Eli Manning had just accepted the Ernie Accorsi Humanitarian Award from the man who brought him to the Giants in a blockbuster 2004 draft-day deal.
“I want to thank Ernie,” Manning said at the April awards dinner. “If it wasn’t for him, I’d be playing in a soccer stadium in Los Angeles.”
The crowd broke up in laughter as Manning offered his gratitude to Accorsi for making sure the quarterback out of Mississippi played for his team of choice in New York and not the Chargers, who owned the No. 1 pick. While Manning has gone on to win two Super Bowl championships in a career that likely will end up with a Hall of Fame selection, Philip Rivers — drafted out of North Carolina State — has met a far different fate.
Toiling until this year in San Diego, where his Chargers mostly underachieved despite his brilliant play, Rivers now plays his home games before unenthusiastic fans at the 27,000-seat StubHub Center, home of the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team. With the Chargers off to a miserable start, Rivers is nearing the end of what might be his own Hall of Fame career in decidedly depressing fashion.
More than 13 years after their fates became inextricably linked when the Chargers drafted Manning with the No. 1 pick and then traded him to the Giants, who agreed to take Rivers at No. 4, the two quarterbacks will meet for what could be the final time Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
“You’re always going to be linked, and you only play each other once every four years, so I guess there’s a chance — unless we both make it to that game in February — this could be the last time he and I play each other,” Rivers said. “I don’t know if we’ll both be rolling four years from now. We’ll see, I guess.”
It’s unlikely that the 36-year-old Manning and the 35-year-old Rivers will be around for another matchup in 2021, so this could be it. And Rivers’ reference to “that game in February” — Super Bowl LII? Neither team looks like much of a playoff contender after a month’s worth of losing. Only one team in NFL history — the 1992 Chargers — ever made it to the playoffs after starting 0-4.
“When you play these teams once every four years,” Rivers said, “when you go against guys you have a great deal of respect for, and in this case, not only respect for, but a guy in your same draft class that you were a part of a trade and the whole deal, that certainly adds to it.”
IN LA-LA LAND
The Chargers’ 112-mile move from San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium to the StubHub Center in Carson, California, created a lifestyle change for Rivers and his teammates.
Rivers didn’t want to uproot his family and decided to convert his minivan into a mobile office, where he can watch game tape, relax in a reclining seat and make up for any lost preparation time while stuck in freeway traffic. It’s a little more than an hour from his home in Oceanside to the team’s training facility in Los Angeles, and Rivers somehow makes it work.
“It’s tough,” said Manning, who has lost all three matchups against Rivers. “I know Philip’s got a big family, and to be set and not really have much control, moving to a different town, it’s a tough situation. I’ve seen he’s got a little special car to help the commute where he watches film and gets everything done, so he’s going to be able to handle it.”
Manning, meanwhile, has a 25-mile commute to the Giants’ practice site.
“We probably have the same commute some days, even though I only have to go about 25 miles and he’s going I don’t know how many,” Manning said. “Some days, I wish I could watch a little film instead of sitting in traffic.”
WORKING OUT A DEAL
Like Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, also taken in the first round of the 2004 draft, owns two Super Bowl rings. The closest Rivers got to a Super Bowl was after the 2007 season, when the Chargers lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship. That’s the same season Manning won his first Super Bowl.
The Manning-Rivers trade was the source of much pre-draft intrigue, and some controversy as well. Accorsi told Newsday on Friday that he first approached Chargers general manager A.J. Smith at the NFL owners’ meetings more than a month before the draft to discuss a potential trade. The discussions didn’t get very far, though.
“He wanted Osi [defensive end Umenyiora] and I wasn’t willing to trade him,” Accorsi said. “I’m not going to give up a player at the second-most-important position on a football team for a player at the most important position.”
There were a few more discussions after that, with Smith continuing to ask about Umenyiora and Accorsi continuing to tell him the pass rusher wasn’t available.
If there was no deal in place, Accorsi was set to take Roethlisberger, a highly coveted passer out of Miami (Ohio).
“We had a good backup plan, because we felt really strongly about Roethlisberger,” he said. “I scouted every one of those guys. I remember going to the [GMAC Bowl game in Mobile, Alabama] and almost froze. I couldn’t even get a seat in the press box, and I couldn’t get a hotel room, so I was prepared to sleep in my car at the airport.”
Accorsi finally did get a hotel room, and the trip was worth it. Accorsi was convinced that Roethlisberger, who threw four touchdown passes in a 49-28 win over Louisville, would be a suitable alternative if he couldn’t get Manning, who clearly was the Giants’ top choice.
“A.J. said early in the week [leading up to the draft] that we’ll talk on Friday,” Accorsi said.
Smith never called.
“When I didn’t hear from him on Friday, I just felt the deal wasn’t going to happen,” Accorsi said. “But I was tipped off by someone who I’ve never revealed, nor will I ever reveal, that [Smith] was going to do what he ended up doing.”
Accorsi was told that Smith planned to call when the Giants had about seven minutes left of their allotted 15-minute time to make the fourth overall choice. Smith would take Manning — who repeatedly had said he did not want to play in San Diego — at No. 1 overall and then work out a trade while the Giants were on the clock. The deal was agreed to by Smith and Accorsi, with the Chargers getting Rivers, a 2004 third-round pick (kicker Nate Kaeding), a 2005 first-round pick (linebacker Shawne Merriman) and a 2005 fifth-rounder (traded to the Buccaneers for tackle Roman Oben).
The Giants selected Rivers, and the trade was announced within a few minutes.
“Until I got that call seven minutes into our drafting period, there was no indication we were going to be able to make that trade,” Accorsi said. “The offer was on the table. I figured that was it. So A.J. called and asked for Osi again. But I said no. Then we made the deal.
“You’re not allowed to draft players for other teams, and I had to trust A.J. that he would agree to the deal,” Accorsi said. “If he backed out, I’ve got Rivers. The league was not going to OK that trade on a conditional basis.”
Accorsi also got heat for leaving himself with only five picks in 2005. But that draft proved fruitful as well, as the Giants chose cornerback Corey Webster, defensive lineman Justin Tuck and running back Brandon Jacobs, all of whom were key contributors on the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl teams.
All these years later, history says Accorsi made the right move, and his legacy was secured by the player Manning turned out to be. Accorsi is a member of the Giants’ Ring of Honor in large part because of what he did on draft day in 2004.
All these years later, it will be Manning vs. Rivers for the fourth and, most likely, last time. And even with each team still searching for its first win, the quarterbacks still are worth watching.
“It’s going on 14 years. Done a lot of good things and still playing, still playing at a high level,” Manning said of his draft class. “I think you always take pride in your draft class, especially the quarterbacks. I’m proud of those guys.”
Manning is mostly glad he ended up with the Giants. Asked if he ever thinks about what his career might have looked like had he played in San Diego, Manning said simply, “No, no.”
Yes, this sure does beat playing in a soccer stadium in Los Angeles.
ELI VS. PHILIP
Chargers (#1) 2004 draft Giants (#4)
205 Games 184
108-95-0 Record 97-83-0
59.9 Comp. % 64.4
49,327 Passing yds. 46,940
326 TDs 320
219 INT 160
83.9 QB rating 94.6
2 Super Bowl rings 0