LAST SPRING two of the NFL's worst teams, the San Diego Chargers and the New York Giants, made the kind of momentous draft-day deal that could make or break them. The Chargers picked Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning first, and the Giants, picking fourth, agreed to take North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers and send him, along with a first-, a third- and a fifth-round draft pick, to San Diego in exchange for Manning. In doing so, both franchises passed on the player who, through the first eight weeks of the season, appears to be the best quarterback to enter the league in years: Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio). He fell to the Steelers with the 11th pick and is 6--0 since replacing injured starter Tommy Maddox. Manning and Rivers have yet to start.
"I sympathize with the Giants and Chargers," said one prominent general manager, who asked for anonymity. "When we prepared our draft grades on Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger, our national scout, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator each had a different one rated Number 1."
For their part the general managers of the Giants and the Chargers say they wouldn't rewrite history even if they could. "No, I wouldn't change it," says New York's Ernie Accorsi. "I wanted Manning, and I wanted him to learn the position the right way. We're not in a hurry to play the kid. If we had drafted Roethlisberger, he'd be standing right where Manning is now--on the sideline, learning."
"No regrets," says San Diego's A.J. Smith. "[Rivers and Manning] could play in three weeks; they could play in two years. You don't know. But it will happen. I think all three quarterbacks, over the next eight to 10 years, will do tremendous things and rival the quarterback class of '83 [which included John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino]."
And it's not as if the Giants and the Chargers are doing anything wrong by having their young quarterbacks learn the ropes first. In fact, it's likely that Roethlisberger, who has completed 69% of his passes for 1,316 yards, wouldn't be starting had it not been for an elbow injury suffered by Maddox in Week 2. "One of the most absurd [things you can do] is judge an NFL quarterback after five weeks as a starter," says Accorsi. "I think it's fair to judge a quarterback after five years, not five weeks."
San Diego hasn't been under pressure to rush Rivers because the Chargers have eclipsed their 2003 win total using quarterback Drew Brees, who's flourishing in his fourth season with the team. The Giants, however, after a 4--1 start, have lost to the Lions and the lowly Bears, and quarterback Kurt Warner's turnovers are testing coach Tom Coughlin's patience.
The Giants' expectation is that Manning will someday be their salvation, as Roethlisberger has been for Pittsburgh. Only time will tell. --Peter King