Just how inspired were the New York Giants by the fourth-quarter exploits Sunday of their prized second-year quarterback, Eli Manning? Tom Coughlin, the team's dour coach, even managed to crack a joke in the jubilant postgame locker room.
"I was kidding Eli in there that now I guess we have to wait until the middle of the fourth quarter until we mount a drive of some kind," Coughlin said Sunday evening at Giants Stadium in the afterglow of his club's 24-23 triumph over the Denver Broncos, forged on Manning's two-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Amani Toomer with five seconds left.
Okay, so Coughlin isn't exactly ready for open-mike night at the local comedy club, but what did you expect from the guy who fines his players for being merely on time to team meetings instead of five minutes early? That, for Coughlin, qualified as positively mirthful, and it was a sure sign that Manning's play had lifted an organization that has so much money and so much hope invested in the NFL development of the youngest member of quarterbacking's first family.
The Giants were ecstatic, in part because they had rebounded from a tough overtime defeat at Dallas the week before but mostly because they just had watched their young leader craft some Elway-esque magic against John Elway's former team.
"It was phenomenal," tailback Tiki Barber said. "This is what you practice for, and you hope you execute it right. . . . He kept our composure in the huddle. He made the throws when he had to. He made the plays to keep them off balance. . . . That was a clinic on how you run a two-minute drill."
The win was sufficiently exhilarating to lead Coughlin to reward his players with a "victory Monday," a day off to go with their regularly scheduled day off today. The Giants will reconvene Wednesday to begin preparations for Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins at the Meadowlands. The Giants, Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles are tied for the NFC East lead with 4-2 records.
The Giants, like the Redskins, finished 6-10 last season, and their hopes for improvement were pinned on whatever progress would be made by Manning, the top overall selection in last year's draft. He was winless in his first six starts last season as a rookie after Coughlin benched since-departed veteran Kurt Warner. But there were small signs of advancement, and it appeared that Manning, at the tender age of 24, was on his way to being a reliable, winning NFL quarterback when the Giants averaged 34 points per game in their first four contests of this season.
The joyride was interrupted nine days ago, though, when Manning struggled and the Giants managed only 13 points in their loss to the Cowboys. Manning tied the game in the final seconds of regulation with a touchdown pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey. But he never got to touch the ball in overtime, and the tailspin continued for most of Sunday's game. The Broncos led, 23-10, in the fourth quarter, and the Giants were on the verge of being a last-place team. Two touchdowns later, however, they were feeling like they and their quarterback were on their way to bigger things.
"There's a lot of talent here," Shockey said. "We can be as good as we want. If we ever lose a game, it's us losing it. We're giving it away because we have great players on offense. There should be teams that come up with turnovers and things like that, but there should be no team that shuts us out for three and a half quarters. . . . Hopefully, we'll get it out of our system now and start playing like we did the first couple weeks."
Manning acknowledged that it was the high point of his 13-start pro career, but he wasn't making any bold declarations that he had arrived as an NFL star.
"I'm still making mistakes," he said. "Two drives in two games does not mean that you've got things figured out. We need to make better drives throughout the game. We can't continue to wait until the last minute to start playing offense. Sometimes you can get away with it. Sometimes it's going to be too late. . . . We've got to start playing more consistent throughout the game."
Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi put his legacy on the line when he engineered last year's draft-day trade in which the club obtained Manning from the San Diego Chargers, then signed Manning to a six-year, $45 million contract that was, at the time, the richest ever for an NFL rookie. Accorsi, unlike some other executives around the league, believes in building a team around the quarterback. And he was convinced that Manning, like his father Archie and his brother Peyton, would be a great quarterback. It still pained Accorsi that he once, as general manager of the Baltimore Colts, had been forced to trade Elway to the Broncos when the future Hall of Fame quarterback balked at playing in Baltimore.
Manning gave Accorsi a small sliver of revenge Sunday against the Broncos. More importantly, he took a step toward proving Accorsi right.
Said Coughlin: "I think it does a lot for him and it does a lot for our football team. It does a lot for our guys because every one of them really believes they're going to be in position to make a play and he's going to get them the ball. . . . He's a young guy that hasn't seen it all. He hasn't even had 16 games under his belt. But to see him come back in that situation and keep his cool and know exactly what he wanted -- he comes over to the sideline, and he's the one that shows the most poise."
Manning actually was revved up in the huddle during the final drive, according to wide receiver Plaxico Burress.
"He was shouting," Burress said. "He was in there hollering. But at the same time, he's kind of got this calm demeanor about him. He really doesn't let you know what's wrong with him [but] you can tell from time to time when a play doesn't go right that he kind of gets down on himself. . . . I've only been around him for a few months now. But for the time I've been around him, he's pretty much been cool, calm, collected, laid-back.
"He puts a lot of pressure on himself to go out and play well. And for the most part, he does. I'm happy he can go out and win a game in that fashion and get everybody off his back."
The Giants are a potent offensive team when Manning's blockers give him enough time to distribute the ball evenly among Burress, Toomer, Shockey and Barber. Burress was mostly unwanted as a free agent last offseason. The Giants even passed on his high salary demands once before he switched agents and they signed him on the second negotiating go-around. He quickly has become Manning's favorite target, as Manning can lob the ball in the direction of the 6-foot-5 receiver even when Burress is well-covered. That tactic produced a touchdown Sunday, as Burress outmaneuvered Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey on a jump ball in the end zone.
"We have a lot of faith and confidence in him that he can go out and get the job done," Burress said. "I just tell him that I don't want to be the guy who lets him down. When we give him time to throw the football, we can go up and down the field."
Manning is well liked in the Giants' locker room, which is no small feat for someone who received a $20 million signing bonus before playing his first NFL game. His teammates mobbed him Sunday in a celebration that was so exuberant it looked painful for Manning.
"No major injuries," he said. "I might have a slight concussion from people hitting me on the head. But it was definitely worth it."
The only problem with playing the way that Manning played when it mattered Sunday is that now his teammates will expect that from him every weekend.
"You're only a young guy one year," Shockey said. "You're a rookie once. That's it."