20 years after Eli Manning refused to play for the Chargers, we look back at the build to the 2004 NFL Draft and how everything worked. Photo Credit: Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports Nov 8, 2009; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (left) and San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers talk prior to game at Giants Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim O’Connor-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2004 NFL Draft approached, Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning was the consensus choice as the first overall pick. Manning was regarded as one of the better prospects in recent memory. So, it was a foregone conclusion that he’d end up with the then-San Diego Chargers, who held the first pick. Right?

Not so much.

While Manning was one of the better prospects in recent memory, there were natural comparisons with two others who had been regarded even higher when they were drafted — Stanford quarterback John Elway in 1983 and Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning in 1998. The connection between Eli and Peyton Manning was obvious — they were (and still are) brothers.

And as Elway had done in 1983 with the then Baltimore Colts, Manning made it clear in 2004 that he would not play for the Chargers.

How did that — as well as the subsequent 20 years — work out?

2003 season

Manning, as his father, former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, had done, played college football at Ole Miss. He was a three-year starter for the Rebels. From 2001-2003, Manning completed 61.1% of his passes for 9,949 yards with 81 touchdowns and 34 interceptions. In 2003, he completed 62.4% of his passes for 3,600 yards with 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while leading Ole Miss to a Cotton Bowl win. Manning ultimately finished third in Heisman Trophy voting that year.

In the NFL, meanwhile, the Chargers struggled to a 4-12 season. Third-year running back LaDanian Tomlinson was on his way to being one of the all-time greats, rushing for 1,645 yards while also catching 100 passes for 725 yards. But the quarterback position left a lot to be desired. Combined, Drew Brees and Doug Flutie completed 56.6% of their passes for 3,205 yards with 20 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.

In general, the Chargers were still reeling from taking quarterback Ryan Leaf second overall in 1998 — an unmitigated disaster that we’ll be revisiting shortly. San Diego managed to go 8-8 in 1999 and 2002 but hadn’t had a winning season or made the playoffs since 1995. The Chargers went 4-12 in 1997, putting them in position to draft Leaf second overall in 1998. And around the .500 seasons, San Diego went 5-11 in 1998 and 2001, 1-15 in 2000 and 4-12 in 2003.

Much like Peyton Manning had led the Indianapolis Colts out of misery, Eli Manning seemed to be the man to do that for the Chargers.

Eli won’t play for the Chargers

In the build to the NFL Draft, Archie Manning announced that Eli would not play for the Chargers. When Elway made that declaration 21 years earlier, he had the leverage of also being a highly-regarded baseball prospect having been drafted by the New York Yankees in 1981. Manning didn’t have the leverage of another sport to fall back on. But because of who his dad was and what his brother was becoming (Peyton Manning won his first NFL MVP in 2003), his family name gave him clout.

Elway initially stated that he wanted to play on the West Coast. It was later revealed that his father, longtime football coach Jack Elway, did not want his son playing for then-Colts coach Frank Kush.

But in 2004, there was no clear reason for the Mannings wanting to avoid San Diego.

In a 2020 interview with Pat McAfee, Leaf shed some light on the matter.

“Archie and his family had called my father and wanted to know how they treated his son,” Leaf said. “And that was a huge part of it. Because, even as poorly as I behaved, there was no support. For the longest time I held a resentment around that. But what was my part? I had to finally take stock in that. But he did his due diligence. He called, and asked, “What happened when things went bad? What did they do to help support your son?”

But regardless of why Manning wouldn’t play in San Diego, serious drama and intrigue surrounded the 2004 NFL Draft well before it began.

What would the Chargers do?

Draft Day

As the Colts had done in 1983 with Elway, with Chargers selected Manning. Unlike Elway, though, the issue was resolved quickly.

The New York Giants selected North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers No. 4 overall. Shortly thereafter, a trade was announced. Manning went to the Giants. Rivers, along with a 2004 third-round pick and 2005 first and fifth-round picks went to the Chargers.

How it worked out

Another critical difference between this situation and Elway’s 21 years earlier was the aftermath. Elway was eventually traded to Denver Broncos, where he had a legendary career. The Colts got good production from Chris Hinton, who was traded in the deal and Ron Solt, who was taken with a pick acquired in the trade. But ultimately, the team enjoyed very little success until the arrival of Peyton Manning, Eli’s brother. By that point, the Colts were in a new city.

The 2004 NFL Draft was a much different situation. First, while the 2005 fifth-round pick was later traded, the Chargers selected kicker Nate Kaeding with the 2004 third-round pick and linebacker Shawne Merriman with the 2005 first-rounder. Kaeding was a two-time All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowl kicker for the Chargers. Merriman was also a two-time All-Pro, a three-time Pro Bowler and the 2005 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Also, when looking at the two quarterbacks — Manning and Rivers, who would you say had the better career?

  • Quarterback A, 2004-2019: 134-106 record, 59,271 yards, 397 touchdowns, 198 interceptions, 64.7 completion percentage, 95.1 passer rating.
  • Quarterback B, 2004-2019: 117-117 record, 57,023 yards, 366 touchdowns, 244 interceptions, 60.3 completion percentage, 84.1 passer rating.

Quarterback A is Rivers with the Chargers (those numbers don’t include his final season with the Colts). Quarterback B is Manning, who played his entire career with the Giants.

So, in that respect, the Chargers got the much better end of the deal. They got the better quarterback plus a star kicker and linebacker. How was this anything but a disaster for the Giants?

You probably already know the answer to that question. While Rivers generally had superior numbers and enjoyed better year-in and year-out team success with the Chargers than Manning did with the Giants, he never even got to a Super Bowl. Manning led the Giants to two Super Bowls, winning both. Both were against the legendary Tom Brady and in both cases, Manning won the Super Bowl MVP. That’s a run any team in the league would sign up for when drafting a quarterback.

While neither is eligible, it’s entirely possible that both Manning and Rivers will end up in the Hall of Fame.

A slam dunk for the Hall of Fame is another quarterback we casually mentioned a name earlier — Drew Brees. In 2003, he was a struggling third-year quarterback for the Chargers. Not long after, that changed. He made the first Pro Bowl of his career in 2004. He also led the team to an 11-4 record (Flutie started and won the other game) and San Diego enjoyed its first winning season and playoff appearance in nearly a decade.

Brees continued as the starter in 2005. He played well, though the team dropped to 9-7 and missed the playoffs. In the final game of the season, Brees, a pending free agent, suffered an injury. That made it easier for the Chargers to move on from him and make Rivers the starting quarterback.

It worked out well for all parties. We’ve seen what Rivers did. Brees left the Chargers and went onto become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. The team he did that with? The New Orleans Saints, the same team Archie Manning spent the majority of his career with.

So, for both the most prominent figures and even some of the background players, Eli Manning’s refusal to play for the San Diego Chargers worked out like a charm.

About Michael Dixon

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