- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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The talk radio, water cooler buzz had already congealed into a wall of white noise by the time Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi returned the phone call. It was almost exactly 24 hours after head coach Tom Coughlin made the announcement that Kurt Warner was being benched and rookie Eli Manning would start at quarterback in Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Accorsi was asked Tuesday afternoon about the perception in some quarters that the Giants have written off the playoffs by giving the ball to Manning.
"We're not 2-7," Accorsi said, clearly agitated. "We're 5-4 and first in the race for the playoffs. We didn't do this to develop Eli Manning. We did it -- Coach made the decision -- because he thought it gave us the best chance of winning.
"You don't think people think we're doing this to develop him for next year? That's absurd. If we wanted to go that way, we would have started him at the beginning of the season. Perception? He gives us the best chance of winning. Anyone who thinks you'd give the season up, well, they never competed in their life."
The revelation came, apparently, at 3 a.m. Monday on the couch in Coughlin's Giants Stadium office. Some 205 days after Manning was the No. 1 overall choice in the NFL draft, Coughlin said he came to the inevitable conclusion that Manning would start.
"He is the future of the New York Giants -- it just starts now," the coach said later Monday. "I really felt the last four games we haven't been playing well offensively. We just need to make a change."
Warner, as Coughlin noted, did not lose the job. Rather, the 33-year-old two-time MVP was collateral damage in a four-game implosion that took the Giants from a 4-1 start to the present 5-4. Losses to Detroit, Chicago and Arizona -- all, a murky 4-5 -- moved Coughlin to make the switch.
When a team is going bad in baseball, it is far easier to fire the manager than all 25 players under his command. Likewise, Coughlin couldn't replace the five offensive linemen responsible for the 39 times Warner was sacked -- an astounding 24 times in the last four games.
"No matter who is at the quarterback position, if we don't get a more solid performance in pass protection out of our offensive line, tight end and running backs," Coughlin said, "it's not going to make a whole lot of difference."
Coughlin denied that management -- namely, Accorsi and co-owner Wellington Mara -- had anything to do with the decision.
In fact, Mara was moved to issue a statement that read, "I don't think Tom Coughlin would work for an organization that made player decisions for him."
"I think it goes way beyond [the Cardinals] game," Warner said. "We can read into that as much as we want. There's a bigger picture here, and there are more things that are trying to be accomplished here, and that's why the decision was made."
This decision could not possibly have been based strictly on football, could it?
Manning, who is only slightly more mobile than Warner, has completed three of nine passes for 66 yards in two regular-season games. Warner has played in 63 career regular-season games, completing 1,289 of 1,956 passes for 16,374 yards and 108 touchdowns. Those numbers don't include seven playoff games that include two Super Bowl appearances.
Clearly, Coughlin has been consumed with this decision since the Giants traded the rights to Philip Rivers, the No. 4 overall pick, and three other draft choices to the San Diego Chargers for Manning's rights. There is never a good time to start a rookie quarterback, but heading into the season there was a logical spot: the Week 9 and 10 games against Chicago and Arizona. But when Warner played beyond expectations and led the Giants to an uplifting 34-13 victory at Minnesota, Coughlin couldn't sack the quarterback of a 5-2 team that seemed destined for the playoffs.
Two weeks later, the Giants blew leads of 14-0 and 14-3 and lost to teams quarterbacked by Craig Krenzel and Josh McCown. And so, the 23-year-old rookie with a six-year, $54.6 million contract will start his first NFL game. While rookie quarterbacks are a remarkable 10-0 this season -- Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger is 7-0 and Chicago's Krenzel is 3-0 -- there is little to suggest that Manning will be any more effective than Warner was.
The timing for Manning appears to be, well, problematic.
For not only do the Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles have the best two records in the NFC, at 7-2 and 8-1, respectively, but they also have two of the best pass rushes. The Eagles are tied for first (with Pittsburgh and Baltimore) with 28 sacks. The Falcons are next with 27. Philadelphia will send Jevon Kearse (six sacks) and Sam Rayburn (five), while the Falcons will launch Patrick Kerney (eight sacks) and Rod Coleman (six). It is worth noting that the Giants have allowed an astounding 40 sacks, seven more than any other team. Even with his 12 fumbles, Warner has vastly more experience to deal with that kind of pressure.
The Manning-Warner story dominated the New York sports scene Monday and Tuesday and is likely to do so for the rest of the week. As WFAN's Mike Francesa noted, "They can't block anybody. If they couldn't do it for four weeks -- how do you expect them to do it now? The kid needs more help than Warner."
Too true. The Giants' offensive line has managed to make ordinary players look like the second coming of Lawrence Taylor. In back-to-back games, the Cardinals' Bertrand Berry and the Bears' Alex Brown recorded four sacks apiece. Based on those numbers, Kerney could get six.
Is Accorsi concerned about the porous nature of the offensive line?
"Certainly you are," Accorsi said. "The last couple of games ... you can't play that way."
"Ridiculous," is how left tackle Luke Petitgout described the blocking after losing at Arizona. "We got complacent. I don't know what else to say. I don't know what's happening."
This may be Manning's state of mind after 60 minutes with a pretty good football team from Atlanta. The tenuous state of the offensive line not only puts pressure on him, but on Tiki Barber and the rest of the skill-position players. Barber -- 220 touches, 1,391 yards and 10 touchdowns -- is having a magnificent season but he has already carried an enormous load. Wide receivers Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard have yet to catch a touchdown pass and tight end Jeremy Shockey doesn't spend enough time running patterns because he's kept in to help with the blocking.
Is it panic? A sound personnel decision? Or is it merely getting on with the cold-hearted business of business? After the Eagles and Falcons, there isn't much to choose from in the NFC. While there are eight teams at 6-3 or better in the AFC, the Giants, as Accorsi pointed out, are tied with four other teams for the NFC's third-best record, 5-4.
Accorsi has been in and around the NFL for 35 years now. He was the Baltimore Colts' public relations director when Bert Jones was drafted second overall in 1973. He was the Colts' general manager when the team drafted John Elway first overall in 1983. He was the general manager in Cleveland when the Browns maneuvered to secure the rights to Bernie Kosar in 1985. It was Accorsi who engineered the trade for Manning.
"It was the same thing with Kosar. We traded for Gary Danielson and figured he'd play the 1985 season. But then he got hurt and Kosar had to play. His role was fairly custodial, and then Danielson came back. But then he got hurt again and Kosar had to start the playoff game. The next year, when we won the division, there was no doubt he was ready to play."
This time, however, there is no injury. Just the gnawing sense that Eli Manning -- bless his $20 million signing bonus -- isn't ready to play.
"You never know what's going to happen," Accorsi said. "But I'm sure he'll be judged by the writers on his first game -- just like his first [disappointing] mini-camp. It's early in the curve. You really don't know what's going to happen."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
1dEric D. Williams