The Psychology of Eli’s Transformation

In the wake of a surprisingly competitive 120 minutes (and some change) of football, few things are as obvious to the masses as the stunning absence of the Manning we've come to know over the past several years. No, I'm not talking about the venerable Peyton — who's Colts were ousted from the postseason a full week earlier than public opinion will have had them been beaten. While he certainly was noticeably absent from championship weekend's contests, there is a more significant Manning missing from the games these days: Eli.

While in body and name, Eli is alive and well. We see that number 10 jersey in all the Giants games as do we see the mid-week interviews with that glib "I know something you don't" half-smile and that barely audible Louisiana drawl. But the Manning we see dropping back and chucking passes downfield in these playoffs is very different than the overmatched kid with gigantic expectations and monumental meltdowns that we've come to read about on the sports pages of all those New York City-based publications.

Looking back on a 2007 season that most would consider to be a less-than-ideal representation of his work, we see the games that made us scratch our collective heads in contemplation over how we all could have been so wrong in anointing this guy a superstar-in-waiting — 35-of-62, 367 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs, 1 fumble lost in a two-game span against division rivals Washington and Philly (both wins, by the way); 8-of-22, 59 yards, 1 fumble lost in a 13-10 win over lowly Miami across the pond; a 21-49, 4 interception performance in a Week 12 loss against Minnesota; that Week 16 game against Buffalo that, while ending in a win for the G-Men, many figured to be the final nail in the coffin for Eli as New York's resident QB of the future (7-of-15, 11 yards, 2 INTs, 5 fumbles).

Truth be told, the bookend games against Dallas Week 1 and New England Week 17 (which saw Eli hit on 68 percent of his passes for a total of 8 touchdowns) belie his overall season stats, which would have been considered average if your last name was Kitna, never mind that it is Manning.

But if you happened to watch that game against New England in the season's final week, you would have seen something stunning happen before your eyes. The young man seemed to "get it" — finally. That look of bewilderment that had been famously flaunted on many a NYC publication was replaced with an unmistakable look of determination. Those throws that floated over receivers' heads or came one second two late were no where to be found, replaced with pinpoint strikes thrown under duress and into coverage. The thinking was gone, replaced with innate instincts and the result was very, very good. This is, for those of us that watched the kid play in college, the Eli we thought the Giants would be getting on that famed draft-day trade.

Pressure does different things to different people. I once knew this kid — a classmate of mine — that could shoot a basketball better than anyone I'd ever met. It didn't matter where he shot from – 15, 20, even 25 feet out — nothing but net, one shot after another. He could dribble, too. And he had this intensity when you played him in a pickup game that was nearly unmatchable; he just couldn't be stopped when he went full out. But once you put even one man, woman, or child in the stands watching, his tent would fold. He'd fade back to average; sure, he would still hit a long jumper or two when he felt bold enough to let those shots fly, but he was so good in practice or on the street that it was stunning how little he contributed come game day.

Likewise, Eli was always known as a very self-assured little fella. Some called him cocky and arrogant, but most everyone acknowledged that the kid felt that he had all the talent he needed and the know-how required to use that talent. He could make every throw and just saw things others didn't see ... people tabbed him as amazing even back in his high school days ... the best of all the Mannings, they'd say. These types of folks are used to hearing how good they are. However, the moment that first question comes about their talent, the crossroads are reached.

Some (Michael Jordan, for example) take the bull by the horns, let their instincts take over, and go full throttle to that next level. Others, like my school buddy, fade to the back, preferring to blend in than to be made an example of. A very select few, for better or for worse, thrive to reach that next level struggle with how to get there because they are so used to doing the right thing without every really knowing what the "right thing" is. This is Eli's predicament.

As Eli was questioned as a rookie and beyond, he thought about those things he did to become the robotic precision passer many had him pegged as coming out of school. Shorten your stride, look off the safeties, square your shoulders, don't be tricked by those pro defenses — all these thoughts and more have cluttered the kid's brain over his first four seasons.

During that Buffalo game, it got so bad that he could no longer figure out the problem. He poured over film, thought through his mechanics, made the right read on the defenses ... what was going wrong? All those believers that said "wait and see" now couldn't be seen. He was on that island of self doubt that strands so many and he had to make a decision on how he wanted to move forward ... maybe he needed more film, maybe he had to think through his issues even further, maybe he wasn't as good as he thought he was.

Then came that New England game; no pressure to win for the fans, no need to worry about Monday's headlines, just a chance to play for pride with his teammates. They were playing the undefeated Pats, nobody gave them a shot, so just go out there, have fun, and sling it like you used to do, no worries.

And there it was, out of nowhere, the secret to his success. Those darts he threw in the face of blitzing safeties and linebackers were a thing of beauty. The drive he led his team on just before half-time was a clinic in leadership and efficiency. The scramble to his right followed by the laser thrown into coverage for a TD to Plaxico Burress was something we'd be hard-pressed to see Peyton do. This Eli played with a looseness we'd never seen before. He looked good and, more importantly, looked like Eli, not some robo-QB with steady mechanics and an almost annoying deliberation in the pocket.

Expectations had been lifted long enough for him to realize he was his own worst enemy. The moment popular opinion gave up on Eli was the very same moment that Eli realized that all he had done to this point in his career was done in an effort to fit the mold he had been cast into by that very same public opinion, and he had lost himself along the way. He went into that Pats game under-prepared and uncluttered with worry — and it worked out just fine. Liberated and free, he finally got a chance to see that he was the talent he'd always known he was and it didn't take the preparation that his brother has become renowned for ... and you know what, that's not a bad thing.

From here on out in Eli Manning's career, there will be bumps and there will be straight-aways. He'll have his good days and he'll have his bad; that is the nature of the beast. He seems to have a better handle on his own destiny these days, more control over those good and bad times. He has seemed to have rediscovered his past, realizing that what he could do is far greater than what he should do. He learned about a thing called over-preparation, which is a malady only the truly gifted have to deal with — all those thoughts getting in the way of instincts. He plays the game for his teammates and for himself now rather than for his fans or for his critics.

The irony is Eli's transformation will only be complete if he finishes what he started on that chilly Sunday at the end of the regular season against the world's greatest team, only this time he'll have to do it under pleasant Arizona skies against that very same world's greatest team and with the whole world watching.

Expectations be damned, he'd be best suited to go out there, have fun, and sling it like he used to.

You see, once you find yourself, you have nothing to lose.

Comments and Conversation

January 24, 2008


Very good article! I know a QB that does get better when the pressure is on. When the game really matters, especially in the 4th quarter. His name: Tom Brady.

I don’t believe your last sentence that Eli has nothing to lose applies in a Superbowl game.
You don’t get many of these chances. On Media day, he will be reminded by the reporters :-)

Eli is playing great games in the last few months. If he doesn’t play well, I believe the Giants will have no chance to win the Superbowl. When Brady has a bad day, the Patriots have many other options to win the Superbowl.

Since the Patriots have 2 weeks to prepare, lots of Superbowl experience and a QB that has good QB ratings in the Superbowl and his off day happened last week, I will be very surprised if the Giants win the Superbowl. Hats off to the Giants if they do so.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site