Keidel: Revisiting Manning-Rivers Trade 15 Years Later

There Were No Losers In Epic Draft Day Swap

Jason Keidel
April 23, 2019 - 1:34 pm
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Where were you 15 years ago?

Did you have the same job? Live in the same town?

No doubt it's a long time to do any one thing for any one employer, especially in a savage sport like pro football.

So it's remarkable that 15 years ago Wednesday, Eli Manning was drafted by the San Diego Chargers, who were muscled into trading him to the Giants, who drafted Philip Rivers. And neither has left his team or town since. (Well, Rivers moved towns, but that wasn’t exactly his call.)

While we still marvel at the 1983 NFL draft, which yielded John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, the 2004 iteration also gave us three likely Hall of Fame quarterbacks who spent their splendid careers with one team. (Unless you count Jim Kelly's coffee break in the USFL, which no one does.) In fact, you can argue that the best QB of the '04 class wasn't part of any draft-day jousting or parental posturing, since Ben Roethlisberger was quietly snagged by the Steelers.

But this is about the draft-and-trade between teams from each coast, from towns that could not be any more different in temperament or climate. The only possible irony is that the modest mien of Manning has worked in the Big Apple, while the chatty, chest-thumping Rivers has also thrived in the low-key town of San Diego. Indeed, the Chargers may have moved to Los Angeles, but not Rivers, who wants to keep his wife and huddle of kids in the 619.

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Recently, WFAN's Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti debated the merits of the trade and, with all things sports, there has to be a winner and loser. Esiason, the former NFL MVP, asserted that he would pick Rivers, who's been more gifted and prolific. Gio said he would pick Manning because of his two Super Bowl rings.

At the risk of rancid neutrality, it says here that both are correct. Quarterbacks are too quickly judged by those bulging rings on their fingers, without regard to the teams they led, or the breaks they may (or may not) have gotten. So in the zero-sum calculus of February football, Manning had the better career. When Eli retires and all the pundits synopsize his career, it will start with that impossible twirl-and-heave to David Tyree and will end with that perfect rainbow he tossed to Mario Manningham four years later. Only a fool would deny that Manning had the more accomplished career.

But it doesn't take Sid Gillman or Don Coryell to realize that, by any objective measure, Rivers is the better passer. Though Rivers has played 20 fewer games (212) than Manning (232), the Chargers QB has thrown more touchdowns (374 to 360) and 61 fewer interceptions (178 to 239). And despite spotting Manning over a season's worth of games, Rivers has amassed just 1,300 fewer yards. And since winning is a primary metric, consider that Rivers has posted a record of 118-90, while Eli is just barely over .500 for his career (116-114).

If you wonder about age, the two iconic QBs were born 11 months apart. But Rivers has made the last three Pro Bowls, while Manning has clearly decayed to the edge of retirement. Manning may be good enough to play in the NFL, but today Rivers is beyond Eli's orbit. Over the last three years, Manning and the Giants have gone 16-28; Rivers and the Chargers are 26-21. Los Angeles went 12-4 last year; Big Blue went 5-11.

Jim Plunkett is the only NFL QB who won two Super Bowls and did not end his career in Canton, partly because he didn't play enough to post the requisite stats -- he only started double-digit games in eight of his 15 seasons. Eli has played 15 years for a signature franchise, the NFL version of an Original Six club. He also slithered out of a sure sack and shocked the 18-0 Patriots to win his first ring. It matters, just as it matters that both Super Bowl runs ended by beating the Pats. So even if some -- most, really -- call Manning a pedestrian passer who had two miraculous runs, his ticket to Canton is stamped and laminated. It's silly, really, to hear the Manning detractors say, "If you take away those two playoff runs" as if that were an option, or as if those two charmed sprints into immortality were somehow accidental.

Rivers doesn't have such magic in his bio. He just has magic in his arm, that throwing motion that looks equal parts shot put and football pass, whipping the ball through countless keyholes. His best shot at a Lombardi Trophy came in 2006. The Chargers were 14-2 and the best team in football, led by LaDainian Tomlinson, with an absurd 28 rushing TDs, and Shawne Merriman, who had 17 sacks in 12 games. They were leading the Patriots 14-10 at halftime of a division playoff game, only to have coach Marty Schottenheimer dial up his rotary-phone playbook and blow it, at home, getting him fired after the season. It's not Rivers' fault he didn't have Tom Coughlin as his head coach.

Just as there are many ways to succeed in life, there are many ways to succeed in sports, and in the NFL. And if you ask former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi and ex-Charger GM A.J. Smith who won that epic trade 15 years ago, each will tell you he did. And, in a way, both would be right. History will smile more widely on Eli Manning. But you'd be a fool to say that any team lost by bagging Philip Rivers.

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel.