The last time Eli Manning made a debut as a starting quarterback, his coach had no doubts beforehand. And after that first game, the coach, David Cutcliffe of the University of Mississippi, had goose bumps.
"It was just about perfect," Cutcliffe said Tuesday by telephone from his office in Oxford, Mississippi. According to Cutcliffe, he has not spoken to Manning since he learned Manning would start for the Giants on Sunday against Atlanta. But he said he was eager to see if Manning would start off anywhere near as well as he did in college.
When Manning stepped in as the starter at Ole Miss in 2001, he had some built-in advantages. He had already spent a year as a redshirt getting ready, and he had watched from the sideline as the backup for most of his freshman season. Manning had the added benefit of playing his first full game against Murray State, a Division I-AA opponent.
Still, he completed 20 of 23 passes, including 18 straight, for 271 yards and fivetouchdowns.
"He knew he was ready," Cutcliffe said. "He was ready the year before. His mind and his decision-making were his greatest strength."
But Cutcliffe knows as well as anyone that the Falcons are not Murray State and that going against even the best Southeastern Conference opponent is nothing like facing an NFL defense. No matter how highly Cutcliffe thinks of Manning, who left Ole Miss holding 47 team records, he knows he cannot predict the road ahead for him.
"I think a lot of it depends on the people he has around him," Cutcliffe said. "I don't know about the Giants' personnel, how healthy they are. I believe he is ready to play in this league, but a lot depends on his team."
Two of the largest questions surrounding Manning's debut are, of course, how well the Giants will protect him and how he will do under pressure from a tough defense. The Giants have given up 24 sacks in the past four games, and their offense has ground to a halt.
"And to be honest with you, no matter who is at the quarterback position, if we don't get a more solid performance from pass protection out of our offensive line, our tight ends and our running backs, it is not going to make a whole lot of difference," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Monday. "We have struggled in that area. We did not handle pressure very well."
Kurt Warner's inability to elude some of those sacks, though, is one reason he is being benched in favor of Manning. Although no one would call Manning a scrambler, he is somewhat mobile. His brother Peyton, the Colts quarterback who is adept at eluding rushers even without good running ability, describes his younger brother as the more athletic of the two.
Last season, Eli Manning was sacked 19 times in 13 games, and only two teams got to him more than twice in a game. He had five rushing touchdowns in his three seasons as the Ole Miss starter.
What progressed over the course of Manning's college career were his preparation habits. Peyton used to joke that he could name all the quarterbacks in the SEC but that he had to teach Eli which 11 teams were in the conference. Clearly, the younger Manning was nowhere near the student Peyton was, but he did become more like his brother over his years at Ole Miss.
"I know he'll be prepared," Cutcliffe said. "He spent a lot of his free time studying film and getting himself ready. He will become fanatical about it. He'll do what it takes.