EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – Kevin Gilbride knows quarterbacks, and he knows that in Eli Manning he has one whose skills extend beyond an ability to throw a tight spiral into a receiver’s hands from 40 yards away.

“He has the composure of some of the great ones I’ve coached,” said the Giants quarterbacks coach, who has mentored the likes of Warren Moon, Mark Brunell and Drew Bledsoe in 16 years in the NFL.

“He definitely had sufficient arm strength and great work habits,” Gilbride continued. “But there’s an inner toughness about him, a resolve or a resiliency that isn’t immediately recognizable, that’s allowed him to get through the tough times.”

Manning needed to tap those reserves a year ago during a frequently dismal rookie season in which his final 55.4 quarterback rating in seven starts would have placed him at the bottom of the league if he’d thrown enough passes. The images from that 6-10 campaign are fading after Manning’s recent performances have led the Giants to a 3-1 record and put him fifth in the NFL with a 97.8 quarterback rating – one spot ahead of his older brother Peyton, the two-time NFL MVP and perennial Pro Bowl selection. One-quarter of the way through the new season, the No. 1 draft pick’s perseveranc- and his teammates’ patience – has been rewarded.

“Everybody’s been a rookie in the league and knows what the learning curve is,” Manning said as the Giants enjoyed a bye week and prepared for Dallas on Oct. 16. “A lot of these guys have been to Super Bowls and they want to win right away, and to deal with a young quarterback who’s struggling can be tough. But everybody hung with me, and that helped me out.

The transformation has been remarkably swift. Seemingly overnight, the unsure rookie who would respond to a blitz by side-arming balls on the hop to his receivers has been replaced by a more mature quarterback who has taken control of the pocket and leads an offense that tops the NFL at 34 points per game. Those qualities were on display in the last two games, when Manning threw for a combined 648 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-23 loss at San Diego and a 44-24 win against St. Louis. His burgeoning confidence has allowed the Giants to lengthen their passing attack, and through four games, he has had 15 completions of 20 yards or more.

Though it ended in defeat for the Giants, the San Diego game may have signaled a sea change in Manning’s fledgling career. In front of a rabid crowd that waited to ambush him since draft day in 2004 when he made it known he would not play for the Chargers, he threw for a career-high 352 yards and rallied New York from a 21-3 deficit to 21-20 in a span of 3:23.

“I think when we went to San Diego and he had all of that adversity, it really brought out the best in him,” said WRr Amani Toomer.

“I think now he knows how good he can be, and he is doing a great job throwing the ball down the field and getting everybody involved.”

To hear Manning describe it, there was no epiphany, no moment when a light bulb went off in his head that unlocked the secret to being an NFL quarterback. Instead, he and Gilbride hunkered down each morning during the team’s minicamp last spring and watched film of every play Manning ran in 2004.

The work continued in training camp, and the proof has been on display on Sundays.

“It’s easy for me to say in the quietness of that room, This is what you need to do,”‘ Gilbride said. “To be able to do it when people are trying to nail you in the pocket, when you’ve got about two seconds to know exactly where to go and get it out of your hands, is another story. He’s getting better and better at that.”

Teammates have noticed that the outwardly quiet and unassuming Manning has even developed a little tude in his second year.

“He’s kind of got a little quiet Eli swagger’ about him,” said wide receiver Plaxico Burress, Manning’s favorite target this season with 25 catches and four touchdowns. “You can actually sense that he’s being more vocal and he understands that it’s his team.”

And maybe his time.

AP-ES-10-06-05 1725EDT

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