Eli Manning is the most mobile pocket passer in football.
The New York Giants' star has below-average foot speed for a quarterback. He rushed for only 15 yards all season. Yet he slips and slides, shifts and evades, and he makes use of every last millisecond in the passing pocket before getting rid of the football.
Manning's remarkable pocket presence has carried the Giants to Super Bowl XLVI, and it's one of the biggest worries the New England Patriots face in Sunday's game.
"He has done a great job this year of sliding one way or another, keeping his eyes down field," said Giants guard Chris Snee. "That's where we've had a lot of our big plays this year. From him buying an extra second, delivering the ball -- he's definitely done a much better job of that."
The Patriots know only too well Manning's ability to maintain his poise. It was Manning's spinning evasion of the pass rush that allowed him to hit David Tyree for the 32-yard "helmet catch" that keyed New York's upset over New England in the Super Bowl five years ago.
Manning put on a pressure-handling clinic in the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco 10 days ago. He was hit 20 times in 64 drop-backs, yet threw for 316 yards in New York's 20-17 win over the 49ers.
"You watch the San Francisco game he was getting drilled and just stood in there, kept making the throws, trusting his protection and came through when they needed him," marveled Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
"He keeps plays going and going, and their receivers are very good at their scramble techniques, adjusting their routes," said Pats safety Patrick Chung.
Manning, in his eighth season, had the best year of his career. He was fourth in the league in passing yards, with a career-best 4,933. He had a league-best six game-winning drives. His 15 fourth-quarter TD passes broke the league record shared by Johnny Unitas and his brother, Peyton. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he was pressured more than any QB in the league. Yet the Giants ranked sixth best in sacks allowed per pass attempt.
Manning says he has learned to ignore "phantom pressure."
"If you feel something, if you sense something, then you've got to be smart, move up and get the ball out quickly," Manning said. "But if you're not feeling it, don't try to imagine there's someone behind you."
"I'm feeling comfortable and these guys are doing a great job of getting open, understanding our concepts, understanding our plays and going out there and making plays when those opportunities form," Manning said.
Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride says Manning's pocket presence is an example of his maturity as an elite quarterback.
"I think he's got a great mastery of where the protections are, where the strengths and weaknesses are," Gilbride said. "He has steadily evolved in terms of where to slide. How's this protection evolving? Who's going where? Who do we have to worry about? He has a great sense of here's where I have to move. He's very adroitly taking advantage of where we're most solid."
"Normally you associate mobility with a guy who's got great feet and runs around," Gilbride continued. "That's not ever going to be his style or his strength. It's the subtlety of movement he's gotten better and better at. And it's a tribute to his understanding of what we're trying to do protection-wise."
Manning's willingness to stand in the pocket in the face of pressure isn't new. He showed it in college at Mississippi, which faced superior competition in the Southeastern Conference.
"His offensive line is poor," former Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi wrote in a scouting report on Manning during his junior year of college. "No way can he take any form of deep drop and look downfield. With no running game, he's stuck with three-step drops and waiting till the last second to see if a receiver can get free. He's taking some big hits, taking them well. Carried an overmatched team entirely on his shoulders."
"People think of physical toughness and they think of linebackers, they think of a fullback," Gilbride said. "They don't think of the quarterback. It's a totally different makeup. You're not inflicting the blow. You need to have the willingness to stand in there and focus on your job, which is to deliver the pass knowing you're going to get hit. It's a different kind of courage, and he certainly possesses it."
"He's a tough guy," said Snee. "He's a competitor and has that burning desire to win games. That's nice to see in your quarterback. He's the ultimate competitor."