The 2003 New York Giants were a turbulent team about to undergo a transformation that would embark the franchise in a direction towards excellence. After a solid start to the year, Big Blue sputtered to a 4-12 finish, dropping the last eight games of the season and having a future Bachelor start the final game against the Carolina Panthers (shout out Jesse Palmer). The losing streak prompted Giants’ owner Wellington Mara to fire Jim Fassel and hire Tom Coughlin, a disciplinarian who helped establish the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. Quarterback Kerry Collins, a signal-caller who led the Giants to a Super Bowl, was also released; many forget that Collins held several Giants’ records at the time.
The metamorphosis of this proud franchise was in full effect. The Giants brought in former MVP, 34-year-old Kurt Warner, and the team held the fourth pick in the 2004 NFL Draft; a draft that was full of quarterback talent. The top 5 picks in the draft were the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants, and the Washington Redskins. The three big quarterback names in the draft were Ole Miss’ Eli Manning, North Carolina State’s Phillip Rivers, and Miami’s (Ohio) Ben Roethlisberger. Other notable players were Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Miami safety Sean Taylor, Miami tight end Kellen Winslow Jr, Virginia Tech cornerback DeAngelo Hall, and Iowa tackle Robert Gallery. Tons of talent in the draft, but the Giants did not plan to be selecting in the top 10 any time soon, so they knew a franchise quarterback had to be the rational decision.
Giants’ general manager Ernie Accorsi loved Eli Manning. This is an excerpt from his scouting report on Eli that can be found on Giants.com
“*Throws the ball, takes the hit, gets right back up… Has courage and poise. In my opinion, most of all, he has that quality you can’t define. Call it magic…Peyton had much better talent around him at Tennessee. But I honestly give this guy a chance to be better than his brother. Eli doesn’t get much help from the coaching staff. If he comes out early, we should move up to take him. These guys are rare, you know.”
The Giants had a serious problem ahead of them; the Chargers didn’t need a quarterback, but they didn’t have faith in Drew Brees. The Raiders and Cardinals could have used one, with Kerry Collins and Josh McCown being their respective starters, and three selections lay ahead of New York. As we know, the Chargers ended up selecting Eli Manning, but the Ole Miss product did not want to play for the unstable franchise. Accorsi preferred Ben Roethlisberger to Rivers; but in blind faith, Accorsi selected Rivers on the word of Chargers’ general manager A.J. Smith. Accorsi didn’t know Smith all that well but trusted him on his word that a deal could be done between the two teams which would send Manning to New York. The interesting sticking point that delayed the deal was Giants’ 2003 second-round pick Osi Umenyiora. The Giants refused to include the former Troy pass rusher into the deal, but instead sent Phillip Rivers, who they just drafted to be traded, a 2004 third-round pick, a 2005 first-round pick, and a 2005 fifth-round pick. The rest is history; the Giants won two Lombardi trophies with Manning at the helm, but what if Ernie Accorsi never took the risk? What if Accorsi didn’t trust a fellow general manager that he barely knew? Who would have been the quarterback for the Giants and how would that impact the legacy of Big Blue? Let’s see!
Another two-time Super Bowl-winning franchise since 2004 would have been affected by this decision - The Steelers. Instead of going Rivers at 4, the Giants would have selected Ben Roethlisberger. Phillip Rivers may have been selected by the Steelers at 11 or it may have precipitated a trade with the Bills who were at 13 and held two first-round picks. If Rivers slid, the Bills could have jumped up to snag the Wolfpack quarterback instead of drafting Lee Evans at 13 and Tulane signal-caller J.P. Losman at 22. Things could have been very interesting and the NFL would look very different today.
The mercurial nature of a young Roethlisberger would have been very risky to see in New York, and with a coach like Tom Coughlin, it would have been precarious, to say the least. The thought of a huddle with Roethlisberger and Jeremy Shockey both frightens and makes me excited. From a physical standpoint, Roethlisberger was well equipped to throw in the swirling winds of East Rutherford. Without the Manning trade, the Giants would still possess the 65th pick in the 2004 draft and they’d retain their 2005 selections as well. Let’s say the theoretical 2004 Giants and the real 2004 Giants both finished similarly, so the Giants retained the 12th pick in 2005 and the 144th. Judging by Accorsi’s drafting resume and the Giants roster at the time, he may have selected Joey Thomas, a long cornerback out of Montana State. Thomas would have joined the cornerback room with Will Allen, Will Peterson, and 2003 sixth-round pick out of Tuskegee Frank Walker. Accorsi was never shy about investing high draft assets on players from smaller programs:
- 2003: 2nd Round - DE Osi Umenyiora, Troy; 3rd Round - TE Visanthe Shiancoe, Morgan State
- 2002: 3rd Round - OT Jeff Hatch, UPENN
- 2001: 3rd Round - CB William James, Western Illinois
- 2000: 3rd Round - WR Ron Dixon, Lambuth
Accorsi valued the pass rush so heavily, and this would have made the 2005 draft very interesting in the alternate universe. I believe he would have done something that resembles a move he made in the 2002 and 2003 drafts. In these drafts, he doubled down on Miami players with Shockey and defensive tackle William Joseph in the first rounds; in this theoretical 2005 draft, he would have selected Umenyiora’s former college teammate DeMarcus Ware, a defensive end out of Troy. The only problem being that the Cowboys selected Ware one pick ahead of the Chargers in 2005. So to combat this fact, Accorsi jumps the Cowboys at 11 and trades the 74th pick and 2006’s fourth-round pick to get their desired EDGE rusher over their division rivals. DeMarcus Ware now represents Big Blue, but there’s a pretty grave opportunity cost. That 74th pick ended up being Justin Tuck and that 2006 4th rounder was Barry Cofield, both huge contributors to the Giants for the next several seasons. With the 144th pick in the 2005 alternate universe draft, the Giants selected another EDGE rusher, Trent Cole out of Cincinnati, who ended his real-life illustrious career with 90 total sacks, 617 total tackles, and 21 forced fumbles, and two Pro Bowl appearances. Things are getting interesting! Since the Giants got Cole in the fifth, they opted to go offense and select tight end Joel Dreessen out of Colorado State, instead of defensive end Eric Moore out of Florida State. Dreessen had 158 receptions for 1,767 and 19 touchdowns, during his 8 year NFL career.
It’s hard to quantify Roethlisberger’s presence with New York; he has had a great career with Pittsburgh and won two Super Bowls with excellent defenses. Due to his arm strength, the Giants would have been tempted to add field-stretching options. Ware’s career started so much faster than Justin Tuck’s, mostly due to injury, but this may have changed the Giants’ options in Accorsi’s last year drafting. In the 2006 NFL Draft, the Giants selected Mathias Kiwanuka, a pass rusher out of Boston College. With Ware ascending on the roster and having an immediate impact for New York, I think the Giants would have prioritized a speed receiver, which would have led to them selecting Ohio State WR Santonio Holmes at 25. The Giants originally traded this pick to the Steelers. But in this alternate universe, the Giants would value his speed, and, ironically, Holmes would end up in New York with Roethlisberger. Instead of trading up 12 spots to land Sinorice Moss at 44, the Giants would have sat tight at 56, and retained the 87th pick in the draft. Starting tackle Luke Petitgout was getting long in the teeth, so the Giants would have selected Miami tackle Eric Winston, who started 127 games throughout his 11-year career. At 87, Accorsi would have gone back to the small school well to select Bloomsburg guard Jahari Evans. Rich Seubert was a good player, but could never stay on the field. He had 5 surgeries and Accorsi wanted to be strong in the trenches upon his retirement, so the contingency plan of Evans makes sense.
Let’s Recap the changes
QB Eli Manning
DE Justin Tuck
DE Eric Moore
DT Barry Cofield
DE Mathias Kiwanuka
WR Sinorice Moss
Alternate Universe Giants
QB Ben Roethlisberger
CB Joey Thomas
EDGE DeMarcus Ware
DE Trent Cole
TE Joel Dreessen
WR Santonio Holmes
OT Eric Winston
OG Jahari Evans
It’s hard to argue against the alternate universe Giants. Not only do they get Ware and Cole, but they take both players away from their division rivals. The difficulty in evaluating Roethlisberger’s Giants is real; it’s easy to surmise that Roethlisberger would have had similar success in New York, but it’s not that simple. Those Giants’ Super Bowl championships were magical in the sense that a lot of things had to go right for the team. I’m not confident that those seasons transpire similarly without Eli Manning. However, I think it’s safe to say that the Giants would have won at least one super bowl with Big Ben at the helm. Roethlisberger and Manning make up for 4 out of 7 Super Bowls from 2005-2011, so I find it hard to believe the Giants wouldn’t have won one in the alternate scenario. Arguments could easily be made for the alternate universe Giants winning more; they’re very good on paper, but the variables are wider. The enigmatic nature of a young Roethlisberger in New York, with the New York media, is a cause for concern, as is the possibility of the Giants 2007 offensive line not connecting as well. The additions of Evans and Winston would have certainly helped the Giants in the 2010s, but one of the strengths to the 07 team was the combination of David Diehl, Kareem McKenzie, Rich Seubert, Chris Snee, and Shaun O’Hara on the offensive line. I wouldn’t want to see the continuity of the offensive line infringed upon, especially since we know the result of the 2007 season.
This is all conjecture built on theories. We have no idea what Accorsi would have done if he wasn’t feeling risky on April 24th, 2004. If the alternate universe came to fruition, it would have severely impacted the entire NFL, Jerry Reese’s drafts, and the legacies of Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Phillip Rivers, et al. The Giants would have had sustained success in the alternate universe while being a bit more competitive in the latter Reese years; the offensive line deterioration wouldn’t have been as vast with Winston and Evans on the roster (if Reese resigned them). Ware and Cole would have combined with Umenyiora and Strahan to dominate offensive lines with pressure under Steve Spagnuolo. Santonio Holmes would have been in New York a bit sooner and would have been a better addition than Sinorice Moss. Holmes’s presence may have changed Reese’s 2009 first-round pick of Hakeem Nicks and Dreeson’s presence on the roster may have led to no Kevin Boss in 2007. These players were pivotal to the Giants’ success, so I wouldn’t want that changed. However, the Giants more than likely would have won the division more than 3 times from 2005 till now, but it’s hard to say the Giants would have been the winners of Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI, and I wouldn’t trade those championships for a theoretically “what if.” I think it’s safe to say that Ernie Accorsi made the right move and selected a player that embodied the New York Giants. Like Eli Manning recently said, “Once a Giant, always a Giant...but for me, it’s only a Giant.”
Thankfully for Giants’ fans, this was the case.