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November 22, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Mixed Emotions For Giants Fans as Eli Arrives
Coach on the Couch

BY SEAN LAHMAN
November 22, 2004

Most Giants fans will come away from yesterday's game with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was a frustrating loss that head coach Tom Coughlin called "a lost opportunity." The Giants played well enough to win but fell short in the game's closing minutes, dropping their record to 5-5 and likely ending whatever chance they had to contend for a playoff spot.

On the other hand, Eli Manning made his first NFL start, and while he wasn't perfect, there were moments when it was clear that he is going to be a very good quarterback. Manning showed remarkable poise and a pocket presence that more experienced quarterbacks often lack. With a little more help from his teammates, he might have been able to pull out a win against a very good Atlanta team that came into this game with a 7-2 record.

Young quarterbacks often fixate on one receiver, but Manning was able to progress from read to read, looking at his second and third options when necessary. He was calling audibles at the line of scrimmage, moving receivers around, and reading the defense before the snap to call out blocking assignments on players he thought would be blitzing.

The one thing you heard all week was that changing quarterbacks wasn't going to solve the problems the Giants had on the offensive line. But it did, as was suggested in this space last Tuesday. Manning is more decisive in the pocket than Kurt Warner was, getting rid of the ball quickly when there's a receiver open and throwing it away before he's sacked when everyone is covered down field. He's not a mobile quarterback, but he did a pretty good job of avoiding a ferocious Atlanta pass rush. Warner was sacked 24 times in the last four games, but Manning was sacked just once yesterday.

Manning did struggle to get into a rhythm early on - "I think I was throwing the ball too quickly at times and didn't always get my feet set," he said after the game - and he looked overmatched at times. It didn't help that his receiving corps dropped a half dozen passes in the first half. Amani Toomer and Tiki Barber, in particular, dropped catchable passes on third-down plays that might have helped the Giants get some momentum and some points on the board.

Instead, the momentum was on the other sideline, as the Giants defense struggled to contain quarterback Michael Vick at the outset. The defense put good pressure on him in the first quarter, but each time that it appeared they had him sacked, the elusive Vick broke free and scrambled for a big gain. The Giants also struggled to cover tight end Alge Crumpler, whose two touchdown catches staked Atlanta to a 14-0 lead. The crowd, which gave Manning a huge ovation at the beginning of the game, had fallen quiet by halftime.

The Giants made some great adjustments at halftime and regained the momentum early in the second half. On their first possession after the break, Manning made two remarkable plays that showed why he's not like any other rookie quarterback. On 3rd-and-8, he rolled to the right, looking to get a pass off to Tiki Barber in the flat. Barber was covered, but Manning drew the defender towards himself by feigning the run. He then lofted the pass over his head into Barber's arms for a 10-yard gain. It was the kind of nuanced play that showed the kind of field presence Manning has.

Later in that drive, the Giants faced 2nd-and-10 from the Atlanta 13-yard line. Manning went to a hard count and drew Atlanta's Ed Jasper offside, giving the Giants 5 yards and more flexibility in their red zone play calling. He then found Jeremy Shockey in the end zone three plays later for the first touchdown pass of his NFL career.

Manning did throw two interceptions on the day, but the offense has rarely looked as good as it did on that 16-play, 72-yard scoring drive to start the third quarter. The final statistics weren't spectacular, but overall you have to feel good about how Manning played against one of the NFL's most difficult defenses.

His leadership and savvy are remarkable for a player making his first start and he clearly has all of the physical tools necessary to be a great quarterback. While the final outcome against the Falcons was disappointing, Giants fans everywhere have to be excited about their first real glimpse of the Eli Manning era.

***

The Jets eked out a win yesterday with a lackluster performance against the Browns, who played so poorly they were repeatedly booed by the hometown fans. Cleveland's offense has been ravaged by injuries and couldn't muster much of an attack, but that didn't stop them from holding the lead until late in the fourth quarter.

As has been the case too often, the Jets offense was lackluster early on. For the sixth time in eight games, they didn't score any points in the first quarter. The Jets didn't convert a third down until midway through the fourth quarter, when they finally went back to the short passing game. Three quick throws by Quincy Carter let receivers Justin McCareins and Santana Moss take a short pass and turn it into something bigger. That approach would have helped in the first half, when the blitzing Browns sacked Carter five times on 15 pass plays.

The Jets have a good defense - the best of the Herm Edwards era - but they need better play from the offense if they're going to remain in the playoff chase. In six of the last eight games, they've managed 17 points or less, and that's simply not going to get it done against quality opponents.

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