This summer, the Mannings took their first family vacation in about a half-dozen years. Like a lot of families, Eli Manning, his girlfriend, his parents and his brothers and their families headed for a Florida beach. But Eli and his older brother, Peyton, had a little different concept of relaxation than most vacationers.
The family's two active NFL quarterbacks worked out together, alternating between their slightly different programs for running and weightlifting. They didn't try to out-lift each other, Eli said, but they did attempt to out-sprint one another on the final 100 yards of a run.
"The last 100 were, 'Let's go,' " the second-year quarterback said as he sat outside the dining hall at the New York Giants' training camp, then added with a grin: "I won't tell you who won, just because I don't want to embarrass him."
There aren't that many chances for Eli Manning to compete directly with his brother these days. Their father, Archie, took down the hoop at his home, Eli said, and doesn't want the brothers to play basketball against each other any more, fearing an injury. Eli doesn't even try to beat Peyton on the golf course because Peyton is so much better.
But Eli Manning must compete every day with the standards set by his brother. While Eli, the top overall choice in last year's NFL draft who was obtained by the Giants in a draft-day trade, took his lumps as a rookie last season, Peyton was busy breaking Dan Marino's single-season league record for touchdown passes and leading the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs.
Now, as he prepares for his second year in the league as the Giants' undisputed starter, Eli knows that his brother went from throwing 28 interceptions (to go with 26 touchdown passes) in 1998 as a rookie for a Colts team that went 3-13 to throwing 26 touchdown passes and only 15 interceptions to help Indianapolis to a 13-3 mark in '99.
"Hopefully, I'll be able to make that jump, also," Eli Manning said. "People have said that, and my response to that is, 'You see a lot of people make the jump from the first to second year. They get much better and their seasons go a little better. But it's not guaranteed for me.' I've still got to put my work in. I've still got to have a good camp and good practices and try to have a good season. It's not like it's automatically going to happen."
The Giants have much riding on his success. They said goodbye in the offseason to Kurt Warner, the two-time league most valuable player who was signed to be Manning's mentor and was the starter early last season. The team was 5-4 when Coach Tom Coughlin made the switch from Warner to Manning and didn't win again until a season-ending triumph over the Dallas Cowboys, finishing 6-10.
Still, Manning appears to have emerged without lasting scars and his teammates still seem to believe in him. Giants center Shaun O'Hara played in Cleveland with quarterback Tim Couch, the top overall pick in the 1999 draft whose NFL career has been a flop, and said Manning is handling the pressure better than Couch did.
"He's been scrutinized since he was in high school: 'Are you as good as your brother? Are you as good as your father?' " O'Hara said. "For him to even get as far as he is right now, that shows what his internal drive is. . . . He watched his brother fall all over himself [as an NFL rookie]. And to see that and then to be able to see it's okay to do that -- it's okay to fall down, it's okay to fail -- he's not scared to make a mistake. . . . When you're worried about making mistakes, you stop learning."
Manning said he studied his throwing technique and is trying to get back to the way he threw the ball in college at Mississippi, more straight over the top than sidearm. The low point of last season came when he had a passer rating of zero in a December game at Baltimore, looking completely overmatched and confused against the Ravens' defense. On the train ride home after that game, Manning sat with Giants quarterbacks coach Kevin Gilbride, and the two decided to come up with what Manning calls a "base offense," a small group of plays that Manning could practice over and over to get comfortable with, then turn to in games when he needed a completion. Manning pitched the idea to Coughlin, and Coughlin agreed.
Things got better from there, and Manning ended on an upswing. The Giants got the winning touchdown in the final seconds of the Dallas game when Manning, after convincing the coaches on the sideline during a timeout that he could be trusted to make the right audible call, switched from a passing to a running play and handed the ball to tailback Tiki Barber.
"The coaches were kind of undecided whether to put that on my shoulders, whether I'd make the right decision," Manning said. "I said, 'I can handle it.' They kind of looked at me and I said, 'I know what I'm doing.' " Said O'Hara: "There has to come a moment in your career where you say to yourself, 'You know what? I belong here. I can do this, and everybody else feels the same way.' I think that Dallas game was maybe that kind of little pat on the butt that he needed. . . . As much as Eli comes off as being quiet, kind of shy, a little choirboy, he's actually a really good guy. He's a lot of fun to kind of make fun of. He dishes it out pretty good, too. He's got a great sense of humor. As goofy as he looks sometimes, he's actually really smart."
Manning chuckles when he says that he lives in Hoboken, N.J., because it has the same small-town feel as Oxford, Miss. But he says he isn't trying to escape the fact that he plays on the big New York stage -- just as he never was bothered by being the youngest member of quarterbacking's first family.
"I'm hard on myself, I think, [but] I didn't get down," Manning said of last season's trials. "I didn't get depressed, by any means. . . . I don't think I found myself intimidated by New York. . . . I never dreaded talking to the media or dreaded anything about the city."
There is plenty of optimism in the Giants' camp, in part because Manning should be much more comfortable and in part because players seem more accepting of Coughlin's taskmaster ways. Last season's getting-to-know-you period was difficult for Coughlin and Giants veterans, who bristled when the new coach did things like fining players for being merely on time to team meetings instead of the five minutes early that Coughlin demands.
"I think everybody knows what to expect from Coach Coughlin," said Manning, who completed 6 of 8 passes for 53 yards in the Giants' 17-14 preseason loss Saturday to Cleveland. He threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. "The five minutes early, that's just part of it. Now you know how it is. No one talks about it anymore. . . . That's just the way it is. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it."
Coughlin said it's not only the players who are adapting.
"Sure, I've changed with them," Coughlin said. "I know them very well, and they know me. It's just a product of the opportunity we've had to work together. It gets better."
In the end, though, the Giants likely will rise or fall based on how quickly their 24-year-old quarterback develops. "I expect myself to play better than I did last year," Manning said. "I have high expectations of my ability that I can play this game at a high level."
How else, after all, is he going to find a way to compete with his brother?
"I've got to work on my golf game, I guess, to get competitive," he said, "and my football game, to get where he is."