EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - At precisely 10:42 a.m. ET on Friday, Eli Manning completed his first pass as a member of the New York Giants. Let the record show that his deft little flare into the right flat was caught by Tiki Barber. It is probably worth mentioning that there was no defense on the field.
In truth, the first pick in the 2004 draft looked good lobbing short passes back and forth with Jesse Palmer, "The Bachelor." But then, with more than 30 cameras watching his every move, his first practice began to deteriorate. There were three mishandled exchanges -- with three different centers -- and a cathartic moment in an 11-on-11 drill when Manning simply froze; if it had been a game, defensive linemen Lorenzo Bromell and Martin Chase would have filleted him. The punch line was a parabolic heave that looked more like a punt because Manning slipped when he released it. Tim Carter reeled it in only because the two defenders slipped as well.
"He's a little deer in the headlights right now," defensive end Michael Strahan observed, not unkindly. "He not only has to deal with on the field, he has to stand in front of all these [media] faces, too. I understand it's probably all a little overwhelming for him."
Afterward, Manning said he wasn't nervous in the least -- "excited" was the word he chose. He said he practiced calling signals in his room the night before to get that authoritative command.
"His knowledge, coming out of very little classroom time, was good," said new head coach Tom Coughlin. "He's going to be fine."
There are four months to the opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, so Manning has some time to pull it together. He has been outgoing and quite visible in his first weeks after forcing the San Diego Chargers to trade him. He attended a Knicks-Nets game and made an appearance on David Letterman. He even managed to wind up in an ESPN broadcast position at the Kentucky Derby. After a carefully negotiated seven-minute interview had been arranged with the Giants' pro-active public relations staff, Manning entered the visiting locker room on Friday and asked briskly, "How long is this going to take?"
Because of the venue in which he finds himself, Manning's first season may be measured more by his handling of the media than the football itself. After his first mini-camp practice, one New York tabloid called him "awful" and a sports-talk radio station likened his passes to the wobbling ducks of Billy Kilmer. After surveying the cameras crowding the back line of the end zone, Manning said there was more media assembled than there is in the entire state of Mississippi.
"The media's going to be on you," Manning said. "They're going to be around you wherever you go. You're going to be in the paper, so you better watch out. I think I'll be fine. I'm going to be myself."
The Giants are banking -- literally, for when the contract gets signed sometime in late summer, it should be six years for approximately $50 million, close to $15 million of it guaranteed -- on Manning's pedigree.
"I think he can handle it," Coughlin said. "His dad was a great player, Archie. His brother Peyton is a great player. He's seen this since the time he was a little boy growing up. He knows about the pressure of big games. He's talked to his dad about how to handle it. Peyton has been right there with him. They spent a lot of time in the offseason together, talking about the particular situation, the opportunity to play, the opportunity to lead, the opportunity to be in a pressure situation and show poise and leadership."
And make no mistake, there will be pressure on Manning. When starter Kerry Collins, who led the Giants to a Super Bowl, refused to restructure his contract, he and the Giants parted ways. Technically, Palmer is the starter, but after the Giants pick up a veteran backup quarterback (Kurt Warner? Damon Huard?) after the June 1 cuts, following the script from another reality show, Palmer is likely to be fired. Manning should get the majority of the snaps in practice and, most observers believe, most of the playing time this season.
The Giants were 4-12 a year ago, and when the coach and the starting quarterback are replaced, the evidence suggests the team is in a rebuilding mode. Most estimates have the Giants winning a handful of games, more or less. Coughlin, for one, is not a big fan of the "R" word.
"I don't think anybody wants to hear that word," Coughlin said, blue eyes flashing. "I certainly don't want to hear it. My players don't want to hear it. We want to be as good as we can possibly be as fast as we can possibly be. I don't want to consider bumps in the road. There's about six areas of our football team, if we make immediate improvement in those areas, automatically our team will be better. That's the way I choose to cushion that response.
"When we get a chance to be on the field, the growth of Eli will be evident to everyone. I think when we get into the middle of training camp, I think there will be an acceleration there. I know his teammates will rally around him."
Are the Giants a rebuilding team?
"When you look at the talent that this team has on offense -- Amani Toomer (63 catches, 1,057 yards, 5 TDs), Ike Hilliard (60 catches, 608 yards, 6 TDs), Tiki Barber (1,677 combined yards), [Jeremy] Shockey (48 catches, 535 yards) -- they've got so much talent, they can be a great team," Manning said. "We've just got to get up there and do it."
While the state of the unsettled offensive line may ultimately have more to do with Manning's early success than anything, history will play a big hand as well. Rookie quarterbacks struggle -- it is the law of the NFL jungle.
John Elway had a brutal beginning with the Broncos in 1983. After he maneuvered as the top pick to land with his team of choice, Denver over Baltimore, Elway completed only 47 percent of his passes and his touchdown-interception ratio was backwards, 7 to 14. Troy Aikman was similarly horrid in 1989 with the Dallas Cowboys, throwing 9 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. The Cowboys won one game that year. The exception: 1983, when Dan Marino was drafted by a team that had been in the Super Bowl the year. Marino was sensational, posting a rating of 96.0, with 20 touchdown passes and only 6 interceptions.
"I'm prepared to struggle," Manning said. "I don't want to struggle, but it's something that you've seen with every quarterback that comes in their first year. It's never easy, it can be a tough year.
"I've just got to try and not make the big mistakes. Obviously, I'm going to throw interceptions and make bad reads. But if I can just limit those mistakes and realize that sometimes a punt is a good play, take your short passes and get first downs, I'll be OK."
Greg Garber is a senior staff writer for ESPN.com