Rookie Manning picks apart McNabb, Eagles

Cornerback's three INTs tie NFC title-game mark

January 19, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - After his three-interception performance in Carolina's 14-3 win over the Philadelphia Eagles last night, people wanted answers from Panthers rookie cornerback Ricky Manning.

Had he seen something on film that allowed him to recognize what route was coming? Did the receiver's stance tip off where he was trying to go? Or was Manning just taking calculated guesses based on down, distance and formations?

Manning, whose plays were a big reason Carolina will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, credited none of the above, and instead said it had everything to do with where he lined up before the snap. That would be right in the faces of either Todd Pinkston or James Thrash.

"I'll be honest, I wasn't looking for tips, and it didn't have nothing to do with anything but I felt like I could attack them [at the line of scrimmage]," said Manning, the Panthers' third-round pick out of UCLA. "They didn't know if I was in zone, man, cover-2. They didn't know what I was doing because I was up there all day long, disturbing their pass routes."

It would be hard to argue with that assessment. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb completed 10 of 22 throws for 100 yards before leaving with a rib injury in the fourth quarter.

But it was a stretch from late in the second quarter through midway in the third that elevated a little-known defensive back in Manning and continued a streak of subpar NFC championship games from McNabb.

McNabb attempted to take advantage of one-on-one coverage by Manning on Thrash, but it was Manning who took charge, cutting off Thrash on a 16-yard throw to the inside and recording the first turnover for his team with 52 seconds left in the half and the Panthers up 7-3.

Manning essentially used the same method in one-on-one coverage against Pinkston on the Eagles' first possession of the second half. McNabb had driven his team 53 yards to the Panthers' 18 before Manning slid inside Pinkston to stop one of the Eagles' best scoring chances.

Manning, who replaced Terry Cousin in the starting lineup late in the regular season, said he may have cheated a bit on that one.

"Maybe on the second one, I knew what he was doing because he lined up so wide, and he tried to get inside of me but I wouldn't let him inside," said Manning, whose three interceptions tied an NFC title-game record. "He tried to go over top of me, and I waited for that double move, the slant-and-go. I was watching McNabb to see if he was going to pump it, but he ended up throwing it so I let the receiver go and picked the ball off."

Credit the third pick to being in the right place at the right time. Manning caught the ball after safety Mike Minter's big hit forced a carom off Thrash, and Manning returned the ball to the Eagles' 37 to set up DeShaun Foster's 1-yard touchdown run.

That may have been luck more than anything else, but on the first two interceptions, Manning looked like a grizzled veteran rather than a mid-round rookie draft pick whose 5-foot-8, 185-pound physique had some questioning what kind of NFL player he would be.

"One thing about us, and Ricky will tell you, we don't believe in that rookie stuff," safety Deon Grant said. "When you step on that field, there is no such thing as a rookie. If you have enough confidence to guard [receivers] like Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith in practice, there is no such thing as a rookie."

But there is such a thing as instant celebrity, which, after making four interceptions in these playoffs, Manning will likely have to deal with in the next two weeks before the Super Bowl.

"He has got a lot of magic, and he's played very, very well for us," Panthers coach John Fox said. "He's extremely tough mentally. To go this deep into a season in your rookie season is remarkable."

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