Revisiting the Eli Manning-Philip Rivers Trade
Jason B. Hirschhorn
After 16 seasons, longtime New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning announced his retirement from the NFL on Wednesday. The decision closes the book on one of the most storied careers in the franchise's 95-year history.
"For 16 seasons, Eli Manning defined what it is to be a New York Giant both on and off the field," Giants president and CEO John Mara said in a statement released by the team. "Eli is our only two-time Super Bowl MVP and one of the very best players in our franchise's history. He represented our franchise as a consummate professional with dignity and accountability. It meant something to Eli to be the Giants quarterback, and it meant even more to us. We are beyond grateful for his contributions to our organization and look forward to celebrating his induction into the Giants Ring of Honor in the near future."
Since arriving in New York in 2004, Manning helped the Giants to two Super Bowl victories and threw for a franchise-best 57,023 yards and 366 touchdowns. He also started 2010 consecutive games during his career -- the third longest streak by a quarterback in league history -- and never missed a start due to injury.
But before Manning became the face of the Giants, he began his NFL career with the San Diego Chargers.
After a standout career at Ole Miss, Manning entered the 2004 NFL Draft as the presumptive No. 1 overall pick. The Chargers held the rights to the top selection after enduring a disastrous 4-12 season the previous year. The planned to take Manning and build around him until his camp communicated its disinterest in the quarterback landing in San Diego.
Why Manning didn't want to go to the Chargers remains a matter of debate. San Diego general manager A.J. Smith has long claimed that Manning's father, former NFL player Archie Manning, wanted his son in New York. "[Manning's agent Tom Condon] told me that Archie wishes that we do not select Eli and that they think he would be a good fit in New York," Smith told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2004, adding, "We had a good visit with Archie and expressed our vision for the future of this team and that there was a strong possibility that Eli might be picked by us with the first pick."
However, Eli Manning has never used his father as a scapegoat, instead taking responsibility for the decision to oppose the Chargers. "I made up my mind, I talked to my dad about it, talked to Tom Condon about it," Manning recounted to the New York Post in 2014. "We had this plan to kind of say, we'll tell San Diego not to draft you and hopefully they won't draft you, no one ever knows about it, they draft someone else, and you might get drafted by Oakland. Or you might get drafted by Arizona. Those were [picks] 2-3, and then the Giants were 4. ... He said, 'Maybe you slide to 4.' That was kind of what we were hoping for.
"Obviously it did not work that way, and San Diego came out and told them what I expressed to them. It's an uncomfortable situation -- you're excited about being at the draft and playing in the NFL, but then you have to deal with a lot of questions, and people were kind of questioning you and what's going on. It's an exciting day, 'cause you're getting to play professional football, a dream, and something you'd worked very hard at, but it didn't go as smoothly as you anticipate when you think [about] getting drafted to the NFL."
The Giants caught wind of Manning's opposition to the Chargers and began plotting a trade to acquire him. New York general manager Ernie Accorsi coveted the quarterback and wanted to strike a deal with San Diego. However, Accorsi feared making first contact would diminish his leverage. He also felt the Giants had an appealing backup plan in case no deal for Manning materialized. "I had a great backup position because of [Miami of Ohio quarterback Ben] Roethlisberger," Accorsi said on WFAN in 2016. "We loved Roethlisberger."
But while the Giants preferred Roethlisberger as their Plan B to Manning, the Chargers favored N.C. State signal-caller Philip Rivers. Rivers had impressed Smith and his personnel department during a spectacular senior season in which he completed 348 of his 483 passes (72.0% completion) for 4,491 yards, 34 touchdowns, and seven interceptions.
That difference of opinion became critical when Smith selected Manning and didn't have a deal in place yet with New York. Accorsi faced a dilemma when the Giants came on the clock. Either he could take Roethlisberger, the best quarterback available in his evaluation, or select Rivers and hope to iron out a deal with the Chargers.
"Everybody thought my second choice was Rivers, but that wasn't the case -- Roethlisberger was," Accorsi told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2016. "That was almost a jump ball with us -- Roethlisberger and Eli. We scouted Roethlisberger very, very thoroughly. Both Eli and Ben's pro days were flawless. I almost froze to death sitting outside watching him at Mobile [at the Senior Bowl]. He threw four touchdowns in the first quarter or the first 20 minutes. He was on fire. I loved him. We all did.
"I would have been happy with Rivers, but I wanted Ben. I took a risk. If he would have called back and said I'm backing out of this trade, there's no Ben for me."
That leap of faith altered the trajectory of two franchises. The Chargers wound up with a quarterback that has started every game for them since 2006, becoming the franchise leader in all major passing categories and a potential Pro Football Hall of Famer. The Giants landed the signal-caller they coveted all along and won multiple titles with him.
"If Eli didn't want to come to New York, we wouldn't have been able to pull it off," Accorsi said. "Fortunately, he was interested in playing for us."
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH