Wednesday January 23rd, 2008

At this time four years ago, the New England Patriots were getting ready to win the Super Bowl and three young quarterbacks were getting ready to take over the league.

There was the little brother with the big arm from Ole Miss, the willful leader with the awkward motion from NC State and the nimble giant with the wild streak from Miami of Ohio. All three were going to be first-round picks and franchise-altering quarterbacks. That much was obvious. But which one of them was going to be best?

The debate, which began about this time four years ago, is no closer to a resolution. The quarterback class of 2004 -- the Giants' Eli Manning, the Chargers' Philip Rivers and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger -- is just as hard to figure out as ever.

In '04, Manning appeared to be the best quarterback in his class, considering he went first in the draft. In '05, it was Roethlisberger, considering he won the Super Bowl. In '06, it was Rivers, considering he went to the Pro Bowl. And now, with the Giants off to face the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Manning has come full circle, valedictorian again.

Manning's victory in the NFC Championship Game was a victory for all of the '04 quarterbacks. In four years, two of them have reached the Super Bowl. The third one, Rivers, has reached the AFC Championship Game. In fact, all of them made the playoffs this season. By contrast, the similarly decorated quarterback class of '06 -- Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler -- has been to one playoff game combined.

Comparing NFL quarterbacks can be a futile exercise, especially when Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are involved. But with the class of '04, comparisons come naturally. Unlike Brady and Peyton, these three made mistakes. They suffered indignities. They endured criticism. And they appear to have emerged the stronger for it.

From the beginning, they took unnecessary risks. Manning pulled a power play before the '04 draft, forcing San Diego to trade him to New York. Roethlisberger rode his motorcycle around Pittsburgh with no helmet. And as recently as this season, Rivers was scolded by the NFL's etiquette police for talking back to fans and opposing players.

All three quarterbacks have long been prone to caricature. In '05 and '06, Roethlisberger was the superstar, Manning the bust, Rivers the bench warmer. For two years, Roethlisberger could do no wrong in Pittsburgh, Manning could do no right in New York, and Rivers could do nothing at all in San Diego, sitting behind Drew Brees.

Then, in one offseason, they swapped roles. Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle, suffered a concussion, and promptly led the league in interceptions. Manning retreated from the spotlight and learned under his veteran teammates. Rivers emerged as suddenly as Roethlisberger had, winning 14 games with his three-quarter delivery.

But nothing seems to last for these guys. After coaching changes in San Diego and Pittsburgh last offseason, Rivers struggled while Roethlisberger thrived. Then Roethlisberger struggled while Rivers thrived. In a stunning upset, though, Manning became the most consistent passer of the three, winning 10 straight road games, three in the playoffs.

Still, in the shadow of Brady and Peyton, the nitpicking never ends: Eli is too aloof in the huddle, Rivers too vocal on the sideline, Roethlisberger too reckless off the field. Manning can wing the ball, but can he control it? Rivers can control it, but can he wing it? Roethlisberger can do it all, but what about his decision-making?

The NFL experienced a quarterback crisis this season. The league needed Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger to become headliners. Instead, it got Vinny Testaverde and Kurt Warner. But in the past few weeks, the class of '04 came of age. Roethlisberger tried to lead the Steelers with a depleted running game. Rivers tried to lead the Chargers on a torn ACL. Manning led the Giants to the Super Bowl.

They have provided hope for the future of the forward pass. And in so doing, they have also provided hope for that next generation of young quarterbacks, the class of '06.

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