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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Over & out for Eli, Big Ben and Rivers of star-studded Class of 2004?

Eli Manning trots off field earlier this season.

Eli Manning trots off field earlier this season. Will he be on a roster in 2020? Credit: Jim McIsaac

It was 15 years ago this week that Eli Manning made his debut as the Giants’ starter, the beginning of a career in which he won two Super Bowl MVP trophies and likely accomplished enough to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

On Sunday, he will wear an earpiece on the Giants’ sidelines and serve as Daniel Jones’ backup.

Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl championships and another Super Bowl appearance on his resume, but the Steelers quarterback now walks the sidelines in street clothes, as he continues to recover from elbow surgery that ended his season in Week 2. 

Philip Rivers is coming off the worst two-game stretch of his career with a combined seven interceptions in back-to-back losses that have the Chargers getting close to playoff elimination. 

Alas, the vaunted quarterback Class of 2004 appears to be near the end, with three of the most accomplished quarterbacks in NFL history winding down their splendid careers at a time when a new generation of passers led by Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and a handful of other star quarterbacks emerges.

There haven’t been any retirement announcements from Manning, Roethlisberger and Rivers, although it stands to reason this could very well be Manning’s last season now that he has given way to Jones, the Giants’ No. 6 overall pick last spring. Roethlisberger said he wants to return next season, but who knows how he’ll be after undergoing reconstructive surgery? And Rivers has given no indications of being ready to move on, but the Chargers will no doubt consider their options for their next long-term quarterback.

It won’t be all that long, however, before all three are up for consideration for football’s highest honor – enshrinement in Canton. They’ve all done enough to deserve a place in football immortality, although Roethlisberger likely has the easiest path to Hall of Fame honors. But when it’s all said and done, I believe Manning and Rivers get in, too.

The Class of 2004 may be rivaled only by the Class of 1983, when six quarterbacks were taken in the first round. But only three of them – John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino were Hall of Famers. (The others were Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O’Brien). And while Manning and Roethlisberger have a combined four Super Bowl rings, Elway was the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl from the Class of ’83. He played in five Super Bowls, winning two, while Kelly lost four Super Bowls and Marino lost one.

“I think you can compare those two draft classes favorably,” said former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who drafted Manning.

Accorsi also drafted Elway first overall when he was GM of the Colts but was ordered to trade him by team owner Bob Irsay, after which Accorsi resigned. “Now you’ve got the 2017 guys, Mahomes and Watson, but they’ve got 12 to 15 years left hopefully," Accorsi said. "Even though you had fewer quarterbacks drafted in the first round of 2004 [there were four, including J.P. Losman of the Bills], we won four Super Bowls and Rivers has had a terrific career.” 

It was the Chargers who drafted Manning first overall in 2004, and Manning made it clear from the start he didn’t want to be there. The Giants selected Rivers fourth overall, eventually agreeing on a blockbuster trade to acquire Manning, who was always Accorsi’s preferred choice. The Steelers took Roethlisberger with the 11th pick.

“I did take a lot of grief because after the trade, we were left with only four choices in the next year’s draft,” Accorsi said. “But that turned out to be one of our best drafts ever. We got [cornerback] Corey Webster, [running back] Brandon Jacobs and [defensive end] Justin Tuck, and all of them were very important contributors in the two Super Bowls.”

The fourth player the Giants drafted that year was defensive end Eric Moore of Florida State. He was released by the Giants after one season and went on to play with the Saints, Panthers, Rams and Patriots.

Accorsi is the only general manager involved in studying and drafting quarterbacks in both the 1983 and 2004 drafts, so he has unique perspective on comparing the two classes. But one thing didn’t change: how he viewed quarterbacks.

“I evaluate a quarterback differently than most people,” he said. “I don’t use stats, because I have to evaluate a quarterback the way I would pick one and that is, can he win a championship for us? That’s the whole basis of it. I don’t care about quarterback ratings. I would always evaluate quarterbacks on their ability to win a championship.

“Even though Rivers hasn’t won one, I bet you he’d trade 10 years of his career for a championship. If you talk to any great quarterbacks – Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Kelly – they’d give up a large part of their career if they could have won a title. To be as great as those quarterbacks were and never win a title isn’t pleasant. It’s got to be heartbreaking.”

Accorsi got to experience the thrill of winning two championships with Manning, and the Steelers added their fifth and sixth Super Bowl titles with Roethlisberger. Rivers may be running out of time to win his first as the curtain begins to fall on one of the great quarterback classes in a century’s worth of pro football.

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