Capt’n Eli Needs To Step Up

Heading into training camp, Eli Manning has a lot to prove. He deemed himself the team leader earlier this month and said that his squad has enough weapons to do without Tiki Barber, who accounted for almost 41 percent of the offense’s total yards. So now the quarterback must prove it.

“I’m ready to step up,” Manning said. “Leadership is something you earn from your teammates, and I think I’ve earned that. We’ve won enough games and had big comeback wins. [Teammates] know the way I prepare and how I go about my business. I’ve earned the respect.”

Such a bold quote from the typically demure Manning was a great sound byte for reporters, and an almost dulcet tune to the ears of most fans. But as his head coach said on the first day of mini-camp, “talk is cheap.”

Manning said what he did to a group of reporters and rapt onlookers in Grand Central terminal — he was there on July 11 for an HSBC-sponsored charity put-off — but there’s a difference between saying it there and saying it in the locker room; a big difference between telling the public what it wants to hear and telling his teammates what he needs them to believe.

And he’s got some convincing to do.

“I’m thinking of winning right now,” said Michael Strahan, who turns 36 in November. “They say Eli is going to mature. Well, I need him to mature now.”

Last month, Jerry Reese described Manning’s infamous pose of dejection as “that hangdog look” and said that it needs to change.

The self-proclaimed honcho had no response to those comments. Instead, he pooh-poohed the loss of Barber — who was a leader on the field and a heard voice in the locker room — and lauded his young garrison. He said they’ve got enough weapons to compensate, and they do.

In mini-camp Manning worked mostly with fledglings Sinorice Moss and Michael Jennings because Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress, both recovering from off-season surgery, couldn’t participate.

“It was a big opportunity for me and [Moss] to get on the same page, timing-wise,” said Manning, who hooked up with the receiver just five times in 2006. “I’ve had three years with Amani and Plaxico, so we understand each other’s body motion. But the young guys got a chance to learn on the move.

“Sinorice has great quickness. He’s good off the ball, has great speed and can make the play downfield. He’s also great after the catch.”

He also described rookie receiver Steve Smith, who ran with the second team in mini-camp, as “a real smooth route-runner.”

The running game should be good enough, too. By all accounts, Brandon Jacobs is capable and poised for a breakout season, and Reuben Droughns is solid.

And even seventh rounder Ahmad Bradshaw drew the quarterback’s adulation: “He catches the ball effortlessly, and he’s quick at making adjustments and reading me,” said Manning of Bradshaw, who consistently burned Gerris Wilkinson in one-on-one pass drills. “I tell him something and he doesn’t forget, he executes it every time after that. I think he’s going to be a real good third down back.”

Add that crop to Burress, Toomer and Jeremy Shockey and the Giants could potentially be a dominant offense; at least more efficient than they have been. There are questions at left tackle, but Manning has enough talent around him to make most quarterbacks jealous. And he says he’s comfortable with Kevin Gilbride’s play-calling. According to him, the playbook hasn’t been altered much because “a lot of what we did before was based on [Gilbride’s] philosophy,” so he’s familiar with the system and doesn’t have to digest a whole lot in a short period.

He knows what his problems are physically, and he’s worked with quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer on improving his footwork and overall mechanics. Palmer paid close attention to him during drills, making sure he followed through properly, releasing high and finishing with his right hand by his left hip. And Manning said that he spent the off-season trying to get better at throwing on the move.

He looked good in drills, nailing the targets (his accuracy was second only to Anthony Wright’s), but he struggled in scrimmages. He didn’t complete enough of his passes, forced open receivers to make adjustments on the ones he did complete, and he threw six interceptions – it should’ve been eight because Gibril Wilson and Sam Madison dropped would’ve-been picks.

Shockey chided him during one of the scrimmages, yelling, “This is [bleeping] mini-camp. You’re not supposed to miss those!” Manning didn’t respond with words or his play.

If he is the leader — if he wants to be — he’ll have to. He’ll need to have more command of his offensive players. He isn’t a vocal leader, and he won’t suddenly become one. If he tries, the people who know him will see right through it. In the locker room, he sits in the back corner and keeps to himself. Believe it or not, he’s even more quiet and reserved than people say he is. Jared Lorenzen and Burress, whose locker is next to his, are the only teammates who converse with him regularly. Nobody would buy that guy transforming into “Randy Ra-Ra” or “Harry Hardass” overnight.

He’ll have to lead by example, and through his play, inspire confidence in his teammates. He doesn’t have to be more vivacious or charismatic, just more accurate, more consistent and more reliable. His offense will trust him; and from trust grows respect and admiration. There’s a difference between being in a position of leadership (as the signal-caller, he already is), and being the de facto captain. The latter is what he wants.

And it starts with training camp.

Manning is in his fourth season, and there are no more excuses. The honeymoon is over and this marriage (with all the Giants gave up to acquire him, it’s a long-term commitment) is in its honey-do stage. He needs to do well from the outset and show everyone that this season will be different. With his play, get everyone to believe that his fundamentals aren’t as flawed, that there won’t be another second-half swoon, that he not only realized what he’s done wrong, but has found ways to correct it.

After talking the talk in a red Polo shirt, he must walk the walk in a red practice jersey to convince the team, the fans and himself that anything has changed. Otherwise, he’ll be making the same comments in response to the same questions this time next year.

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