ALBANY, N.Y. -- It's too simplistic to say Eli Manning's success is directly attributable to his demeanor.
You don't go first in the NFL draft -- or compete for championships -- without a boatload of talent. Or a dogged work ethic. Or even a little luck.
But if you want to know how the New York Giants quarterback is able to put it all together, and how he's brought his team along for the ride, just ask about the effect that winning a second Super Bowl in five seasons has had on him over the last six months. Chances are, you'll hear everything you need to know about who he is.
"I don't think it's changed my life," Manning answered, in a quiet corner of a SUNY Albany dining hall during the team's lunch hour a couple of Fridays ago. "It hasn't changed my attitude or changed what my priorities are, what my goals are. We came into the spring knowing what we had to improve, we had to get better. And I thought the guys worked hard and understood that 9-7's not good enough, and the way that we played at the end of the season is the way we have to play at all times."
It's understandable to think that those words came off a script put together by some PR wizard or press-savvy coach. And, to be sure, Manning certainly has been trained to say these kinds of things, the same way most prominent pro athletes have.
But if you look closely at the words, and you have an idea of who Manning is, you also realize this: That's truly Eli. Steady. Consistent. Focused. And, yup, kinda bland. Add those things up, and you get the quarterback who's perfect for New York, for the franchise he represents, the team he leads and the only NFL coach he's ever had.
"He's been a great example for everybody because he follows the old adage, which he probably doesn't even know: Never too high, never too low," coach Tom Coughlin said, coming off the practice field on that same Friday. "He's able to maintain a very, very balanced emotional position. He has a lot of fire, he has a lot of things inside that he keeps inside. He keeps that stuff to himself, he's very private about that. But he has been able to take the harsh criticism and deal with that, the praise and deal with that, and still remain steady and focused and wanting to improve."
Now, let's make one thing clear: Manning's not perfect. Not by a long shot.
Going into 2007, there were some outside the organization who questioned whether Manning was the long-term answer for the club. In 2010, he threw a career-high 25 interceptions as the Giants missed the playoffs for the second straight year. Combine those circumstances with the New York pressure cooker, and some athletes would crumble.
Manning's response, in each case, was to win a championship. And it wasn't that he was carrying out vengeance. In fact, it was more the opposite, that by tuning out the noise, he prompted the rest of the team to follow suit.
So it should be obvious that if you ask him about the legacy he's building, he'll respond the same way he did to the criticism -- by shrugging and keeping his head down.
"I really just try and take it one year at a time, and understand that we have a talented team, we have good players," Manning said. "We have this organization that has given us the opportunity to have success, if we can go out and play to our potential. We need to take advantage of that. You don't know how many times you're gonna have all these weapons and all these key players here. So you want to make sure, when you have the potential to make a good run, that you're working hard and you're doing everything you can to put yourself in the right place."
The way he figures it makes a lot of sense -- if he keeps his eye on each tree, the forest will be taken care of. And if he ever needed a reminder, what happened with his older brother Peyton last year reinforced that.
"I think the whole (Peyton) thing, being an athlete and being able to be healthy and play this game is such an honor -- you always want to take advantage of it," he said. "Playing here, we've had a number of guys had their career cut short for whatever reason, by injury, by not having an opportunity. So you always have to try to take advantage of it. You never know when it's gonna be your last chance to get through a season, or your last opportunity where you're on a talented team that can possibly win a championship. So I'm just grateful every day that I get to do this."
And in No. 10's world, being grateful means looking forward, not back.
In less than a month, the Giants open the defense of their fourth Super Bowl title and eighth NFL championship. Their defensive line is as fearsome as ever. Manning has a pair of top-shelf receivers (Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz) back and two highly drafted rookies at skill positions (running back David Wilson and receiver Rueben Randle) joining the fold. On the flip side, the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys figure to be stronger than they were last season, as do the Washington Redskins, who will have Robert Griffin III at the helm.
"You trust him," Coughlin said, "and the way that he conducts himself, and deals with his teammates, and how he is under pressure in the area of communication, and how his instincts and his ability to recognize situations and circumstances, he rallies his teammates around -- it's all such a huge important thing as far as us winning."
The coach then added, "It rubs off."
On the surface, Manning's in a better spot now than he was last year at this time, when a passing comment on sports radio set off a season-long debate about whether he was truly elite.
He answered that question, of course. But the truth is, even if he hadn't provided such an emphatic response, it probably wouldn't have changed much, anyway. He'd still be ... Eli.
"It was good to get that out of the way," he says, "and just worry about playing football."
As if he was ever worried about anything else.