Friday, August 24, 2007

Giants Await a Leader, but Also Need Followers

Published: August 24, 2007

How playful the Eli Manning-Tiki Barber quarrel seems, relative to more vexing issues dogging the N.F.L. Compared with the Michael Vick case, it’s a food fight in the school cafeteria or one of those intramural training camp scuffles that real men like Coach Tom Coughlin believe will make their players’ pores ooze with orneriness.

But it’s August, devoid of meaningful competition, and Vick, barring an unforeseen audible, will officially plead guilty Monday to dogfighting charges that will put him in jail. He hasn’t served a redemptive day yet and already the Atlanta chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., among other sources, is clamoring for him to play again. Imagine the unpleasant decisions, inevitably fraught with racial repercussions, facing N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell.

For now, as Goodell tries to remake his league’s battered behavioral image, he needs volunteers to step up, speak out, change the subject. If I’m Goodell, I’m thinking, keep talking, Tiki. Get down on all fours and bark, if you’d like.

The broadcast game is about distinguishing one’s self from the rest of the ever-expanding pack, and Barber knew what he was doing when he announced himself in the studio Sunday night by describing Manning’s leadership qualities as “comical.” Manning (pictured, left) answered Barber, his teammate only eight months ago, with a salvo that looked and sounded more sheepish than furious.

Easily impressed, his Giants teammates reacted with a right-on, about-time gusto, which mostly underscored the belief that what Barber said, however self-serving, was essentially true.

People often miss the point when they say that it is not easy for Manning to be the little brother of Peyton, quarterback and pitchman extraordinaire. Performance issues aside, Eli’s problem, born of a personality that is seemingly guileless, transcends genealogy. Forget Peyton; in his three seasons with the Giants, Eli has been everyone’s little brother, alternately picked on and stood up for. In either case, not the most ideal leadership conditions.

“Well, I guess I’ve always been even keeled, never really responded back and tried to always make things smooth and easy,” Manning told reporters Wednesday. An admirable approach in most places except inside the football arena; it’s a sport not exactly given to attitudinal complexity and languid body language.

We will know that Manning, 26, has met the big-boy challenge when teammates do not have to defend him so vigorously in the locker room, when Coughlin doesn’t think he is too fragile to treat him as churlishly as he did, for example, Mathias Kiwanuka, a rookie, last season. And most of all, when Manning has finally had enough and shoves a football in the face of the next receiver to show him up on the field, as Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress have become so accustomed to doing.

If the Giants had any real leaders last season, including Michael Strahan and Barber and, for that matter, Coughlin, those gestures of exasperation upon being underthrown or overlooked would not have been tolerated.

By season’s end, the network cameras were well trained on the Giants’ receivers after pass plays, anticipating overreaction and more embarrassment for Manning. Where were his supporters when he needed them most? Where was Strahan, the Giants’ most tenured and typically outspoken star?

Invisible, just as he is now, as he contemplates retirement or times his arrival to miss the most grueling part of training camp. Isn’t that just like a me-first Giants star in the years under Coughlin and his predecessor Jim Fassel?

There haven’t been many locker rooms as chatty as the Giants’ has become, where talk has been so cheap. Here, in fact, is Barber, on Manning two days before last season’s regular-season finale against the Redskins and 10 days before his retirement, when asked if he had any regrets of leaving a still-developing quarterback alone in the lurch.

“I care about Eli and it’s been fun playing with him for three years,” Barber said. “But he’s capable of handling it himself. I know he is.”

Barber then went out and carried the Giants into the playoffs with a franchise-record 234 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns. “Thank you, thank you,” Manning told him later that night when they passed in the interview room.

Payback, it appears, was Barber deciding to tell it like it is, Cosellian-style, to mark his network debut.

It wasn’t the most honorable act of Barber’s career, but, again, in the context of how we define aberrant N.F.L. behavior, it is hard to get more angry than Manning appeared to be — or not — when he tweaked Barber for last season’s long retirement melodrama in his unassuming, Andy of Mayberry way.

Bottom line: Barber, besides giving football fans something other than Vick to debate, did Manning a favor. He made himself a stationary target, handing Manning the motivation to allow teammates to see him, for once, stand up for himself.

Making them stand behind him, and making Barber admit he was wrong, we’ll just have to see about that.



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