Perceptions of Eli Manning have changed even though he's remained the same

Jason Cole

INDIANAPOLIS – If you want to know just how far Eli Manning has come in the eyes of NFL personnel men, consider the words of San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, who has plenty of reasons to never give Manning the time of day.

"What Eli Manning has done clearly puts him in that upper echelon of quarterbacks in this league, that's not even a question," said Smith, who in 2004 was forced to trade Manning to the New York Giants because the passer didn't want to play for San Diego. "We put too much importance on the stats when we think about players. Now, Eli has some very good stats regardless. Maybe not what some of the so-called experts in that fantasy land want to see, but his numbers are good.

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"What he is great at is winning. He has a Super Bowl. He has the road wins in the playoffs. If he gets that second Super Bowl win, or even if he doesn't, he has shown the ability to win in big games and that's what we're talking about here. He has shown the toughness that we all look for in a quarterback and a leader. That's what's important."

That is the most profound endorsement in a series of complimentary things that seven NFL coaches and/or executives had to say recently about Manning, whose Giants take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday. Moreover, the impression of Manning as an unemotional, detached and uncaring player has shifted to that of a guy impervious to the swings of emotion and pain.

"I know exactly what you're saying about him because I used to think the same thing," an AFC general manager said. "I'd look at him and think, 'Where's the urgency? Where's the desire? Where's the passion?' Now, you get it. You see how he's really a guy who doesn't let anything bother him. If he's up 14 or down 21, he's the same guy and that plays out in so many ways."

In a sense, Manning has gone from disaffected to distinguished. While he gave a brief-but-inspiring speech last week in a team meeting, Manning remains more famous for what he doesn't say or do.

"Eli has said a few things here and there and last week was a little more direct, a little more intense," Giants guard Chris Snee said. "But he's still more about doing it on the field, letting your play speak for yourself."

He has this stunning ability to play through pressure, both physically and mentally, that stuns his opponents.

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"Look at the San Francisco game," Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said, referring to the NFC championship game. "They hit him again and again and again and he just gets up, straightens his jersey and doesn't even look at them. He just gives them that doe-eyed look like nothing bothers him.

"Do you know how much that unnerves a defensive player when you don't even acknowledge how much they've hit you? You hit a guy and he doesn't even flinch. It drives those guys crazy."

The play that stood out most to many people from the NFC championship game was with 1:14 remaining in regulation. Facing second-and-10, Manning dropped to pass, then drifted left to buy time. As three San Francisco defenders ran at him, Manning waited, then waited and waited some more as he delivered a 30-yard strike to running back Ahmad Bradshaw along the sideline.

As he delivered, the three defenders buried Manning in the turf. It was the 20th time that game that Manning had been hit. Yet he held the ball until the final moment before delivering. To a man, every coach and executive expressed his admiration for that play.

From a mental perspective, Manning's ability to handle the over-the-top criticism – and, to an equal extent, the over-the-top praise – that goes with playing in New York has been impressive.

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As another AFC personnel man said, give former Giants general man Ernie Accorsi credit for seeing what a lot of other evaluators missed. Accorsi is the man who drafted Manning and paid the price of two first-round picks (including quarterback Philip Rivers), a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick for the rights to Manning.

In the process, Manning was criticized by many for refusing to play for the Chargers. For years, Smith expressed his ire toward Manning (and, more specifically) toward Manning's father, Archie.

All these years later, that ire has been quelled by respect for the quarterback's accomplishments. In other words, it's hard to rip someone when they end up being great.

And keep their mouth shut in the process.

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