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Eli shouldering a Giant load

WashPost: Rookie quarterback faces heavy expectations
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning looks for a receiver during the second quarter against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, Nov. 21, 2004 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)Bill Kostroun / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

At around 5 p.m. Sunday, Eli Manning walked quietly, almost forlornly, out of the locker room at Giants Stadium, through a dank corridor toward the exit for the players' parking lot. He passed Kurt Warner, whom he replaced as the New York Giants' starting quarterback two weeks ago, without exchanging words as Warner spoke to a group of friends. Manning signed autographs for some kids, then stepped out into a windy New Jersey evening, accompanied only by a set of expectations that seems quite burdensome at the moment.

It has taken only two weeks for demanding New Yorkers to realize that the pro football education of Eli Manning won't resemble the seamless transition of Ben Roethlisberger, the rookie quarterback drafted 10 spots beneath Manning who has won all nine of his starts for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Manning will take an 0-2 record as a pro starter into Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. He had only six completions and threw two interceptions in the Giants' 27-6 loss Sunday to the Philadelphia Eagles, and found out that his grace period had lasted exactly one game. He heard scattered boos during the game, and afterward Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said that his prized rookie had taken a step backward. "I don't expect him to make any errors that way," Coughlin said.

Manning was equally unforgiving. "I have to go out there and perform," he said. "I have to play better than I did. It's just a matter of I have to make plays and I can't make mistakes. I can't turn the ball over. . . . I have to stop making mistakes and be better prepared and play smarter football."

Few athletes are facing as much scrutiny as Manning, 23. Some of it is happenstance: He was born into a family that includes his father Archie, a league most valuable player for the New Orleans Saints, and his older brother Peyton, the Indianapolis Colts' star who was the league's co-MVP last year and is en route to one of the best seasons ever for a quarterback. Some of it goes with the territory: He was the top overall draft choice in April and signed the richest rookie contract in league history, with $20 million in bonus money. Some of it is self-inflicted: He and his representatives engineered the draft-day trade that sent him from San Diego to the world's media capital because they didn't want him playing for the Chargers.

"He's the number one draft pick and they put him in there, and everybody wants him to be a superstar [from] Day One," Warner said as he left the stadium Sunday. "This team as a whole is struggling, and now he becomes the front man on that. And there are so many high expectations anyway, so many things based on his family name. He's going to be a great quarterback. But everybody expects it today. . . . It's hard because of all the things that come with it, especially in the New York market."

He has been compared to his father and to his brother and now is measured against Roethlisberger, who isn't playing for a team that is crumbling around him as Manning's is.

"Not to take anything away from [Roethlisberger] because I think he's playing great, but that situation up there would be strong with about anybody in there because they have a great running game," Warner said. "The offensive line is playing tremendously. The defense is playing great. It's a whole team effort up there, not one guy. A lot of people had those expectations when Eli got thrown in there -- 'Look what this guy is doing. Eli's going to be able to do the same thing.' Put Eli in the same situation with the guys around him playing the way they are, he'd have just as much success because he's very talented. . . . We're not giving Eli the support around him that he needs to excel the way that he will in the future."

The path that Manning is following is much more common than Roethlisberger's. Young quarterbacks struggle, even those who end up in the Hall of Fame. Manning became the 10th quarterback among the 14 chosen with the top overall draft selection in the last 34 years to lose his first NFL start. Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions as a rookie starter in 1998 as the Colts went 3-13. When John Elway was elected to the Hall of Fame in January, the former Denver Broncos great recalled being benched in a 1-for-8, 14-yard passing day against the Steelers in his first start in 1983.

"I wanted to click my heels and say, 'Auntie Em, bring me home. You can have my signing bonus, whatever. I don't want to be here any more looking at Jack Lambert spitting and drooling,' " Elway recalled.

Manning has shown glimpses of greatness -- and has made mistakes. Occasionally, those have come on consecutive plays. On Sunday, Manning threw a strike to rookie wide receiver Jamaar Taylor on a deep post pattern for a 52-yard gain, his second completion of 50 yards or more to Taylor in the first half. "He throws a great deep ball," Taylor said.

But on the next play, on first down from the Eagles 3-yard line, he badly underthrew tight end Jeremy Shockey on a fade pattern in the back corner of the end zone for an interception. Manning has one touchdown pass and four interceptions in his two starts, and Coughlin was critical of both of the throws that resulted in the Eagles' interceptions. But others in the organization are being more protective. Linebacker Barrett Green was ejected from Sunday's game for a scuffle on the Giants' sideline with Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter after Trotter was penalized for a late hit out of bounds on Manning, and tailback Tiki Barber offered his support.

"We have a brand-new quarterback in here and a lot of people will give Eli grief, but it's hard to learn this game," Barber said.

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson had encouraging words for Manning as they left the field, and said later: "It's hard for a quarterback to come into this league. The guy is smart. He has a nice arm. He has all the tools."

Said Eagles Coach Andy Reid: "I am an Eli fan. I like him as a player and as a person. He has got green grass ahead of him."

Manning seems to have the temperament and perspective to handle his trying indoctrination. He stayed in college for his senior season at Mississippi because he was enjoying it. While he is a student of his craft, like his brother, he is not quite as fanatical. Eli, after all, is the Manning who once called home a few hours before a big high school game to remind the family to tape "Seinfeld."

"I think everything is going to be all right," Manning said Sunday. "I think I am going to improve and get better. I just have to start doing it now. There's not going to be a learning curve forever."