Sally Jenkins

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Eli Manning is still hanging around with that downbeat attitude, the slope shouldered, shambling body language that makes his critics question him, but which has given him such mental durability in the NFL. It's midweek, and he's standing in front of his locker in his plain long-sleeved shirt and generic off-the-shelf jeans, and the question is, does anything ever seem to bother him? Anything? Ever?

"Never," receiver Victor Cruz says.

Last season was the worst of his life, as he threw a slapstick 27 interceptions and the New York Giants started 0-6. A local CBS station called for his benching, and the New York Post suggested the team might need to "start looking for a new quarterback sooner rather than later." Even Dwight Gooden tweeted that Manning should be "pulled." When Manning looked just as terrible this preseason, Boomer Esiason said, "It looks like he's not even interested," and rated him "at the bottom" of NFL quarterbacks.

And it never bothered him?

"Nope," Manning says. "You hear some things, read some things. But not worried about it. Don't buy into it."

Chronic self-assurance in the face of doubt has become perhaps Manning's most defining characteristic as a quarterback. Last week he rebounded to complete 75 percent of his passes in a blowout of the Houston Texans and give himself and his team new hope. This is familiar stuff from him. Even two Super Bowl rings have never completely satisfied the critics, who reappear with every career reversal. Among the doubts that Manning has put to rest over the years: that he was too much the kid brother; that he played the game more out of obligation than inclination; that he was too passive, or careless, or didn't have enough werewolf in him.

It's with a certain shock that you realize he has been in the league for more than a decade now, and since 2004 has outlasted and outplayed 26 other quarterbacks in the NFC East.

At 33, he has lost every last vestige of baby-facedness, and instead he's got the look of a pugilist with a crook in his nose and two-day growth on his jaw.

His perpetually muted and undemonstrative demeanor – he has never tried to be the wild charismatic inventor at the line of scrimmage that his older brother Peyton is – now seems imperturbable instead of shy.

After finishing up that miserable 2013 season with a sprained ankle against Washington and undergoing surgery to clean it up, Manning spent the off-season rehabbing and trying to absorb a fresh scheme in the West Coast offense, installed by the Giants' new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. When Manning initially looked hapless in it, throwing two interceptions in five plays as the Giants lost their opener to the Detroit Lions 35-14, even some of his teammates seemed on the edge of panic. "The house is burning," Jon Beason said.

But Manning looked much better in a near-thing loss to the Arizona Cardinals, 25-14, and finally emerged from a morass of doubts with that titanic blowout of the Texans last week. He went 21 of 28, and led the Giants to 419 yards of offense.

"He gets beat down a lot when we lose," defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka says. "But he should get praised equally as much when we win. I mean, he had a tremendous game in the face of everybody talking bad about him. He led our offense down the field a number of times, put points on the board."

The performance was big enough that it has the Giants thinking optimistically again as they prepare for Thursday's critical NFC East matchup with Washington, a game that will change the entire outlook for the winner at 2-2 instead of 1-3.

"Division, division, division," Coach Tim Coughlin has preached at the Giants this week.

The sense among the Giants is that things suddenly clicked into place for Manning, and the whole team has an effective new cadence and tempo.

"Everybody is playing at the same speed, and in the same way that they're supposed to be playing," Manning said.

Whether it's a genuine transformation or just a bright spot remains to be seen; the Giants have missed the playoffs in four of the last five years. According to McAdoo, a blunt sort who is not easily complimentary, "We didn't find a cure for cancer; we have a long way to go. But it was nice to see us moving in the right direction."

Manning still has some difficulties in the West Coast offense, which have to do with establishing the new pace consistently and developing more rapid footwork to accommodate the quick-hit patterns.

"I think just getting used to the timing of the offense, how quickly guys are going to pop open," Manning said. "Get my feet to kind of work with my eyes so I'm ready to throw, and going through my progressions quickly enough, and moving everything in the right way to be able to throw the ball accurately and on time. I think it's getting there."

His feet are a recurrent theme for Manning: Coughlin, McAdoo and the receivers all mentioned them repeatedly. Asked why the Giants are so obsessed with Manning's podiatry, McAdoo answered, "It is hard to dance with someone if you're both listening to a different song. We try to get the primary receivers on the same page with his feet. If you can do that, you have a chance, no matter what the defense does, to complete the football."

When Manning is dancing with his receivers, the difference is palpable: Their actions have a burst when the ball is snapped. Analysts have much-noted this statistic from the Pro Football Focus website: Manning is holding the ball an average of .41 seconds less per drop back than he did last year. He's releasing the ball more quickly than all but two other quarterbacks, who happen to be Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning.

What all of this implies is that Manning will get more and more effective as the offense becomes more rote, and he grows more sure. But then, sureness in himself has never been his problem. It's everyone else's.

"You don't get to see him at practice the way we get to see him in practice," McAdoo said. "And we feel it is starting to show up on Sundays."

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at sally.jenkins@washpost.com  

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