ALBANY, N.Y. – There are some well-kept secrets in the Empire State. From the pretty countryside to Graney's, one of the best sports bars in America featuring nearly a TV per customer and plenty of other visuals for your typical American man.
There's also the New York Giants, who just finished up training camp this weekend at the University of Albany. You know those guys, the Super Bowl champions featuring the young hero in quarterback Eli Manning. As the team readies to defend its title, the famed back pages of New York's tabloids are filled with news about the following subjects: The Yankees flopping, the Mets winning and Brett Favre, a quarterback the Jets imported from Green Bay who is being touted now as "Broadway Brett." Never mind that Manning out-performed Favre head-to-head nearly seven months ago in the NFC Championship game.
Welcome to the fickle nature of New York sports. Moreover, welcome to a team that not too many people are counting on to defend their title … or even make the playoffs.
"I understand it and it's fine by me," said Manning, MVP of Super Bowl XLII following the team's upset of the previously undefeated Patriots. "I kind of like the position we're in. I like going under the radar. It makes you know we still have a lot of work to do. No one else is giving us credit. So we know we got to go out there and earn it."
AccuScore on the Giants
AccuScore gives the defending Super Bowl Giants a 47.5 percent chance of making to the playoffs, well behind the Cowboys (over 80 percent) and behind five other teams in the NFC. In simulations, the Giants are averaging more than 1 point more per game than they did in 2007. Eli Manning proved he knows how to excel as a game manager and a healthy year from Brandon Jacobs should provide plenty of offense. While the Giants do have plenty of stellar defensive talent, they lost Michael Strahan to retirement and several other players to free agency. These losses and a number of potent offenses on the schedule result in the defense allowing 1 more point than in 2007.
The key to the Giants is Manning limiting turnovers. In their Week 1 matchup vs the Redskins, the Giants win 57.8 percent of simulations when Manning throws 1 or more interceptions. In simulations where he tosses zero interceptions, the Giants win 78.1 percent. Manning had four multiple interception games last season and 20 total interceptions. If Manning can cut this down to 14, the Giants win an average of 1 more game per season simulation and this is the key for the team to get back into the playoffs where anything, including repeating, is possible.
Projected Record: 9-7
Playoff Probability: 47.5%
The mop-topped and recently married Manning, who looks more like a latter-day Beatle, is being treated more like a member of the Sugar Hill Gang. The guy who led one of the greatest two-minute drives in title history and the front end of one of the greatest plays in NFL history is being treated like a one-hit wonder.
Or in terms that New Yorkers are all too aware of, Manning is being looked at more like Jim Leyritz than Derek Jeter. He's special in their hearts, but it all seems to be based on one sweet month of action.
"You feed off that and I've kind of used that as motivation for our team," Manning said. "We did have one month. We still have a lot to prove to ourselves that we are a better team than just one month and why can't we play at a better level than that? Why do we have the ups and downs in the season like we do? Why do we have a streak where we play inconsistent football and sloppy football? Let's get to that consistent team."
Of course, much of the burden of the past perception and the future expectation rests on Manning's shoulders. Going into the playoffs last season, Manning had compiled a lifetime quarterback rating of 73.4. Within that was a 54.7 completion percentage, 77 touchdowns and 64 interceptions.
Manning went from the essence of mediocre to meteoric in the playoffs. He posted a 95.7 rating in four postseason games. He completed 60.5 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and only one interception in 119 throws. While some people might say that this is proof that Manning is a great playoff performer, he hadn't been in two previous appearances in the postseason.
Once again, which is it, Don Larsen or Whitey Ford?
If training camp is any indication, the former No. 1 overall pick is making last season's playoffs look like a jumping off point to greatness. Over the past weekend, as the Giants got ready to break camp, Manning was one pass short of superb (a nice interception by rookie Kenny Phillips was the only blip in two days).
One adage of long-time football scouts is that great quarterbacks never let the ball hit the ground in practice. Great coaches, like Bill Walsh, made that the standard for guys like Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Manning did that for two straight days, except for the occasional and obvious drop by a receiver. Every pass was tight and accurate. Manning also put on a clinic on how to get rid of the ball quickly, before receivers had made their breaks, and of looking off the safety. In fact, Manning has made it a goal this offseason to make sure he finds both safeties on every play.
"Really, I'm trying to see both safeties and trying not to get caught up in the free safety and have him tell you what to do," Manning said. "When you see them both, it tells me what the coverage is and I get my read from there."
Just to add an exclamation point to that performance, Manning did all this with his top three receivers from last season (Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey) and two other important receivers (Steve Smith and David Tyree) out because of injury or trade.
"He has been like this all camp," coach Tom Coughlin said. "You saw the focus in him late in the season where it all came together for him. He avoided the interceptions, did all the things we were talking about along the way. He has that ability. He has always had it and now I think you're going to see it all the time."
Still, Coughlin understands the naysayers. Like any great athlete or coach, he seems to relish the negativity of others, channeling it until it becomes a sly grin.
"Sure, that's what it's all about," Coughlin said. "You're going to have those people who doubt you. It's like what we talk about all the time here, 'Don't tell me, show me.' "
For his part, Burress sees the improvement in Manning as well.
"He's just going to take off from here, man," said Burress, who has been nursing a sprained ankle he suffered in June. "Everything Eli did is just going to be that much better and he's going to be consistent. You can see it in his face, how much more relaxed he is about everything."
"He's just chillin', doing his thing."