Giants Playoff Preview: Eli Manning’s Secret Leadership Weapon

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Devyn and Chet meet for the first time under that bridge there.
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Will Leitch’s dispatches from recent visits to the Giants locker room will run every day this week leading up to Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Today: the Eli Manning Quote Bot whirs.

Eli Manning is the reason sports journalism is often so boring.

That’s more of a compliment than it sounds. When Eli was drafted by the Chargers and subsequently traded to the Giants, the fear was that the small-town Southern boy would never hack it in the big city. As famously documented by Michael Lewis, Eli was aloof, mysterious, a little weird. He didn’t come to the NFL as neatly polished as his brother, lacking both Peyton’s rocket arm and obsessive film study habits. Had the Giants drafted Manning simply because of his name? Would anyone consider Eli anything like Peyton otherwise?

Allow me to confirm: When it comes to speaking to the media, Eli is exactly like Peyton. He’s as dull as dirt.

This is part of the job description. The Monday after the December 7 loss to the Eagles, this week’s divisional round opponent, reporters dash into the locker room to find only one player of note: Eli. He’s standing by his locker, fully dressed, prepped, ready. It’s only the second Giants loss of the season, and someone has to answer for it. That person is the quarterback. That person is always the quarterback. That person is Eli.

The job of the quarterback, the day after a loss, is to listen to everyone’s questions like they’re brilliant, answer them as if he’s relaying critical information, lightly joke with reporters like they’re old pals, take every single question no matter how long you’re standing there and, most of all, and this is key … don’t say anything interesting. Eli is the master of this. Some choice quotes:

“We’re not moping around. We just gotta go out there and play our game.”

“It’s one game at a time. We’re a good team. We just have to play our game.”

“We’d forgotten how bad it is to lose, so it’s good to have that reminder.”

“We just have to play our game.”

“This is a good team. We won the NFC East. We’re really pleased with that. It’s just one game at a time.”

Eli says all this with a competent tone, a blank pseudo-smile on his face and the utmost assurance that everything is fine-o, dandy, nothing to see here. And he’s convincing! Halfway through the interview, he almost had me believing that losing to the Eagles was part of the plan all along. In a way, the quarterback is a team’s highest-paid public-relations employee. And Eli’s very good at it.

After about half an hour of answering questions for the reporting gaggle, the crowd disperses, and all that’s left are the Post’s Steve Serby and me. Serby talks with Eli for another fifteen minutes while I stand idly behind him. I don’t really have anything compelling to ask Eli that hasn’t already been asked. I just want to test his superhuman tolerance for banality.

When Serby leaves, I step up and ask Eli if he’s gotten better at this talking-to-the-press thing since he entered the league, if he realized how much of the job required being the official representative of the Team. The Eli Quote Bot continues to whir and churn.

“Yeah, I’d say I’ve gotten better, but you learn a lot in this league. It’s the National Football League. You have to be willing to put in the work. You just try to learn and get better. You have to do what you’re good at. It’s all about working and absorbing.”

Was there a time in the past when he said something he shouldn’t have said because he didn’t know any better?

“Well, I wouldn’t say that, but you just look to continue and improve. But a certain bit of it has to be there. I didn’t become a better quarterback because we won the Super Bowl. You just do your best and hope it all works out in the end.”

We talk for about another ten minutes, Eli patiently answering everything I ask, never betraying the slightest hint that there might be something else he’d rather be doing. And never diverting once from the NFL-approved Playbook of Completely Harmless Stuff to Say to Reporters. I finally run out of questions, and he thanks me and turns back to his locker. Nice guy, Eli, I think. I bet he’s really cool off the field. I think he liked my questions, too. I’m smart. Eli has done his job.

Eli’s locker is right next to David Carr’s. Carr is the former Texans No. 1 draft pick who fizzled out — partly because he wasn’t seen as a “leader” — and now backs up Eli. After Manning and I finish talking, I turn to Carr and ask him if he misses having to be the team spokesperson.

“Well, I miss playing,” he says. “But I don’t miss that.”

Which might have something to do with the fact that Eli Manning is going to the Pro Bowl and leading his team toward a second consecutive Super Bowl, and David Carr is his backup.

(Tomorrow: Friday: Those niggling Philadelphia Eagles.)

Earlier: Not So Blasé About Those Eagles Anymore
Tom Coughlin Will Tell You How This Is Gonna Go, Okay?
A Defiant Antonio Pierce Bowls Us Over
The Distractions of Plaxico