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Giants' offense has taken flight

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Posted Feb. 01, 2012 @ 9:07 p.m. ET
By Arthur Arkush

INDIANAPOLIS — Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride scoffed Tuesday when it was suggested that running the rock is part of his DNA. He reflected with great fondness on his days coordinating offenses of the run-and-shoot Oilers, directed by QB Warren Moon, which at the time were vertically assaulting unassuming defenses like few others.

In fact, Gilbride was in on the ground floor of three- and four-receiver sets in the NFL. He was instructing Moon to sling the ball all over the yard, with receivers aligned and motioning in unorthodox ways, 20-plus years before it became the league's in-vogue scheme. He openly wonders whether his system, ultimately panned for being too gimmicky, would have stuck if his Oilers had experienced more success in the postseason.

Now, after nearly a decade of being the coordinator for Tom Coughlin-led Giants teams mostly known for their ground-and-pound identity, Gilbride is back in his original element, overseeing New York's high-powered vertical passing game.

A few interesting things happened with this year's Giants team along the way.

QB Eli Manning, shortly before the 2011 season began, uncharacteristically declared that he deserved to be mentioned with the elite QBs — and then he went out and played like one. WR Victor Cruz, after struggling early in the season, forgot he was supposed to play like a second-year player out of the University of Massachusetts who was passed over roughly seven times by all 32 teams. He now sits atop the franchise record books as having the most prolific single season by a receiver in franchise history. Teammate Hakeem Nicks, one of the more physically gifted wideouts in all of football, continued his ascent. Mario Manningham matured and battled through injuries, becoming, in a lot of ways, Eli's go-to guy in crunch time in the postseason. Even a tight end named Jake Ballard got in the mix.

Meet the 2011 New York Giants, suddenly one of the most imposing and explosive vertical offenses in the NFL.

Although it might seem like a natural progression, what with the NFL becoming more and more a video-game-like passing league, to hear Gilbride tell it, the Giants simply haven't had as much success running the football in recent years — which is really what has sparked the offensive transformation. Long gone are the days of Tiki Barber, one of the all-time Giants greats. Brandon Jacobs is no longer a human bulldozer. Ahmad Bradshaw has special qualities, but staying on the field has proven to be too tall of an order. Not to mention, the continuity of the offensive line was greatly compromised before the season. The end result: the league's worst running team during the regular season and a passing game that has become the talk of the town.

Manning may have turned some heads with his own bold characterization, better-known at the time as a guy who threw too many picks and wasn't ready to be compared to his older brother. But as it turns out, his premonition was anything but bravado; he has become a full-fledged elite QB on the cusp of doubling the championship hardware of big bro, Peyton, as well as Brees and Aaron Rodgers, all "elite quarterbacks."

"The best thing I can say to answer that question," said head coach Tom Coughlin in response to a reporter asking how Eli has backed up his talk this season, "is his response when he was asked probably about the hundredth time about the whole situation is, 'Look, I'm trying to be the best quarterback I can possibly be and to help our team win.' And I thought, 'Boom, that's the answer.' I congratulated him on his response and I told the whole team about it. I think it's a good one."

"He's never ever been anything less than a top one to me," Coughlin added, "and that's all I care about. I certainly felt ... I don't know if I got the entire story on it. What I really heard is this business about him being elite, and he is elite, period."

Manning's game continues to blossom. The guy who was too timid and didn't look the part of a top overall pick in his first few seasons, who didn't protect the ball enough, is now lauded for his improved toughness, leadership and decision-making. It's hard not to marvel at Manning. Four different leading receivers the past five seasons, the unrelenting pressure of filling big brother Peyton's shoes, not to mention playing in New York, where the magnifying glass that hovers over the most important position in pro sports is inescapable.

Yet, he has taken it all in stride — a career-defining stride — in his eighth season. His clutch performances continue to pile up. He eclipsed Peyton's mark for most fourth-quarter TDs in a single season in 2011. He engineered six fourth-quarter comebacks. And a team that was rapidly unraveling, losers of four straight and going nowhere fast, was thrown on his shoulders and carried to its second Super Bowl in four years.

"When people talk about toughness, they talk about linebackers or a fullback — they don't think of the quarterback," said Gilbride, who has been with Manning since Day One. ... And Eli definitely possesses it. As a coach, you appreciate the toughness that he shows and his willingness to do whatever it takes to win the game."

Thus, Manning has barged his way into the "elite" conversation — and he intends to stay there. At just 31, and with his best football likely still in front of him, Manning officially belongs — regardless of the outcome on Super Sunday. 

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