In 2002, the New York Football Giants went 10-6-0 and a playoff berth under head coach Jim Fassel. They had just drafted TE Jeremy Shockey to add to an already good offensive unit lead by QB Kerry Collins, WRs Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard, and the running back tandem labeled “Thunder and Lightning” of Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber.
But all season long, the special teams unit had an issue at long snapper. Undrafted rookie free-agent Bob Jones won the job but became injured. The club signed Dan O’Leary, who also became injured in the final regular season game. Facing the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs, the Giants signed longtime long snapper Trey Junkin, who had retired from the game. Losing 39-38 after leading 35-14 in the third quarter, on the game’s final play lined up for a game-winning field goal, Junkin’s pass to holder Matt Allen was erratic, an incomplete pass ensued (which should have been pass interference), and the game was over.
2003 winds of change
The following season, the Giants trudged to a lowly 4-12-0 and coach Fassel was fired. Collins was released and the team signed former league MVP QB Kurt Warner. Also gone were DEs Keith Hamilton and Kenny Holmes, LB Michael Barrow and K Matt Bryant. Although Warner was signed to fill the void of Collins, Giants GM Ernie Accorsi wanted a young franchise quarterback.
The horrific season placed the Giants with the fourth overall selection in the annual college draft. The good news was that this draft there were several college QBs who qualified as franchise players. Oakland was picking second and had Rich Gannon entrenched behind center. Owning the third pick, Arizona had Jeff Blake and Josh McCown as their signal callers. Both of these teams weren’t looking to draft a QB, but the San Diego Chargers, who held the first overall selection, was.
In this draft, the top QB was Eli Manning of Ole Miss. Miami of Ohio University’s Ben Roethlisberger was ranked second followed by Philip Rivers of North Carolina State. This meant the Giants would get their future QB one way or the other in this draft.
Accorsi had studied every season that Eli had played at Ole Miss and was the player he coveted. He was also the player that Chargers’ GM A.J. Smith wanted.
Before the draft, Accorsi called Smith and asked about the possibility of the two teams swapping picks. Accorsi knew that with the number four pick, that would allow the Chargers to get one of the three QBs and gather some extra picks in the process.
Although the initial phone call did not net a deal (nor did Accorsi think that the Chargers would eventually swap picks), he had a fallback plan in place: Roethlisberger. If the Chargers took Eli first overall, the Giants would draft Roethlisberger as their new franchise QB. Newly-hired Giants head coach Tom Coughlin was fine with either and agreed with the process that Accorsi was taking.
Roethlisberger had proven to be an exceptional athlete who did more with less. He was a leader, had a very strong arm and was a good runner. Eli’s cool head in stressful situations, skilled passing and steady demeanor made him the better prospect in both Coughlin and Accorsi’s minds.
A new development
In those days, the club with the number one selection usually already had the first player signed to a contract prior to draft day. A week before the draft, San Diego contacted Eli’s agent, Tom Condon, to discuss contract negotiations about him becoming a Charger. Condon’s response was, no thank you.
Several days later, the Chargers leaked the story stating Eli’s refusal to play in San Diego. In an interview, Archie Manning, Eli’s father and former NFL player himself, confirmed that Eli did not want to be selected by San Diego. When asked point blank, “Will you be happy if the Chargers end up picking him on Saturday?” the blunt answer from Archie was a simple, “No.”
Nor did the Manning family give any reason as to why Eli would stiff the City of San Diego the same way John Elway had jilted the Baltimore Colts in 1983. But it became known that Archie had decided that Eli would not play with the Chargers. It was also a story that if the Chargers did indeed go ahead and pick him that Eli would sit out the entire 2004 season and then re-enter the 2005 draft.
Suddenly, the 2004 NFL draft became a media circus. In the end, ratings had increased more than 25 percent from the previous year’s live event.
The day before the draft, OT Robert Gallery, considered a Top 5 pick, was quoted as saying, “I’d gladly play in San Diego.”
Archie’s plan was not to stiff San Diego and then choose New York City as it turned out. It was revealed later that he simply did not want his son play in San Diego and languish among a smaller-market team that would be horrible for many years the same way he felt that he had wasted his NFL career playing for the Saints. He wanted success for his youngest son, and he could not see that ever happening in San Diego. Archie was fine with Eli playing almost anywhere else in the NFL, but San Diego has a reputation of putting together a few good seasons, and then would be down for a decade.
Roethlisberger is the pick
The night before the draft, Coughlin made a call to Roethlisberger’s agent Leigh Steinberg and informed him that they had attempted to make a trade with the Chargers and failed. What this essentially meant was that the Giants were going to select his client with the fourth overall selection. And the Roethlisberger camp was excited about this aspect, plus the fact that Big Ben would be taken so early in the process which meant a bigger contract and a higher signing bonus.
But there was also concern that if the Chargers held true and took Eli number one, that somehow the Manning’s would work overtime trying to get him off San Diego’s roster this year and eliminate Eli having to sit out an entire season.
So, at this point, the Chargers were going with Eli and the Giants were set to select Roethlisberger as the new face of the franchise.
Wild Card Quarterback
The Chargers also had something up their sleeve. Their coaching staff had coached the South squad at the 2003 Senior Bowl and spent a week with all players. The QBs for the South were Matt Schaub of Virginia, Tulane’s J.P. Losman, and Rivers. They fell in love with the eventual starting QB Rivers. He had led the nation in passing efficiency with a 170.5 rating. Roethlisberger was ranked second with a 165.8 rating while Eli was 17th at 148.1. Rivers was third in the nation in pass completions (348) and second in passing yards (4,491). The Chargers’ staff was enamored with Rivers’ work ethic after spending a solid week with him. He was awarded the Senior Bowl MVP. After the success of the Senior Bowl playing against some of the best college senior athletes, Rivers’ draft stock took off.
The Giants had worked out Rivers as had the Steelers, who had the 11th overall pick. It was shaping up, though, the draft would be Eli number one (Chargers), Roethlisberger number four (Giants) and then Rivers number 11.
And Accorsi knew that the Chargers were in love with Rivers. The problem was, there was no way they would pass on 10 other guys, including Eli, to take him number one. Value is value, and even though Rivers was definitely first-round material, he was not number one overall worthy.
“With the first choice in the 2004 NFL draft, the San Diego Chargers select, Eli Manning, quarterback, Mississippi.”
And there it was. To a chorus of boos that reverberated at the Theatre in Madison Square Garden in New York, the Chargers took Eli just as the Colts had taken Elway despite the threat of never ever playing a down in San Diego. The look on Eli’s face was stoic instead of elation. Condon looked disturbed. The whole scene regarded more like a tragedy as Eli held up a Chargers “number one” jersey.
Accorsi now focused on taking Roethlisberger.
However, he had an idea that he could get him lower than the fourth slot and get some extra picks in the process. The Browns were picking seventh. Accorsi had a trade already set for the Giants to trade down with the Browns in order to nab Roethlisberger. His thinking was that Eli was already drafted, and that was that. But right before he made the agreement with the Browns, he heard that the Browns were wanting to trade up in the draft in order to offer more incentives in order to make a trade that would bring Eli to Cleveland. They had a mindset to make Eli Manning a Cleveland Brown.
That was when Accorsi realized that the Giants still had a remote shot at Eli.
He called the Browns and canceled the proposed trade. The last thing he wanted was for the Browns to get him trading away the fourth pick instead of his Giants doing the same thing. So, the decision was made to sit tight at number four, and if nothing else take Roethlisberger.
When the Giants were on the clock with the fourth pick, Roethlisberger was considered a lock. But while on the clock, ESPN broke in a news report that they had confirmed from the Giants draft room that if Rivers was still available with the fourth pick, that they would take him and then swap QBs with the Chargers.
Back then, the first-round was 15 minutes allotted for each selection. At the seven-minute mark within the Giants’ pick, the Chargers’ Smith called Accorsi with a trade proposal. The Chargers wanted Rivers, some picks and also DE Osi Umenyiora. Accorsi knew to never trade away a pass rusher but ironed out an agreement that traded Eli to the Giants for Rivers, plus the Giants’ fourth-round pick that draft, and the Giants’ number one and number five picks in the 2005 draft right before the Giants’ time elapsed.
The Giants then selected Philip Rivers, quarterback, North Carolina State. Rivers never received a call from Accorsi, Coughlin, or Giants’ owner Wellington Mara prior to the pick - or after.
Little did Rivers know was that he was about to be traded to the Chargers. The same for Eli. Accorsi had taken a chance and selected Rivers instead of Roethlisberger with the hope that Smith would keep his word. The truth of the matter is that the Chargers could have backed out of the deal.
Eli was notified of the trade while doing some interviews at the Garden while the draft was still going on. A kid burst into the room and exclaimed, “Manning’s just been traded to the Giants!” Moments later, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced at the podium that the Chargers and Giants had traded their first-round picks along with trade details.
Roethlisberger was taken by the Steelers with the 11th selection. Like Eli, he would later win two Super Bowls. Rivers still has not played in a single Super Bowl.
Apparently, Archie was right.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association