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What IF Eli Manning Didn’t Refuse to Play for San Diego?

We’re turning back the clock and exploring an alternate dimension where Manning wore powder blues

If you ever watched the movie Draft Day, you are well-aware of the intrigue and double-dealings that go into the NFL Draft. If you ever surfed the Internet around draft time, you are inundated about the intrigue and double-dealings that go into the NFL Draft, whether real or imaginary. While most of the hoopla is smoke-and-mirrors or beat writer daydreams, sometimes in the NFL, where there’s smoke there’s fire. The 2004 draft was one of the most explosive non-contact weeks the NFL has ever faced.

In 2003, the Chargers were terrible enough to earn the enviable first overall pick the following draft. Just days before the draft, Manning’s agent, Tom Condon, told the Chargers that Eli would sit out the entire 2004 season if the team drafted him with the first overall pick. It was an instant circus.

There were a number of QB-hungry teams, including the Chargers, the Giants, the Steelers, and the Browns. There were a number of eventual Hall of Fame quarterbacks to choose from, and no one was really sure what was going to happen.

As fate would have it, the Chargers DID draft Eli Manning as the first overall pick. The Giants, picking at #4, bucked conventional wisdom by passing over Ben Roethlisberger and selected Philip Rivers for the express reason of trading him to the Chargers. The Chargers picked up a shiny 2004 3rd rounder and a pair of 2005 picks (including their first round!).

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But what if Eli didn’t refuse to play for the Chargers?

Well, first off, the Chargers almost definitely would have still selected him and stuck with him. They agreed with the conventional wisdom at the time that Manning was the best all-around QB of the draft. However, keep in mind that the Giants loved him even more. They still might have tried to work out a trade with the Chargers. Even in this alternate timeline, things might have worked out exactly the same! As things stood, the cost of trading these two QBs is not far removed from the Giants trying to leapfrog into the 1st overall slot. I would guess that they would have to include an additional 2nd rounder in either 2004 or 2005 to the actual trade for the Chargers to seriously consider the move. In fact, after doing that, they could’ve very well continued the free-fall and traded with the Browns to pick up even more picks and still sit pretty at #7 overall (that said, the Browns were destined to Brown. According to Giants manager Ernie Accorsi, the Browns were ready to trade into the #4 spot while he was on the clock. But it wasn’t to select a QB, as they ended up passing on Big Ben when they moved up from 7 to 6 to select Kellen Winslow II. To this day, we have no idea why they were eager to trade up, as Eli Manning was already taken). After looking at how aggressive and risk-taking the Giants were in the actual timeline of events, this draft day leapfrog isn’t so far fetched. I think they would’ve moved heaven and Earth to get Eli Manning, and they did exactly that. The Chargers might still have ended up with Philip Rivers, but with an extra 3 or 4 picks from the Browns in tow (in addition to their 3 or 4 from the Giants).

So, other than the Giants or Browns going balls-to-the-wall to make sure Eli Manning was their QB of the future, the next likeliest scenario is that Eli Manning plays for the Chargers, Ben Roethlisberger plays for the Giants, and Philip Rivers goes to the Browns or Steelers. It’s reasonable to assume that the Browns still select Kellen Winslow II and the Steelers grab our bolo-tied king. This is where things get tough for Chargers fans.

Eli Manning will likely go down in history as one of the best “fine” quarterbacks of all time. He does his job and he goes home. He doesn’t often elevate his team, but he can string together a postseason run that vanishes the following year in the regular season. I can find no reason to think that Eli Manning would have ever elevated the Chargers above what they experienced with Philip Rivers. I honestly don’t think Manning would have ‘survived’ the McCoy years, where just above-average QB play would’ve had the team looking to the draft for better answers. He wouldn’t have been to blame for the Chargers’ woes, but after a few solid years, the Chargers would have sent him out to pasture (as many writers tried to do with Rivers around that same time).

On the other hand, Roethlisberger might have brought the Giants even more success than they experienced with Manning. He is a rare talent, and a dominant defense, like he ended up experiencing in Pittsburgh, would have played out similarly. I think the Giants win 2 Super Bowls with Big Ben, and get to at least one other (sound familiar?). Of course, the bright lights of New York might have gone to his head. The Steelers would’ve been in perhaps the best position of all with Philip Rivers. They love consistency, and they would’ve gotten exactly that out of Rivers. Much like his time in San Diego, there wouldn’t have been any QB drama, and he would end up being the face of the franchise for a generation. Philip Rivers grabs at least two Lombardi trophies while in Iron City, and I think that he would have performed identical or even slightly better over these last 2 years. If he could figure out how to beat Tom Brady, which is not a given, then the Steelers might be well past their ‘stairway to seven.’

In short, if Eli Manning doesn’t refuse to play for San Diego, then he probably doesn’t win a Super Bowl. Roethlisberger was destined for a few trophy wins from the two teams that liked him, and Philip Rivers likely makes it to the promised land. That said, Philip Rivers is far from done. This true timeline might be the one with the most glory. Time will tell!

-Jason “It’s Like TimeCop, But Different” Michaels