You can't spell elite without Eli Manning
When the 2007 Giants made their Super Bowl run, it became a bit of a running gag to ask veteran center Shaun O'Hara about Eli Manning. Each week the Giants would win another playoff game, each week Manning would play better, and each week reporters would flock to O'Hara to ask about the "development," "maturity" and "progress" that the young quarterback had displayed.
It drove O'Hara crazy.
So in a way, it's probably a good thing that he wasn't around the team this year. But just for old time's sake, what do you think of what Eli's done this season, Shaun?
"This year, obviously, he just took it to a whole other level," the former Giant said. "I know I'm certainly happy for him that he went out and basically shut everybody up."
From the first day of training camp in July to the first day of the postseason Sunday, this Giants team has been all about Manning. There have been subplots and diversions. We saw Victor Cruz develop, we saw Justin Tuck fight through injuries, we saw Jason Pierre-Paul turn into a monster. But above all of that was the cool, confident, calculating quarterback driving the team as far as he could take it.
So far, that's Sunday's wild-card game against the Falcons. Now the question is if he can push this boulder of a team with its 13 players on injured reserve, non-communicative secondary and dead-last running game up the hill for another few weeks.
"Without a doubt, he's up to that challenge or any challenge," Tom Coughlin said.
Which is basically what Manning himself said in training camp when he unwittingly (perhaps) uttered the one word -- "elite" -- that would define his season. In a radio interview, he dared compare himself with the likes of Tom Brady and put himself in that class, prompting reactions that ranged from disbelief to derision.
How did that work out for him? Only a franchise-record 4,933 yards, 16 interceptions (down from 25 last season) and 29 touchdown passes. Oh, and an NFL-record 15 of those touchdown passes came in the fourth quarter. Manning led the Giants to six fourth-quarter wins.
As defensive tackle Chris Canty said: "I'll be damned if he didn't come out and back it up."
O'Hara, who remains close friends with Manning, said even he was shocked to hear the quarterback say those things in the radio interview.
"I was almost proud of the fact that he said it," O'Hara said. "He could have danced around the answer and gave something very vanilla like he normally does. But he put himself out there and I think it's made him better."
Nor was it the first time Manning has accomplished that with a comment.
"It reminded me of back when Tiki [Barber] was saying things about Eli and he stood up for himself," O'Hara said. "It was kind of a surprise to hear Eli saying things like that, but at the same time, it just showed his growth and showed his confidence in himself, which was great for the guys on the team to hear him say. If you're Tom Coughlin or Jerry Reese or one of the guys in that locker room on that team, you're happy to hear him say that."
O'Hara wasn't the only one to draw that parallel. Michael Strahan also compared the two rare instances of Manning manning up.
"He has that boyish look to him," Strahan said. "He doesn't look like he's 31 years old. He looks like he's 17, and everyone mistakes that . . .That showed he is not one to back down. It was good to see him respond to that.''
His former teammates now see him respond only through the prism of the media. His current teammates have been watching him respond all season long, from the offseason workouts he (and O'Hara) organized during the lockout to the weekly meetings he has with the young receivers.
Yet Manning somehow insists with a straight face that he is not carrying this team.
"I think that's the point of a team," Manning said. "It's everybody doing their jobs, it's everybody leaning on each other and expecting the guy next to you to do their job. That's the way we feel."
No, that's the way he feels. The rest of the players in the locker room understand what's going on. "I think the good ones like that," backup quarterback David Carr said of Manning carrying the team. "They want it on their shoulders. I don't think that gets old for him at all. I think that's why he plays. I think he enjoys it."
Even in this jarring roller coaster of a season in which you must be this tall to ride the ride, Manning has never come off his rails. Carr said he's most impressed by how Manning plays with "an assassin-like mentality. Just go out and execute your plan and go back to the sideline."
Carr said that on the field during a game, it's impossible to look at him and get a feel for how well -- or poorly -- the team is playing. O'Hara said he's like that off the field, too.
"Eli is pretty much the same all around during the season," O'Hara said. "He's not the type to talk about stats or personal accolades. He's very machine-like in his preparation, in his mindset. He likes his routine. It's not something that he's going to talk about, 'Hey, I'm having a great year.' That's not his personality."
He doesn't have to say it because everyone else is saying it for him.
"There's no doubt that whether he said that or not, we consider him an elite quarterback. He's got the numbers to prove it," linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said. "[New York] is a tough market to play in. Everybody is going to be very critical. If he played in a smaller market where everybody just loves their team, maybe he would have already been considered that way."
Like, say, Indianapolis? It's worth noting that while Peyton Manning was spending the year sidelined with a career-threatening neck injury, his little brother was throwing for more yards in a single season than Peyton ever had. Now Eli is trying to do something the great Peyton Manning also never accomplished: Win a second Super Bowl.
Not that Manning would ever admit to that level of sibling rivalry.
Then again, who ever thought he'd call himself "elite"?
Who thought others would, either?