Giants: We Knew Eli Was Our Man

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Giants: We Knew Eli Was Our Man

I never do this, but let me subpost this article from a great sportswriter, John Branch. Branch covers the Giants for the New York Times - a paper I'm sure many readers on this site do not have the privilege to read. Thanks, John

"The story that ended last Sunday with Eli Manning and the Giants winning the Super Bowl started nearly 40 years earlier on a small-college football field in Golden, Colo.

The Baltimore Colts were spending a few weeks there during training camp, practicing at the Colorado School of Mines. The first-year public-relations director, Ernie Accorsi, stood next to Milt Davis, a former All-Pro defensive back working as a scout.

Johnny Unitas, near the end of his career, was on the field. He had torn tendons in his elbow, and Accorsi saw how he struggled to throw. He asked Davis if the Colts could still win with Unitas.

“He said: ‘Ernie, let me tell you something,’ ” Accorsi recalled over lunch on Thursday at Neary’s, an Irish pub on Manhattan’s East Side, not far from his home. “ ‘This is how you judge a quarterback: Can he take the team down the field with the championship on the line and get it in the end zone?’ ”

That conversation, also recalled by the 78-year-old Davis in a telephone interview from his home in Oregon, became the foundation of Accorsi’s career as an N.F.L. general manager. For most of two decades, while piecing together the rosters of the Colts, the Browns and the Giants, Accorsi searched vainly for just such a quarterback.

It was not until a year after he retired that Accorsi spotted him, the one he had envisioned all along, from 15 rows up and near midfield at Super Bowl XLII. The Giants trailed the unbeaten Patriots, 14-10. Manning took the field with 2 minutes 39 seconds left in the game. The ball sat 83 yards from victory.

For Accorsi, 66, it was an improbable second chance at closure, a year after his career ended. He had tears in his eyes. He leaned to his son Michael.

“If he’s going to be what we thought he was going to be, he does it now,” Accorsi said.

He quickly typed the same message on his Blackberry to Tom Callahan, who wrote “The GM,” a chronicle of Accorsi’s career through the lens of the 2006 season.

Accorsi was a nervous wreck, even more than he usually was during a game. Most of the Giants players on the field had been assembled by Accorsi over his nine seasons as the general manager. Most famously, Manning was the one Accorsi had traded for on draft day in 2004, giving up Philip Rivers and three draft picks to the San Diego Chargers. He was convinced that Manning, a young quarterback from Ole Miss who was the son and brother of N.F.L. quarterbacks, would lead the Giants to a championship.

Accorsi was the one who never stopped believing, who took the swipes from critics when Manning floundered, whose legacy increasingly appeared linked to a regrettable folly.

Accorsi had stayed out of sight most of the season. He did not want his successor and protégé, Jerry Reese — who deftly added all the right sprinkles to the roster in 2007, earning the title in his first season — to feel anyone looming over his shoulder.

Accorsi attended a handful of home games. After a loss to the Packers dropped the Giants to 0-2, a man on the bus back to Manhattan said, “Accorsi, thanks for leaving us this mess.”

When Manning was on his way to a four-interception game against the Vikings in November, Accorsi left before halftime. He stopped reading the newspapers, but could not help but hear the criticism aimed at him, and detested what he heard about
Manning.

“I felt so responsible for what he went through, because I’m the guy who put him in that situation,” Accorsi said. “And all the booing. It got to a point where I couldn’t even watch it anymore.”

Then the surprising run through the playoffs began. At the behest of the Giants, Accorsi went to the Super Bowl. He did not attend practices or do interviews. He did go to the restaurant in the team hotel on the Thursday night before the game, and saw Manning and his fiancée, Abby McGrew. They exchanged pleasantries, but Accorsi and Manning, like most general managers and their players, have little more than a business relationship, despite their personal link to one another.

During the game, Accorsi sat with his three grown children, Michael, Sherlyn and Patrick. It was the first time he had watched a game with all of them. Each brought a friend or spouse.

It was not enough to insulate from the critics. Midway through the fourth quarter, Manning escaped a heavy rush, then badly overthrew a wide-open Plaxico Burress. A fan turned to Accorsi. “Your quarterback just cost us a world championship,” he said.

It all turned out to be a four-year setup to the final 2:39 of the Super Bowl. All the criticism and the second-guessing were whittled to one drive. Accorsi thought of Davis. Can the quarterback take the team down the field with the championship on the line? Nothing else matters.

Accorsi paced in a tiny circle in front of his seat. Manning lurched the Giants forward in fits and starts. A fourth-down conversion moved the chains once. They moved again on the game’s most memorable play, when Manning escaped the clutches of two pass rushers, then lobbed a wobbly pass that David Tyree caught 32 yards downfield by momentarily wedging the ball against his helmet with one hand.

Four plays later, with 35 seconds left, Manning tossed a 13-yard touchdown to Burress — “The best free-agent signing we ever made,” Accorsi said — and Accorsi and his children celebrated.

“It was the perfect last laugh,” Callahan said in a telephone interview Friday.

Accorsi was just thankful for another chance to mold his legacy. He had said after last season that his record in 17 years as a general manager — which included nine division titles, four conference championship games and a Super Bowl loss with the Giants seven years ago — ended when he retired.

Of course, that is not true. A general manager’s influence lasts as long as the players do. Figuratively, the fingerprints of Accorsi — who always believed that the key to a championship rested with the quarterback, a sturdy offensive line and a bevy of pass rushers — were all over the Lombardi Trophy that players and coaches passed around after the 17-14 victory.

“There are very few curtain calls,” said Accorsi, who did not venture to the postgame locker room. “And this is like a curtain call for me.”

It took an entire career as a general manager, plus a year, but Accorsi will get a Super Bowl ring.

“He deserves as much credit for this as anyone,” said John Mara, the president and the co-owner of the Giants.

Accorsi received hundreds of congratulatory messages. But there was someone in Oregon he had to talk to right away. Accorsi, teary again, struggled to get the words out to Davis.

“If I don’t stand on that field with you in Golden, Colo., all those years ago,” he said, “I don’t make this trade for Eli Manning.”

And, more than likely, the Giants do not get their championship. And Accorsi does not get his curtain call, or his ring."

 

(Thanks to John Branch and the NY Times, from February 10, 2008)

 

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