EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Around Giants Stadium exasperated officials insist it's too soon to pass judgment on Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Unfair comparisons, they say. Wait until Manning has an offensive line, wait until there's structure over chaos, wait until he can breathe.
Manning could still turn out to be the inspired choice in the long run.
Manning could still turn out to be, well, a Manning.
Listen, everyone expected Manning to struggle, but to hang a Blutarski quarterback rating against the Ravens -- 0.0 -- is unfathomable. The late George Plimpton had a better run as the Paper Lion.
There is a long list of great quarterbacks with opening acts as dreadful as Manning, and sure, he still has a chance to justify the Giants' faith in him as the No. 1 pick. For now, just stop insulting Roethlisberger's spectacular season with the flawed belief that Manning could've done for the Steelers what Roethlisberger has done across 11 unbeaten starts. Because it's ridiculous.
Push past the arm strength and mechanics and pedigrees, and distill Manning and Roethlisberger down to the essence of a quarterback's existence.
Whose presence do you feel when he walks into the stadium, the room, the huddle?
Who would you follow?
If Manning dreaded the thought of this Saturday afternoon game against the Steelers in the Meadowlands two months ago when he was still standing on the sidelines, just imagine how it's turned into his worst nightmare now. All week, it's been Ben, Ben, Ben. Truth be told, it's been that way all season for him.
It will be nasty in the stands for the free-falling Giants, and nastier down on the field where the Steelers' defense threatens to rip Manning limb to limb. They're going to eat him alive, and there's nothing the Giants can do to stop them. Nothing.
The Giants should sit Manning on Saturday. It's one thing to let a young quarterback play through tough times, but another to let him play when he clearly cannot function on the field. Coughlin is testing the resolve of his rookie, refusing to lift him under these crisis circumstances. Giants coach Tom Coughlin is going to toughen Manning for the long run -- the way Bill Parcells did with Phil Simms -- or he's going to shellshock his young quarterback, sending him deeper into uncertainty and doubt.
Something is missing with Manning. Something about his disposition suggests, well, little brother with him. There should be a commanding presence to a quarterback, an aura, a glow -- an it. It should be unmistakable. From the beginning with Manning, you never saw it. Even before he was getting his butt kicked every week, you just never saw it. Manning is long on arm strength, but short on a palpable presence. He's the nicest kid in the world, but truth be told, there's nothing to his disposition that suggests a leader of men.
"I don't even look at Ben like a rookie," the Steelers' Lee May says.
After beating the Jets on Sunday, Roethlisberger bounded into the interview room with his flannel shirt unbuttoned, exposing a white undershirt and a thick silver-studded cross dangling over his chest. Roethlisberger balances small-town Ohio cool with an edgy disposition. He drips charisma and cool, the way Manning kind of looks like that lost kid in the grocery store.
Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi loves to spin his yarns about the definition of leadership as watching Johnny Unitas climb off the team bus. After spending all that time with Manning and Roethlisberger before the draft, it's amazing he was so convinced drafting Roethlisberger with the No. 4 pick and holding onto several future draft choices didn't make much more sense than trading away so much for Manning.
"Look at all the other quarterbacks, they're not having success like Ben is," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "It's a great story. He's never tried to step on any toes acting like he's a big shot rookie, thinking he's better than everyone else. He goes out and buys us donuts in the morning.
"As a teammate, he makes you want to go out and work twice as hard for the guy."
As the Giants drag themselves into the Meadowlands on Saturday, they'll wish they could say the same for Eli Manning. Everything has collapsed around him, but it has to be hard to play for the Giants when he's offering so little hope at quarterback. Maybe that'll all change someday, but that's a long way off.
"This is Eli's team, period," exiled Giants quarterback Kurt Warner said. "This is Eli's team from this point on probably until he retires."
On the way to work Saturday, on the way to another beating, that isn't much to be thrilled over about for these Giants. Someday, maybe it will be. For now, it promises a pounding at Giants Stadium. Yes, this is Eli's team, the worst in the NFL.
Manning is polite and deferring too, but it doesn't get easier to believe his presence moves men. He's a terrific young man -- the kind you'd want your daughter to bring home, to be sure -- but he has a long way to go until he's the kind you want your GM to build his franchise around. If nothing else, a quarterback needs to take over a room, a huddle, a stadium, and besides everything else, that's missing with Manning. There's a presence, an it and it's been as easy to see as that big, silver crucifix sparkling off Ben Roethlisberger's chest last Sunday.
Roethlisberger will come swaggering into Giants Stadium this week, the way no one will notice Eli Manning slip past security on his way into the locker room.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, can be pre-ordered before its February 2005 release. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.