Just days after walking off the New England field in a pristine white jersey, with backups Geno Smith and Davis Webb using his snaps to secure their roster spots, Eli Manning was back in his huddle with a vengeance Monday, two weeks of studying for the season opener against Dallas unleashed on the Giants' practice field. When coach Ben McAdoo later described Manning as "locked in," he was speaking to a veteran more than ready to close the door on training camp and shift the focus to the real thing.
That arrives Sunday night in Texas, a prime time division matchup getting the season going with a bang. And while the ever-careful Manning was quick to remind us this is but one of 16 games on the season — "You can't win a Super Bowl in the first game," he said — he also knows expectations are running high for a team coming of an 11-5 record and first-round playoff loss to Green Bay.
He knows the Super Bowl is the goal. Not that he's afraid to say so out loud — having won two of them already, Manning doesn't have much left to accomplish but add more hardware to the pair of Lombardi Trophies and MVP awards he already has — yet he surely isn't known for baring his football soul on any regular basis. That's why that same walk off the Foxboro field last Thursday night was so fascinating. When cameras followed the customary postgame QB handshake between Manning and Tom Brady they came away with the greatest football tease we can imagine, in which two similarly idle quarterbacks casually threw out the idea of another Super Bowl meeting.
The exchange went like this:
Manning: "I didn't tell you this summer, but congrats on last season on the championship. It was awesome. It was a great game. Fun to watch. I'm proud of you."
Brady: "Thanks man. It's good to see you. See you down the road, I hope."
Manning: "See you down the road."
Unless the two are relishing the chance to hang out at the Pro Bowl, the only place they can meet down the road is in the Super Bowl. And what a meeting that would be. Superman meets kryptonite.
Here stands Eli Manning, the NFL's best hope of derailing the Patriots juggernaut, the only man in football whose proven himself up to the task of beating Tom Brady in a Super Bowl mano a mano.
After all, he's done it twice.
Who wouldn't sign on now to see him get a third shot?
Manning certainly didn't want to look that far ahead on Monday, not when his revamped offense is trying to get revved up for Dallas, when he's still waiting to know whether he'll have Odell Beckham Jr. to throw to, still working to get that first official game catch with Brandon Marshall in the books, still hoping his offensive line has improved enough to give him time to find whatever receivers are out on the field.
"Whether you call it a step or just one game, it's the next game. It's the first game of the season. You want to go out there and play well," he said. "But, you can't win a Super Bowl in the first game also. So, we have to just play smart and find out our style and figure out ways to win football games and give ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter."
While it was Brady who turned on the fourth-quarter magic in February, shocking the Falcons by engineering one of the greatest comebacks of all time en route to his fifth Super Bowl win, it is Manning who has helped write the book on how to win games late. And never has he done it better than in two Super Bowl wins against the Patriots, leading a memorable late drive in Arizona to win the 2007 title and doing the same in Indianapolis four years later. Though his team has changed dramatically since that second win — most notably with the ascension of McAdoo over his former boss Tom Coughlin, the brand of calm, understated leadership that defined Manning before is still here.
"The number one thing that stands out now after being here a couple of months is Eli being approachable," the veteran Marshall said. "There was a play last week and I was trying to gauge what I was dealing with — and I've had a lot of situations where I see this guy is humble, is an amazing leader and an amazing teammate — but we had a route last week where we hit it, we were in the red zone to score, and I went to him and was like, 'What did you think about it? He told me how he felt and he was like, 'What do you think?' I said, 'I think we were off a little bit, we were a second late,' and he was like, 'Yeah, I could have done this, this and that.' I thought, 'Wow, that was impressive for me to be able to give him that feedback. It's awesome.' "
Marshall's addition is one of those, along with the drafting of rookie tight end Evan Engram and the signing of tight end Rhett Ellison, that should make the offense more productive than a year ago. But it all goes through Eli. So I had to ask Marshall, the man of five different franchises and countless different quarterbacks, if Manning is the best he's played with.
"He has a long way to dethrone Ryan Fitzpatrick," Marshall said, a sly grin giving his true feelings away.
Marshall was joking at his former employer's expense. But it's certainly not the Jets whom the Giants are likely to meet down the road. That would be the Patriots. Here's hoping it happens.