- Adrian Wojnarowski
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Between the Giants' locker room and the tunnel leading into an emptying stadium, Archie Manning was offering something of a belated warning on the runaway expectations surrounding his son Eli, the Giants' young quarterback. The breathless calls had come to him in New Orleans several weeks earlier, as the 2005 regular season was winding down, suggesting perhaps there could be an Eli-Peyton Super Bowl -- and inspiring the most sour of pusses on the family patriarch.
"I have not done one [interview] where I gave in to that [line of thinking]," Archie Manning said shortly after the Panthers destroyed the Giants 23-0 to end New York's season long before that Neverland championship dream could happen.
"That was baloney."
Now, the NFL has thrust the brothers together to start a season on a Sunday night, something they couldn't deliver themselves to wrap up last season. Yet Archie wasn't speaking about the ability of Peyton to hold up his end but rather the readiness of Eli to make that kind of run with the Giants. As soon as some started with those "Eli vs. Peyton" Super Bowl stories, the little brother's progress was stunted and his performance started to swoon.
So, the 2006 football season starts with Peyton and Eli Manning --- brother QB against brother QB for the first time in NFL history --- on Sunday night, Sept. 10, and so much of the intrigue surrounds the kid brother's ability to justify the ransom the Giants paid to make him a franchise quarterback. In his third year, everyone expects to see Eli make the leap to a quarterback who no longer merely manages games with a considerably talented cast of teammates but wins them, too.
It would've helped if Manning carried the cachet in the Giants' locker room to talk his two troubled pass catchers, Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress, into hanging around northern Jersey this summer, working with him on timing and routes and chemistry. Instead, after years of skipping voluntary workouts for his own regimen in Miami, Shockey took Burress with him this year. In the end, this is on Shockey and Burress.
Still, Manning is a wallflower in a locker room of strong personalities -- from those two receivers to Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber. In a lot of ways, Manning still carries himself like the little brother. His presence is underwhelming.
"I think it's unfortunate that here he is a quarterback going into his third season, and he's not given the opportunity to throw to his receivers throughout the offseason," Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Troy Aikman said recently.
"I think that's a real mistake for Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress not to be there with Eli Manning getting some timing down. I don't think you get that in four weeks of training camp. I think it takes a lot of time and a lot of repetition. And they're not getting that kind of time.
"Maybe it lends itself to some of the inaccuracies that Eli had last year."
From start to finish a year ago, Manning regressed. Maybe the long NFL season wore him down. Maybe the pressure of the playoff push took its toll. Whatever it was, he was a sharper, crisper passer and a far more confident player early in the season. Sometimes, he throws some beautiful balls. Mostly, he's unflappable. Still, the Giants need him to arrive and need it this season.
Whatever you could do wrong in a playoff game -- throwing off the wrong foot, throwing into double and triple coverage on the way to three interceptions, missing open receivers -- Manning did it all. Now, training camp starts this week, and Manning and Burress, especially, have something to reconstruct together. They had moments last season, but moments don't make championship contenders.
Truth be told, the Steelers let Burress walk and won a Super Bowl without him. He was a head case with them and largely stayed true to character with the Giants. He was benched early in the season for a quarter at San Diego and sulked his way to no catches in the playoff loss and a missed exit meeting with the coaching staff. Jerry Rice, the best ever, ripped Burress' professionalism in June on his national radio show, stunned over the way Burress walked out on his teammates after that Carolina debacle.
And Shockey --- there are always disposition issues with him. Nevertheless, this is Manning's job now. His burden. The Giants traded so much to bring him to New York, and they didn't do it for him just to manage games. In his third year, his burden is unmistakable: Start to be a franchise quarterback, start to look like your big brother. Opening night, the Giants' quarterback gets to look across the field and see the expectation.
It isn't fair. It isn't easy.
Yet it's on Eli Manning now. It's all over him.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His national best-seller, "The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty," is available in paperback.
As Eli Manning goes into his third season, the pressure is on for him to justify the ransom the Giants paid to make him a franchise QB.