, when the Giants tried to go for it one last time with a handful of veterans from those Super Bowl years, Manning now is the focal point of a major transition.
As has been the case since he got here more than a decade ago, the same holds true: As Manning goes, so go the Giants. That never has been more evident than now as he tries to master an offense that even NFL greats such as Joe Montana, Steve Young and Brett Favre took years to perfect.
Manning is one of the brightest minds in the game, a man with the rare ability to process reams of information even as he drops back to pass and surveys a defense. But even he acknowledges this is a daunting challenge, his biggest since those first uncertain games in his fledgling start as a rookie.
Manning will report on Monday with the rest of his teammates for the start of his 11th NFL training camp, and arguably his most important one. His head is still swimming with the X's and O's of McAdoo's offense, and it is up to him to make sense of it all by the time the Giants take the field in the first game of the season -- against the Lions on Monday night, Sept. 8.
Yet along with the insecurities that come with learning a new system comes a renewed sense of resolve, of revitalization. He looks back with gratitude at what he and Gilbride accomplished together, but he looks to the future at what he and McAdoo can do if he can make an effective transition.
"Kevin Gilbride was my quarterbacks coach for a number of years, and then my offensive coordinator and we won two Super Bowls together," he said. "I have a great respect for him and a lot of my success I owe to him and his offensive philosophy and his mind-set. But that's the business, and he resigned and we hired a new coach and now I'm learning a new system and I'm all in for this system with Ben McAdoo. I think he's a bright mind with a great system and I'm interested in learning it. I have questions and we're getting on the same page with what plays I like and what things that I'm used to, and I'm excited about the opportunity that we have working together."
Can it work? Will it work? No one can be sure, especially with Manning coming off a season with a career-high 27 interceptions. But there are no reminders of all those miscues, no rehashing of the botched passes. In fact, Manning hasn't so much as played any of them back on video, even if he has over and over again in his mind.
"You're not looking at any film from last year, which is normally what you're doing this time of the year," he said. "It's all preparation for a new year, learning a new offense, so you feel like you get a fresh start, you get a new start and a new opportunity to prove yourself and to reinvent yourself, and that's what I'm working on now."
He hopes this is just the beginning of the rest of his career. How long that career will last, he doesn't know. As far as he's concerned, though, it won't end anytime soon.
"I'm taking it one year at a time, and I hope I have a long future ahead of me," he said. "I'm just trying to get through this year and have a great season and keep going."