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November 16, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Manning Will Make a Difference

BY SEAN LAHMAN
November 16, 2004

In a move that many sensed was inevitable, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin announced yesterday that Eli Manning would take over for Kurt Warner as the starting quarterback. Manning, the first overall pick in the 2004 draft, will make his first NFL start Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

Coughlin made the move a day after the Giants' offense struggled in a 17-14 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. It was the team's third loss in four games, dropping their record to 5-4 after a promising 4-1 start.

In nine starts this season, Warner threw six touchdowns and four interceptions, and it was becoming clear that he couldn't generate the spark the offense needed to win close games. The Giants led at halftime in each of their last three losses, letting winnable games slip away because they couldn't score in the second half.

Can a rookie quarterback salvage the team's fading playoff hopes? Coughlin acknowledged yesterday that simply making the change at quarterback isn't going to solve that problem.

"If we don't get a more solid performance out of our offensive line, tight ends, and running backs," Coughlin said, "it's not going to make a difference."

But Manning should be able to make a difference. Opposing defenses have been able to contain the Giants by bringing eight men into the box to stop the run; Tiki Barber's rushing average has dropped from 6.0 yards per carry to 4.0 since the team's bye week. That forces the team into third-and-long situations where they're forced to throw, and that's when the pass protection breaks down - Warner has been sacked 24 times in the last four games.

Warner often took too much time in the pocket, waiting for something big to develop downfield. When blitzed, he lacked the mobility to escape the pressure and wasn't quick enough to get the ball out before he got hit.

Manning is not particularly mobile, but his quick release should make it harder for defenses to blitz him into submission. He also gives the Giants more downfield opportunities, and might be able to make more plays on first and second down than Warner has.

It's hard to say whether the rookie can deliver a playoff berth, but the reality is that the Giants' passing game couldn't get any worse. The recent losses could have been avoided but for some extremely ugly drive-killing sequences late in the games. If Manning can improve even slightly on Warner's performance, the Giants might remain in contention. If not, at least the playing time will give him some experience and prepare him for next season.

Are the odds in Manning's favor? Of course not. Most rookie quarterbacks struggle and go through a period of adjustment. Only two - John Elway and Dan Marino - have ever led their teams to the playoffs, although Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger appears poised to become the third.

Manning also faces an incredibly tough schedule. Over the next five weeks, he'll take on three of the best teams in football - Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. There are also road games at Baltimore, a team that leads the league in sacks, and Washington, the league's second-ranked defense. It's not going to be easy, but the Giants can't coddle the kid forever, especially given the steep price they paid to acquire him.

"He is the future of the New York Giants," coach Coughlin declared yesterday. "It just starts now."

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