ALBANY, N.Y. – Sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of his SUV after a hot, final practice before the New York Giants' exhibition opener on Friday, quarterback Eli Manning was a picture of content. With two Super Bowl rings in tow, Manning has more than justified the aggressive 2004 draft-day trade that ushered him from San Diego to New York.
Moreover, Manning has taken a huge step toward an even loftier plateau: He is now in the same sentence with his brother – Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning – in talent and accomplishments. In a survey of seven NFL personnel executives, all of them still rated Peyton as the better player, assuming he returns to full health after missing last season.
But as one executive put it: "Now, it's a discussion worth having. When you line up all the numbers, Peyton still looks a lot better. But we'd all take two Super Bowls in five years over all the numbers in the world. Peyton has one title. Eli has two and what he's done in those two games and the playoffs, that deserves a lot of respect."
Another front-office official added that the pressure for Eli is more immense. "It's the Giants, it's New York and he's the little brother," the executive said. "The pressure has been on this kid for a long time and he's never flinched."
[Related: Making case that Eli is better than Peyton]
Then again, as Manning explained in a chat in the parking lot, he learned a long time ago not to compare himself to his older brother.
Jason Cole: You have had two of the most memorable pass plays in Super Bowl history, but the football purist would say the throw to (Mario) Manningham is a better play than the throw to David Tyree in your previous Super Bowl appearance. Which one do you treasure more?
Eli Manning: Just looking back, the best way to describe it, if you look back at both those 2-minute drives, the one in '08 is kind of a sloppy drive. There were some sloppy third-down throws that could have been intercepted, some throwaways, almost a sack, a couple of scrambles, there was just chaos like that play down the middle. We kind of got fortunate on a couple of plays that didn't turn out as bad as they could have been.
The one this year was just a classic, perfectly executed, 2-minute drive. From the first play where we were talking about, 'Hey, their safeties were kind of cheating over to Victor (Cruz) a little bit, that backside safety, so eventually that if you look over there and you don't like it, you may be able to come back over and hit that go route on the sideline.' We took the talk about (the defense) and put it to good use. They had a couple of all-out blitzes and we hit a screen. Another all-out blitz and we hit a slant to Hakeem (Nicks). They checked to Cover 2 (a zone defense) and we called a zone (pass play). We hit a curl to Manningham against quarters coverage. It was just boom, boom, boom, right down. After the big play, we ran some, kept the clock running. It was more precise and I take more pride in that one because I feel like we played better football. It was something where we knew exactly what they were going to do and we had the answer. Whatever call they made, we had the perfect answer. It's the difference between your fourth year and your eighth year.
“In that first one, you're still sort of learning and there were still some well-executed plays and good decisions. But in Year Eight, you're checking to the perfect play instead of making the best out of a play. Rather than being in just a good play, you're checking to a play that has a chance to bust through. It's just smarter football, more in-tune to how the game should really be played.
Cole: Are you upset by the amount of attention the New York Jets receive or are you amused by it? I mean, you guys are the defending champs and they're all over the (tabloids') back pages and ESPN.
Manning: Amused is probably a good word. I'm the opposite of jealous. I'm happy that they have it. I think there are two types of attention: there's attention and there are distractions. One can be good and one is obviously very bad. I think we have learned as the Giants over these eight years that when you avoid the distractions, whether it's me answering a question about somebody else or another player talking about a player or a player talking about a coach, it gets your mind off football and it adds an extra level of stress and it's just bad. It doesn't lead to good things and when you can just focus on the team and getting better and becoming a tight-knit group and come together as one, things tend to come out better.
Cole: This is actually a serious and personal question. I have two teenage sons and my youngest is often times comparing himself to his brother. How did you and your father (former NFL quarterback Archie Manning) handle that growing up?
Manning: I think Peyton and I had different personalities and my dad just told me, 'Don't change your personality. The reason you have had success or deal with things the way you do is because you don't let a whole lot get to you.' I was always competitive, but I've never tried to compete with Peyton. I never tried to say I need to be better than him. I've accepted at times that I wasn't maybe as good as him because he was the No. 1 high school player in the country. In college, he was going to be the first pick in the draft, so if I tried to go out there and be the same person and be better than him or the same person as him, I'm going to drive myself crazy. I'm going to go out and be the best quarterback I can be and get the most out of my potential. If that's better than him, great. If it's not, so be it.
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Cole: Yeah, but I notice that, especially when my sons are together, that the younger one is trying so hard to get attention. He talks loud and he argues all the time.
Manning: I went through that phase where I wanted to almost be different than my brother. Just kind of argued a little louder or if there was a curfew, I always came in a little later than I was supposed to. If it was set for 12, I would come in at 12:45. I would test the limits a little. There was no real reason and I grew out of it, eventually. Maybe it did kind of time up with Peyton going off to college and playing well. I was still in high school and trying to be the starting quarterback. I went through that little rebellious stage. I never thought much about it, but maybe it was to get a little attention for yourself. Even if it's bad attention, you'll accept anything you can get.
Cole: Is your family actually competitive about who is the funniest? I know your dad has a pretty wry sense of humor and between the commercials and Football Cops, you and Peyton are pretty funny. But it seems like you actually worked really hard to be as funny as you could on "Saturday Night Live."
Manning: My oldest brother Cooper is actually the real talent when it comes to humor. I've learned a lot from him and he's the one who is very clever and witty. So I've had a lot of practice laughing at him. The whole "Saturday Night Live" deal, I told the cast on the first day, 'I'm going to work hard at this and do my best. But as I read these scripts and go through this, I am not an actor, so please help me. If I'm reading it wrong, tell me. I am very coachable and I want this to be very funny. If I'm doing something wrong, I accept tips and I encourage them. I don't take myself too seriously and I laugh at myself.'
“I like making fun of myself, I don't want to make fun of other people, so I don't mind doing something out of character that some people might not expect me to do. You have to have fun with it. If there's a chance to be funny or add something or improve a little bit with the commercials, we'll do it. It's always more fun to do it with your brother. Peyton and I love the commercials, but from what they have written in the script, you try to do a few different things on your own. We try our own lines and see if they're funny.
Cole: Was the kicking on the ESPN commercial an example of an impromptu thing?
Manning: That's kind of an old move. Originally, it was a hitting thing. He was hitting me in the shoulder, my right shoulder. Typical of brothers, I said, 'Hey, Peyton, you're hitting me kind of hard, calm down a little bit.' So the next one, of course, he hit me even harder and we get into a full wrestling match right there in the hallway. We're on the ground, they're yelling 'Cut!' and we're not stopping. It got a little heated. It was pretty realistic because it started with me giving him a wet willie. The director says, 'We got it' and I said, 'No, I think I need one more take, that wasn't quite right. I'm not quite getting it, I blinked on that one.' So I kept giving him more wet willies and I was really lubing up the fingers. So I messed with him and it got a little more heated than I think they expected. So then we ended up with the old behind-the-back kick that we used to do to each other.
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Cole: OK, but why did you turn down SNL after the first Super Bowl?
Manning: For a couple of reasons. Peyton was so good at it and I enjoyed it and laughed at it, so I didn't want to compete against him so soon. The other thing is that I just didn't think I was ready. It's kind of like what I was talking about with this last Super Bowl where I played well and kind of had a better control of my own game, my football, my career that I kind of could attack this. I felt more deserving of being on "Saturday Night Live," where after the first (Super Bowl), I didn't think I deserved it. I still felt like Peyton's little brother and hadn't quite put my career right where I wanted it.
Cole: Do you ever let the little brother who wants to compete with his big brother come out at any time?
Manning: Not really, I think there's always an approach growing up where you say, 'Hey, I want to just get to Peyton's level of player where he's at.' I admire Peyton and watching him on film and the throws he makes and the mechanics, I still watch in awe. He's still at that top level as far as what he has done with the football. We have a great relationship and it's a total support (system). I call him or he calls me, like during the season last year. Especially during the playoff stretch, he would call me and just have little tidbits and pieces of advice a quarterback can talk about that you cherish. I would do the same for him, like when he was going through this offseason trying to pick the right place for him. Whether you're offering an ear or throwing out your thoughts on something, we're just trying to help each other play to the best of our ability.
Cole: So, if people say that you're better than your brother …
I correct them very quickly.
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