But this much is also now just as apparent: No crop of first-round quarterbacks has ever matched the start to the careers of the top three quarterbacks from the 2004 class: Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, who were selected first, fourth and 11th that year.
Now five years into their pro careers, with all of them having moved beyond their rookie deals into lucrative second NFL contracts -- Rivers signing just this week a six-year, $93-million deal that includes $38 million guaranteed -- it's the perfect vantage point to assess just where the Big Three from 2004 stand so far in the scope of history.
A word of warning: Be prepared to be bowled over by their cumulative body of accomplishment, because that's exactly the reaction I got Thursday from Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, retired Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, and Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert, the three men who drafted Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger and know better than anyone how good they've been ever since.
"I knew they were all off to good starts, but to be honest you startled me with those facts,'' said Accorsi, who drafted Rivers at No. 4 that year, but of course traded him to San Diego on draft day for the rights to Manning, the No. 1 pick. "That's overwhelming. As a quarterback in the NFL, it's about winning. That's their job. And to hear those numbers, you can't refute this is the best start ever for a class. This is unprecedented. All those guys from 1983 were great players, but only one guy (Elway) won a Super Bowl. I'm not going to predict Hall of Fame, but they're on the road, these guys. It's quite a remarkable thing, when you figure they went No. 1, 4 and 11.''
Here's what had Accorsi, who is not one given to hyperbole, so effusive in his praise. In the first five years of their NFL careers, Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger have accomplished the following:
• They've won three of the five Super Bowls that have occurred since they entered the league, with Pittsburgh's Roethlisberger earning rings in 2005 and 2008, and New York's Manning in 2007. New England's Tom Brady (2004) and Indy's Peyton Manning (2006) have won the other two. The Class of 2004 is 3-0 in Super Bowl appearances so far.
• In the seasons in which they have been their team's fulltime starting quarterback (the past three seasons for Rivers, the past four for Manning, and all five for Roethlisberger), they have combined to make the playoffs 11 out of a possible 12 times, and led their clubs to division titles eight out of a possible 12 times.
• They've been to a combined three Super Bowls, five conference title games (with all three qualifying at least once), and are a gaudy 15-8 (.652) as starters in the playoffs. All three have made one Pro Bowl trip each.
• Roethlisberger is 8-2 in the playoffs, and 51-20 (.718) as a starter in the regular season. Rivers is 3-3 in the post-season, and 33-15 (.688) in the three regular seasons since taking over for Drew Brees in San Diego. And Manning is 4-3 as a playoff quarterback, with a 42-29 record (.592) in the regular season. He and Rivers are a combined 7-of-7 in terms of taking teams to the playoffs as fulltime starters. Roethlisberger is four of five in that department, missing only when the Steelers went 8-8 in 2006.
"I don't know how you could expect that kind of production, because those are pretty astounding cumulative numbers,'' said Colbert, who said the Steelers never expected any of the Big Three quarterbacks would still be on the board at No. 11 in 2004. "Those numbers are kind of out there. From a success standpoint, you can definitely make the argument that's the best start ever. The great thing is they're all so young. Most great quarterbacks have best years in their later years. There are a lot of Hall of Fame quarterbacks who didn't have Hall of Fame starts.''
The Big Three from 1983 certainly had historic early career success, but it didn't match the bottom-line production of 2004's top three quarterbacks from a team standpoint. To wit:
• Elway, Kelly and Marino combined to go to four Super Bowls in their first five seasons as NFL starters, but lost them all (keep in mind that Kelly played two seasons for Houston of the USFL, in 1984-85, and thus his first five NFL seasons were 1986-90). Elway was the top overall pick, Kelly was 14th to Buffalo, and Miami selected Marino 27th.
• Elway was 0-2 in the Super Bowl (the Broncos of 1986 and 1987 went) in his first five NFL seasons as a starter, with four playoff trips, a 4-4 playoff record, two Pro Bowl berths, and a regular-season starting record of 46-21-1 (.681). He alone is the only Super Bowl winner of the Class of '83, earning back-to-back rings with Denver in the final two seasons of his career in 1997 and 1998. All told, he played in five Super Bowls, finishing 2-3.
• Marino went to the only Super Bowl of his career in his second season, losing to San Francisco. He had three playoff trips in his first five seasons, with a 3-3 playoff record, five Pro Bowl berths, and a 48-21 record as a starter (.696). His monster season of 1984 set NFL records for single-season passing yardage (5,084, which still stands) and touchdown passes (48, since broken by both Peyton Manning and Brady).
• Kelly had one losing Super Bowl appearance in his first five NFL seasons, with three playoff trips, a 3-3 playoff record, three Pro Bowl berths and a regular-season record of 40-31 (.563). Kelly, of course, went on to lose three more Super Bowls with the Bills, finishing 0-4 in that department. Elway, Marino and Kelly retired with a combined 2-8 record in the Super Bowl, and when fellow 1983 first-round pick Tony Eason's loss for the 1985 New England Patriots is factored in, the class's Super Bowl record slips to 2-9 overall.
It must be noted that the 2004 first-round quarterback class also included Buffalo's J.P. Losman at No. 22, who washed out in his five seasons as a Bill and is now preparing to play in the UFL this fall. The celebrated 1983 class had a second tier of three quarterbacks in the first round, with Kansas City's Todd Blackledge at No. 7, Eason at No. 15 and the Jets' Ken O'Brien at No. 24. But when it's the Big Three from 1983 matched head-to-head with the Big Three from 2004, this decade's elite class has already carved out a historic niche for itself. And that niche would be even stronger should Rivers be able to lead the talented Chargers over the hump and to a Super Bowl title.
"Those three guys, they just had it, they had what it took,'' said Smith, who drafted Manning, but then wound up with Rivers when Eli and his father, Archie, made it clear that San Diego wasn't their first choice. "I said at the time there are three marquee guys in this draft who will do special things before their careers are over. No matter who you got, you knew you were getting a special one. The facts are there. Barring injuries, it's unbelievable to think what they might do if they keep performing at this level. It's amazing.''
Smith readily admits the Chargers must improve their defense in order for Rivers to reach the same heights as his two fellow draft classmates. He rightly points to the success of the Steelers and Giants defenses as pivotal to the Super Bowl rings worn by Roethlisberger and Manning, just as Elway didn't earn his two pieces of championship jewelry until the Broncos added a running game built around Terrell Davis in the late 1990s.
"You've got to have a balanced team, and I've said on record here that unless we fix our defense, we will not accomplish what we want to accomplish,'' Smith said. "We clearly need to fix the defense in order for the quarterback to have a chance to join the ranks of the others.
"But I know our guy (Rivers) is everything I thought he would be in this league. All three of them are. If even one of them hits the way they have, that's about what people would have expected. But all three of them have done it. They've all lived up to where they were picked.''
Accorsi quickly reminded me that as the Colts general manager in 1983, he was the guy who picked Elway first overall, but later traded him to Denver when Elway refused to play in Baltimore. In 2004, the Giants had Manning rated the highest, but they also loved Roethlisberger and considered trading back to No. 6 Cleveland and taking Big Ben there. At least until they got wind that the Browns loved him too and would likely take him in the Giants' No. 4 slot if a deal was made.
"We liked all three of them,'' Accorsi said. "We wanted to try and get Eli, but we would have been happy with any of them. We were very clear that we were picking a quarterback that year, because my philosophy was that it was a quarterback year, and you better get one when you can. You don't get many chances.''
The Giants, Chargers and Steelers all got one in 2004. And they got a very, very good one, with the potential for greatness clearly on the horizon.
"I really believe this is just the beginning,'' Accorsi said. "Anything can happen, but all three of these guys are going to win more. I see more championships coming. They're all with good teams, and they're young and getting better. It's a remarkable achievement, winning all those games and division titles and championships already. But I think there's a lot more to come.''