Expectations can make things hard. And if your name is Manning and you play quarterback in the NFL, there are a lot of expectations. Eli Manning knows it. But he knows something else. Something more important. And in the last couple of weeks he's reminded me of it: To succeed you have to be your own man.
That's not easy for anyone, least of all a guy such as Manning. Truth is we like our quarterbacks big. Weather it's the big arm of, say, John Elway, or the outsize personality of Brett Favre, the NFL doesn't celebrate subtle. Swagger gets more play than sincerity.
And Manning has no swagger. Near the end of the regular season, it didn't even look like he had much of a future. Consider his Week 15 effort against the Redskins where he threw 35 incompletions. That's more than any quarterback in 40 years. The next week against the Bills, he turned the ball over five times. Not surprisingly, Manning took it on the chin on talk radio and the sports pages. Whether he took the criticism to heart we may never know. Eli doesn't say much.
But his performance a week later in New York's regular-season finale said a lot. Against the undefeated Patriots, the Giants had nothing to play for, except pride. And to their credit, Big Blue came up big. They were focused and fierce. And though New York ultimately lost the game, they seem to find themselves. Their quarterback sure did. That night against New England, Manning threw four touchdown passes and had his highest quarterback rating of the year. In the playoffs, he's been even better.
Two more touchdown passes without a turnover helped Manning lead the Giants over the Buccaneers in an NFC wild-card game. A week later against the top-seeded Cowboys, Manning got the better of Tony Romo. And last Sunday, at Lambeau Field in temperatures below zero, Manning beat Favre and the Packers. Incredible.
Eli Manning doesn't have a lot of things. Not his brother's autonomy to go no huddle and bark out audibles for an eternity before every snap, not Favre's mischievous grin and ad lib spontaneity, and definitely not Tony Romo's celebrity sweetheart. But he does have an NFC championship to his credit, a ticket to the Super Bowl and a well-deserved couple of days off.
When asked whether he was going to use that time to head anywhere special, like Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Manning didn't say a word. He just smiled. Which is just like him. His coach, Tom Coughlin, tried to help his quarterback out by saying "Cabo? Where the heck is that?"
But I don't think Manning needed the help. Not saying isn't the same as not knowing. Besides, Manning has proven that he knows the important stuff: Like how to win big games. And who he is. For the record, he's the quiet quarterback who's led his team to Super Bowl XLII.