No matter the sport, those who wish to succeed over a long period of time must develop what I would call "athletic amnesia" -- the ability to learn from one's mistakes at the same time you avoid the mental and emotional backlash than can happen if you take those mistakes to heart too often. In the NFL, quarterbacks and cornerbacks really have to have that amnesia -- when you throw a pick, or when you get burned by a receiver, you have to stick that in your back pocket and move on. The game moves far too quickly; if you're busy pouting, it will pass you by.
In his first postseason MMQB column of 2012, SI.com's Peter King looks back through a 10-year history of scouting notes, game recaps, and quotes from the man himself in an attempt to get to the heart of Eli Manning's character. What is it about this particular quarterback that drives him to come up big in the biggest moments, when those with even more talent than his will falter under pressure?
As King recalls, you can trace the "clutchiness" back to a 2002 game between Eli's Ole Miss team and Jason Campbell's heavily favored Auburn Tigers.
A couple of days later, [New York Giants then-GM Ernie] Accorsi types his report in all capital letters to be submitted as part of the team's scouting report on Manning. In a section of the report covering the second half, he writes: "NEVER GETS RATTLED. RALLIED HIS TEAM FROM A 14-3 HALFTIME DEFICIT BASICALLY ALL BY HIMSELF. LED THEM ON TWO SUCCESSIVE THIRD QUARTER DRIVES TO GO AHEAD, 17-16. THE FIRST TOUCHDOWN, ON A 40-YARD STREAK DOWN THE LEFT SIDELINE, HE DROPPED THE BALL OVER THE RECEIVER'S RIGHT SHOULDER. CALLED THE NEXT TOUCHDOWN PASS HIMSELF, CHECKING OFF TO A 12-YARD SLANT. MAKES A LOT OF DECISIONS ON PLAY CALLS AT THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE.''
That was the first clue for the Giants. In the same way that Bill Walsh leaned fairly heavily on a series of Notre Dame comeback victories in 1978 when evaluating Joe Montana, Accorsi knew the importance of this game. Clearly, it factored heavily in the Giants' decision to trade up with the San Diego Chargers in the 2004 draft and make Eli their future. He didn't care what had happened before to put him in that hole -- all the young quarterback was thinking about was how to right the ship.
Fast-forward in King's piece to Eli's rookie year, and a nationally televised game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and a fellow first-year quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger. Eli was coming off a series of disastrous games, especially a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in which the Ravens made him look like a high school backup.
Did Eli pout? Nope. Did he beat himself up publicly, as some of your dumber coaches would prefer their players do when they screw up? Not at all.
Two hours after the Ravens game, Eli had turned on the amnesia for everything but the things that would allow him to learn.
On the two-hour ride to Newark, Manning spoke with Gilbride and then-offensive coordinator John Hufnagel. Rather than sulk about the disastrous game he'd played, he told them his eight favorite plays. He told them, "If you could put these in the game plan next week, it'd give me eight plays I'd be comfortable with -- rhythm plays, plays I know I'd have an open receiver even if it was just a short gain.''
Notable that Manning could think about the next game 90 minutes after the most embarrassing game of his life. "I was down, really down,'' he said. "But I knew if we could put some plays in the plan for the next week that I liked, I'd feel better about it -- and the offense would see in practice we'd be able to move the ball.''
The Giants lost a 33-30 thriller that day, but that's where it really started. And that's why Eli Manning is able to zero in when the moment demands it. He keeps just enough from his mistakes to learn from them, and he throws the rest away to avoid all that baggage.
It's a pretty good lesson for all of us.