Eli Manning took the shotgun snap late in in the NFL Championship game, hoping for more fourth quarter magic. Sensing pressure from his right, Manning slid to the left.
His primary read was covered. His secondary read was covered. Manning continued to drift and drift outside the pocket, but he knew his time was running out. The third read was covered. The fourth read was covered.
Finally, he saw running back Ahmad Bradshaw leaking out of the backfield and heading down the sideline. Manning waited until the last possible instant, releasing the ball just before he was hit in the back by three 49ers defenders. Bradshaw caught the ball for a 30-yard gain.
Eli Manning is not the quarterback you think he is. He’s not Michael Vick, but he makes plays with his legs. He buys time. He’s at his best under pressure – figuratively and literally. He completes passes most quarterbacks don’t attempt. He welcomes contact. He always gets up.
Early in his career, Eli Manning was criticized for most everything: His impassive personality; his inconsistency; his inability to be Peyton Manning; his hair.
The younger Manning became known for fearing the pass rush and turning away as he delivered the ball. He threw too high. He threw off his back foot too much and shrank from pressure.
The transformation of Eli Manning was evident against the 49ers. It wasn’t Manning’s prettiest performance, but he took a massive pounding (20 hits) and extended plays. Early in his career, Manning did a nice job brushing off verbal abuse. Now he shrugs off physical abuse.
“When people talk about toughness, they talk about linebackers or a fullback---they don’t think of the quarterback,” offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said this week. “The willingness to stand in there and focus on your job, which is delivering the pass, and knowing that you’re going to get hit is a different kind of courage. And Eli definitely possesses it.”
Teammate running back Brandon Jacobs says Eli’s “poise” is the biggest difference between now and when he last made the Super Bowl. Poise is another word for pocket presence. Giants quarterbacks coach Tim Sullivan put an emphasis in training camp this season on Manning’s ability to make plays when his protection breaks down.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be considered a running quarterback,” Manning said with a laugh Wednesday. “But as a quarterback, you have to sometimes find ways to make plays. Not everything is going to work out perfectly, five-step hitch and throw the ball. Sometimes you have to side-step to extend the play, sometimes you have to run for a few yards, sometimes you have to scramble outside the pocket to make plays. … You try to work on those awkward throws.”
Manning knew awkward early in his career, but not successfully awkward. His brother Peyton Manning never excelled at creating plays. When I went back to watch the key Giants wins this season, I was floored by how many of New York’s biggest plays were made after Manning’s pocket collapsed.
Manning’s comfort in the Giants offense plays a huge part in this development. For Eli, football moves as slowly as words coming out of his mouth.
“[Eli] has a mastery of the offense,” Sullivan said. “He takes it to another level. Really having so many years, being in the same system for eight years allows him to get to a, b, c, or d a lot quicker.”
“He has a great mastery of where the protections are, where the strengths and weaknesses are. He has steadily evolved. The guy has worked at it,” Gilbride said. “Not just the basic plays; the nuances, the subtleties. It’s not just the play. It’s the pattern, how the protection is evolving, and who’s going where. He has a great sense of things, of where he has to move.”
Yes, awkward, slow-footed, late-sliding Eli Manning can move pretty well. Really.
Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw said that his teammates always get a laugh when Manning starts to scramble for yards.
When they see Manning running on film, "Everybody is just like, 'Get down Eli!'" Bradshaw said shaking his head. "He's had a lot of runs this year over ten yards. We don't expect that as an offense.”
Manning won’t ever look graceful on a dead sprint. Rushing yards aren’t his thing. Still, he’s consistently made defenders miss with subtle moves inside the pocket. The Patriots spoke this week about the need to get Manning on the ground.
“He’s making a lot more plays this postseason with his legs,” Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said. “On those third down conversions and things like that, he’s on fire. . . . He’s a dual-threat weapon right now, and he’ll be a great challenge for us.”
Note that Mayo called Manning a “dual threat weapon” without a hint of irony. It’s like Mayo was talking about Ben Roethlisberger or Cam Newton.
“This year, he’s done a great job sliding one way or another and keeping his eyes downfield. That’s really where we’ve had a lot of our big plays this year, with him buying an extra second,” Giants guard Chris Snee said. “He’s definitely done a much better job of that.”
That extra second allows the talented Giants wideouts more time to get open. Hakeem Nicks says he knows to stay alive on plays longer than he used to. Slot receiver Victor Cruz and Manning seem to inherently know what the other is thinking. More than anyone, Manning looks to Bradshaw when under duress.
During practice, Manning makes sure to keep Bradshaw mentally engaged. Even when Manning’s read on a certain play calls for a wideout to get the ball, Manning dumps it down to Bradshaw to make sure he’s ready in the game.
“I’m the last line of defense,” Bradshaw said. “Sometimes I even get cut blocks, hit the ground, and stand up and he might flip it to me. He saves a lot of plays like that. I’m screaming his name trying to get the ball anyway I can.”
Those flips can sometimes be too dangerous for Gilbride’s liking. Manning has thrown a couple balls left-handed this year, which Gilbride calls “crazy, foolish, and stupid.”
Manning mostly avoided the mind-numbing mistakes that marred his 2010 season. Gilbride said Eli was embarrassed after leading the league in interceptions last year. Manning threw 50 more passes this season with nine fewer interceptions. Manning has thrown 113 passes in the playoffs with eight touchdowns and only one pick.
It’s a nifty trick for the suddenly elusive quarterback. He cut down his mistakes without curbing his aggressiveness.