EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Late in the first half of his first game since the Super Bowl victory that changed his life, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning dropped back and prepared to deliver a short swing pass to wideout Amani Toomer. Already trailing 13-0 and backpedaling toward their own end zone, the Washington Redskins were in the process Thursday night of meekly draining the 2008 NFL season opener of any suspense.
All Manning had to do was be average, and the Giants were home free.
Then, suddenly, Manning served up an errant throw that resembled many of his worst passes from the old days – basically, the two-plus seasons between his rookie year and last December, when he went on the exquisite run that redefined him. Washington cornerback Carlos Rogers got a jump on the ball and, had he caught it in stride, could've raced to a touchdown hopping on one foot.
Rogers dropped it. The Giants kicked a field goal. And Manning, despite at least three other dubious throws that Redskins defenders graciously treated like the remnants of an Alaskan oil spill, walked off a winner once again.
The Giants, in their 16-7 victory in front of 79,742 fans at Giants Stadium, rode a punishing performance by halfback Brandon Jacobs, a commendable effort from a pass rush missing its two star players from last season and, oh yeah, a wimpy Washington offensive effort in coach Jim Zorn's first-ever stint as a play-caller that had "stage fright" written all over it.
But as the home team trudged into their locker room after the game, with newly retired defensive end Michael Strahan standing outside wearing his "I'm just a TV guy" smile, there was no question who has become The Man in the Land of Giants.
"He knows he's definitely the captain of the ship," said wideout Plaxico Burress, who celebrated the news of a contract extension (a reported five-year, $35-million deal) by catching 10 passes for 133 yards. "He's the Super Bowl MVP, and things have changed. He's kind of playing with a swagger, so to speak."
It's not likely that Manning, who completed 19-of-35 passes for 216 yards and threw one interception, will ever display much swagger in postgame interviews. He did get a laugh out of the theory I threw at him as he dressed at his locker – that before last December, those same balls that bounced off of Washington defenders would surely have been picked off.
That was Old Eli, I told him. New Eli gets away with the same throws, just because, well, as Burress put it, things have changed.
"You think I got some luck?" Manning asked. The quarterback shrugged his shoulders, smiled and added, "Well, we'll see. Hopefully."
Obviously, my Old Eli/New Eli hypothesis is not a highly scientific one. All I can offer in the way of evidence, besides Thursday's game, is my experience with a certain legendary passer who now shares the New York market with Peyton's little brother.
Dining near the 49ers' training facility with Tim McDonald a couple of days before a Green Bay-San Francisco playoff game in January of 1996, I remember getting the veteran safety's take on Brett Favre, the young Packers passer he'd been watching on film all week.
"I'm telling you, we should get 10 interceptions against this guy," McDonald said with a straight face. "I've watched every snap he's taken all year, and I've never seen a guy who gets away with more bad passes in my life. He throws balls right at DBs, and for some reason, they just drop 'em. I can't wait to face this guy."
Two days later, the Packers pulled off a 27-17 upset of the defending Super Bowl champs, a game in which Favre threw 28 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns – and, oh yeah, no interceptions. "I still don't understand it," McDonald said softly. "But he's good."
I'm not saying Manning is Favre, though he did outplay the legend in the subzero temperatures of Lambeau Field in last January's NFC Championship game. I'm not saying he's Tom Brady (whom he defeated in Super Bowl XLII) or Peyton Manning, either.
But unlike last season, when every off-line throw was being cited as evidence of his inconsistency (a fair charge at the time) and inevitable descent toward being a colossal bust (uh …), Manning knows he has some good will in the abundant, endorsement-fueled nest egg.
That's liberating, even to a perfectionist like Manning.
So it was with that a player already prone to taking chances let it rip in a game that only one team seemed to be trying to win.
New Eli lived dangerously:
• Early second quarter, Giants up 10-0, second-and-4 from the Washington 6-yard line. Manning dropped back and fired a quick post to Toomer just beyond the goal line. The ball arrived before Toomer turned around which, in fairness, could've been the veteran receiver's fault. Cornerback Fred Smoot dropped the potential pick in the end zone.
• Eight minutes later, Rogers failed to collect the aforementioned interception that could've resulted in an easy score.
• Less than two minutes in the second half, after the 'Skins – in their only sign of an offensive pulse – had closed to within nine points just before halftime, Manning got rid of the ball on a blitz by throwing downfield to Burress, and Rogers couldn't hold onto the ball while twisting his body.
• Midway through the fourth quarter, Eli threw over the middle to Burress, and the misfire bounced off the hands of second-year 'Skins safety LaRon Landry.
"We dropped five picks," Landry said, who was either exaggerating or including another opportunity that looked less obvious from the press box. "And we could've had a lot more if we'd picked certain alignments at the right time. Eli takes more chances than most, and he gives you the opportunity to make plays. It looked like street ball, but give him credit – he got it done."
Manning, it should be noted, also scored the game's lone touchdown, freezing linebacker Rocky McIntosh on a play-action bootleg to his right to complete a one-yard run on the game's opening drive. Manning teased Burress after the game that he had broken one more tackle than the lanky wideout on this night, but his favorite target wasn't overly impressed with either the run or the celebration that followed.
"Now he thinks he's Michael Vick or something," Burress said. "And he spiked like he didn't mean it. He didn't really want to spike that ball."
He should have, for essentially it was the game-clinching touchdown given Washington's lack of urgency on offense. Jason Campbell, a third-year passer who resembles the up-and-down Old Eli, didn't have a very impressive game, but the bulk of the blame should probably go to Zorn, who managed to make him look like Donovan McNabb at the end of Super Bowl XXXIX.
Zorn, never before a play-caller or offensive coordinator until Washington hired him to replace Joe Gibbs last February, is a smart man with a cool manner, and he'll surely get better fast. But the sight of halfback Clinton Portis running off tackle on first-and-goal from the Giants 40 with a nine-point deficit and three minutes remaining was disquieting to many Redskins players – and appreciated by their opponents.
"I'm not their coach, and I'm definitely not going to complain about what they do," Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "I'm grateful."
One of the last New York players to leave the locker room, Pierce was the final person I subjected to my New Eli theory. At first he practically rolled his eyes.
Then, a few seconds later, he laughed and said, "You know what? When you win it once, things happen for you. They tend to go your way."
As New Eli said, we'll see.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Riding a huge game from wideout Andre Johnson, the Texans will upset the Steelers – yeah, you heard me – at Heinz Field. … The Saints will look a lot more like the '06 version than the '07 model in Sunday's opener against the defending NFC South champion Bucs – and so will Tampa Bay in a losing effort. … J.T. O'Sullivan will join Kurt Warner in putting up big numbers in the 49ers-Cardinals opener at Candlestick Park, but he'll also serve up a key interception to rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in an Arizona victory.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
LIES, LIES, LIES
3. After the botched pregame stunt that inadvertently landed a pair of skydivers at the stadium of rival Duke, the North Carolina athletic department suggested its sports teams now be known as the "Blue Angels."
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
You remember how this works, right? I pick one team to win one game, outright, each week, and if I'm right I live to pick again the following Friday (and if I'm wrong I turn things over to some of my football-fanatic friends. Once I pick a team, however, it's off-limits in the future. That's why I'm hesitant to take the apparent no-brainer of the week, the Pats at home against the Chiefs. It's also why I'm hedging on my pick to win the AFC, the Chargers, at home against the Panthers. (My other Super Bowl pick, the Packers, plays the Vikings Monday night in what should be a very tense game.) Instead, I'll live a bit more dangerously and take the Colts – who have dominated early in the season throughout the Peyton Manning era – to take care of the Bears on Sunday night. Yeah, I know, that would burn the Colts for the rest of the year. But I see bad things coming for Indy down the road in that brutal AFC South.
MY BUDDY'S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
My buddy Malibu, who rode my advice (well, not totally, but I did insist that he draft Minnesota's Adrian Peterson in the second round last year, provoking laughter in the draft room) to a stellar regular season before suffering a painful first-round playoff defeat, is making another run at his Sex, Drugs and Fantasy Football league title – but with one seriously disappointing development. Though he wasn't the culprit, Malibu now competes in a league that has been unwisely moved from the king of all fantasy sports websites, among other things, to a much more lame site that, if I'm not mistaken, boycotted the 2008 Beijing Olympics despite extensive resources.
I'm begrudgingly back to advise Malibu on his team, Hand of Doom; my draft-day advice led him to select Marques Colston and lower-round picks David Garrard, Ladell Betts and Devin Hester in the 12-team league's draft last month. (He faces "Bangas" – and I paraphrase – in Week 1, with his Chargers-loving lineup featuring No. 1 overall pick LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees and Chris Chambers battling one that includes Brett Favre, Darren McFadden and Braylon Edwards). But I'm also punishing Malibu by enlisting a new partner, UC Santa Barbara women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb, a self-described "fantasy shark" who finished fourth in the "Fantasy Freaks" league last season and is hell-bent on winning it all in '08.
Lindsay and I spent more than an hour chatting nervously as the 12-team selection process played out, after having already prepped for a couple of hours in the afternoon once she'd finished with some comparatively trivial business. (OK, she had a recruit in town. But this is important.) Gottlieb, general manager of Gaucho Madness, picked eighth in the first round, and though we'd previously agreed that Tom Brady was likely overvalued because of his record-setting numbers last season, she felt she had no choice but to take him after he slipped that far. I applauded her selection of Braylon Edwards coming back and convinced her that, with a glaring hole at running back, Willie Parker would be close enough to his pre-injury form to justify a third-round selection. After that, Gottlieb was surprisingly receptive to my hunches: Torry Holt in the fourth round (knee feels better, headed for a big year; Joey Galloway in the seventh (still Tampa's sole big-play receiver); Anthony Gonzalez in the ninth (Manning will trust him more than he did as a rookie, and I'm not buying Marvin Harrison's return to health); Aaron Rodgers in the 10th (Gottlieb, a former Cal assistant under Joanne Boyle, said she 'had to have a Golden Bear,' and though she'd already nabbed Tony Gonzalez in Round 6, I'm very high on Rodgers and the Packers in '08); Alge Crumpler in the 12th (the return of offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who held the post during the Steve McNair-to-Frank Wycheck heyday, will be a boon to Vince Young) and Hester in the 13th (the Bears have to throw to someone).
Our lone regret was that she somehow managed not to notice that Ricky Williams was still available nine rounds into the draft. Oh well. Lindsay is so excited about her team, which also includes Panthers rookie halfback Jonathan Stewart, that upon hearing the report that Brady may have had a broken bone in his foot she began contemplating whether to sit her top pick in a Week 1 matchup with defending champion Vidiots (featuring Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, Clinton Portis and Chad Ocho Cinco), managed by Cal video coordinator Jason Spitulnick. "Maybe we shock the world and go A-Rod and hope he dazzles Week 1," she mused. "Then we bring Brady off the bench next week, and we've already mentally defeated half the league." As of Thursday night, she hadn't decided which way she'd go.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
What would the world be like if we were all as clueless as Packers defensive tackle Colin Cole, who apparently believed speeding rules didn't apply to him because he, you know, has an NFL ID card? I know, I know – there are signs that things are headed that way. I prefer to ignore them. Thank you.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Chad Javon Ocho Cinco. Enough said.
Ah, Kevin Riley: I place my trust in thee. After witnessing Cal's season-opening 38-31 victory over Michigan State at Memorial Stadium last Saturday – the first time since last December that the five people who've brought me the most happiness over the last six years (my wife, our three children and Jeff Tedford, theoretically in that order) were simultaneously in the same place – I'm hoping the Bears can keep it going in their Pac-10 opener at Washington State Saturday. In the old days, coming off an exciting victory, this would have been the classic Cal collapse waiting to happen. It won't under Tedford.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
Daily Show Sarah Palin gender
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Behind a Kevin Doyle hat trick, Reading rolled to a 4-2 victory over Crystal Palace last Saturday at Madejski Stadium, moving into sixth place in the Football League Championship division with seven points after four games. Following James Harper's rebound goal off a Stephen Hunt shot that gave them a 1-0 lead, the Royals fell behind 2-1 in the second half before Doyle scored twice in the next three minutes. Reading will try to keep it rolling at Ipswich Town this Saturday.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Republican presidential nominee John McCain has called the self-described "hockey mom" he picked as his VP a "soulmate." That sounds a bit sappy, but in fairness, back in her high school hoops days, the current Alaska governor was known as "Sarah Barracuda." After watching her convention speech Wednesday night, we're sure McCain was wailing out a new kind of tribute, to the tune of Heart's "Barracuda" (and we're also pretty sure the Wilson sisters would approve of the timely rewrite):
So this ain't the end
At the convention Wednesday
You took my breath away
Smiled as you mocked
Their man Barack
Tall tales – it never fails!
You came off so small-town and sweet
You threw the delegates red meat
You brought them up, up, up, up to their feet
Now didn't you, Barracuda? Ohhhhhhhh
Numbers were flat but your anatomy
Means you're like Hillary
Yes I'm a man without a plan
No shame, it's a game
The terror warnings didn't do the trick
I had to think up something quick
I found my pit bull pit bull with lipstick
Oooooooh, Barracuda! Oh yeah
"Sell me? Why sure?" you kindly said
"Scrutinize? Go right ahead"
News? Evangelicals adore you
Wednesday night you unloaded
On the scared media
They heard your speech and drooled – silly, silly fools!
So if the economy is sick
We better make up something quick
My pit bull Hockey Mom with red lipstick
Ooooooooohhhh, Sarah Barracuda, yeah