New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi says he isn't ruling out the possibility that Kurt Warner could remain the team's starting quarterback next season, ahead of Eli Manning, if the club makes a run deep into the playoffs and Warner wants to stay.
It has been widely assumed around the league that Manning, the top overall selection in this year's draft who was obtained by the Giants in a draft-day trade with the San Diego Chargers, would be the starter in New York by opening day of next season at the latest, no matter what happens this season. And that seemingly remains the most likely outcome.
The Giants regard Manning as a once-in-a-generation quarterback prospect. They traded a third-round draft choice this year and first- and fifth-round picks next year to San Diego as well as quarterback Philip Rivers, the fourth overall selection in this year's draft, to get Manning in April. He signed the richest rookie contract in NFL history, a six-year, $45-million deal that included about $20 million in bonus money, in July.
The way of the NFL these days is to make a prized young quarterback a starter by his second season. All four of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round last year -- Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich, Baltimore's Kyle Boller and Chicago's Rex Grossman -- began this season as starters. The Bengals switched to Palmer, last year's top overall pick, even after veteran Jon Kitna played well last season and nearly led the club to the playoffs. The Jaguars traded veteran Mark Brunell in the offseason to solidify Leftwich's starting status.
But the Giants have been one of the league's most surprising success stories under Warner, the two-time NFL most valuable player signed by the team in June, just after he was released by the St. Louis Rams, to help mentor Manning and perhaps keep the starting seat warm for him. Warner signed a two-year contract with the Giants but acknowledged from the start it could be only a one-year arrangement. Accorsi said by telephone this week that nothing is definite at this point, however.
"If we go far this year and Kurt wants to come back, he could be our quarterback next year,'' Accorsi said. " . . . It [making Manning the starter] doesn't have to happen overnight. Eli has got a very long contract. He will be here for quite a while. This is where he wanted to be, and he's going to be the starter here at some point.''
The Giants are 5-2, and Warner mostly has played the sort of mistake-free football that Coach Tom Coughlin wants to see. He has thrown only two interceptions in 202 passing attempts and that has kept Manning on the bench except for a pair of mop-up appearances.
Meanwhile, Manning waits and watches as a rookie quarterback drafted 10 spots beneath him, Ben Roethlisberger, has won his first five starts with the Pittsburgh Steelers after taking over for injured veteran Tommy Maddox.
"If we had drafted Roethlisberger, he wouldn't be playing,'' Accorsi said. "Sometimes divine providence enters into it. Roethlisberger got his chance when he got it because someone got hurt. I don't want Kurt to get hurt. But if he does, Eli will get the same shot that Roethlisberger is getting. . . . [But] as long as we're winning and Kurt is healthy, Kurt is going to play.''
The Giants signed Warner after their former starter, Kerry Collins, refused just after the draft to agree to a restructured contract to stay. They told Warner and his agent, Mark Bartelstein, during negotiations that Warner would be given an opportunity in training camp to win the starting job, even though many around the league were convinced that Manning would be the Giants' starter immediately, just as his older brother Peyton was an immediate starter in Indianapolis as a rookie in 1998. Warner said in training camp he understood that Eli Manning would play whenever he was ready, but he hoped to use his chance as a place-holder to reassemble a career that had unraveled during his final two seasons in St. Louis.
It appeared midway through the exhibition season that Manning was leading the Giants' starting-quarterback derby, but Coughlin named Warner the starter after Manning suffered through a miserable outing against the New York Jets in the third of four preseason games. He completed only four of 14 passes, threw two interceptions, was sacked twice and had a fumble returned for a touchdown.
Accorsi said that the Giants never were willing to sacrifice this season to being a learning experience for Manning if the rookie didn't demonstrate that he was ready to play well and win.
"I made it very clear from the time we made the trade, we were either going to keep Collins or pursue a veteran,'' Accorsi said. "No one believed me . . . [but] I wasn't going to take Tiki Barber and [Jeremy] Shockey and [Michael] Strahan and our cornerbacks and sell them down the river. Every year of your career is too precious for that. When we were talking to Warner, other teams were talking to him and telling him, 'You can come. But you have to understand, we're playing our young quarterback.' I told him, 'That's not the case with us.' The only way Eli was going to play this year was if he gave us the best chance of winning. There was a point where it looked like he could win the job. But Eli could have beaten Warner out and still not started.''
Accorsi recalls that when he drafted Bernie Kosar for the Cleveland Browns in 1985, he immediately traded for veteran quarterback Gary Danielson and the Marty Schottenheimer-coached team won a division title the next season (albeit with a modest record of 8-8) with the two splitting playing time before Kosar become the full-time starter in '86.
Accorsi said the Giants were fortunate to have gotten Warner because the other veteran quarterbacks he thought might be available as alternatives later in the offseason -- Oakland's Rich Gannon and Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson -- never hit the open market.
"I thought there was going to be this round-robin of quarterbacks moving around, and it didn't happen,'' Accorsi said. "Gannon stayed. Johnson stayed. We were very, very lucky. When I first got a call from Mark Bartelstein saying Kurt was interested in playing for us, I said, 'Why is he interested in us? Why would he want to come here?' And he said, 'Because he thinks you'd have a good team around him and he can go there and win and revive his career.' We basically agreed to use each other. We're using him to win, and he's using us to revive his career.''
Rivers Waits, Too
Rivers is in a similar situation in San Diego, biding his time while Drew Brees has quarterbacked the Chargers to a surprising 5-3 record.
The Chargers made it clear in the offseason that they were interested in upgrading at quarterback and might replace Brees as their starter. They explored the possibility of trading for Brunell, but he went to the Washington Redskins instead. They traded for Rivers after Manning indicated he wouldn't play in San Diego, but a lengthy contract dispute in training camp ruined Rivers's opportunity to compete for the starting job entering the season. The rookie missed the first 29 practices of camp and reported to the club just before the third of four preseason games. Rivers was the last first-round pick league-wide to sign.
Now he and the other two quarterbacks on the San Diego roster -- veteran Doug Flutie and youngster Cleo Lemon, who was on the Chargers' practice squad last season -- are close-up observers of the exploits of Brees, who has blossomed in his fourth NFL season and is the AFC's second-rated passer behind Peyton Manning.
Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith said by telephone Tuesday that, while Schottenheimer put the starting job up for grabs in a preseason competition, there never was a plan for Rivers to supplant Brees if he had shown up to camp on time.
"We had no idea except that we knew we'd gotten a heck of a quarterback out of the draft,'' Smith said. "Now we've got four quarterbacks in all shapes and sizes, all different ages. You protect yourself. I'm here in Michigan scouting and I just saw the crawl across the bottom of the TV screen that Byron Leftwich is out for four-to-six weeks [because of a knee injury suffered last weekend]. You never know in this business, and you always have to have the next guy who's ready to go.''
Brees, who also had a testy set of rookie-contract negotiations with the Chargers as a second-round pick in 2001, didn't endear himself to the organization when he criticized the decision to get Rivers on draft day instead of devoting a high first-round choice to upgrading the offensive line. Brees is eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring, and the Chargers ultimately might be not be able or willing to keep him. His prospective free-agent price tag climbs with every good outing. But Smith, echoing comments made by Schottenheimer earlier in the week, said Tuesday he's not concerned about that issue yet.
"Drew Brees is our guy, and he's unrestricted at the end of the season,'' Smith said. "People say, 'What are you going to do?' Well, we don't have to worry about that until after the season. We'll see how things go. We'll see how people play. We'll see how many games we win. There's no doubt he's playing really, really well and it's good for him. It's great for him, and it's great for the San Diego Chargers.''
Brees was nearly perfect in a 42-14 victory Sunday over the Raiders, completing 22 of 25 passes for 281 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions. Two of his three incompletions came when he was throwing the ball away. He has 14 touchdown passes and three interceptions this season and the Chargers, in atypical fashion for the conservative Schottenheimer, have scored the most points in the league, with 219.
They're tied with the Denver Broncos atop the AFC West, and their remaining schedule contains only two games against teams that currently have winning records. But Smith isn't getting carried away yet, remembering that the Chargers lost their final nine games after a 5-2 start in 2001 and went 2-7 following a 6-1 beginning in 2002 in Schottenheimer's first season with the club. They were 4-12 last season.
"We're very pleased with the way it's going,'' Smith said. "But we're only halfway through the season. There's still a long, long way to go. . . . We thought we had a pretty good football team. We understand what was said about us. The evaluation of a lot of people was that Marty Schottenheimer would be fired about halfway through the season. I was incapable, and I'd be gone after the season. The offensive line was no good. Drew Brees was gone because we got Philip Rivers. We knew that all of that was said. It stung. It hurt. And it was motivating. We changed over the team. We brought in some free agents. We made some trades. And we're happy with the way it's going. But, again, it's only halfway. A lot of people have picked this week to congratulate us. I've been hearing from a lot of people. But it's way too early.''
Smith's roster tinkering continued with his trade-deadline acquisition of standout wide receiver Keenan McCardell from the Buccaneers last month, sending a clear message to the league and to Chargers followers that the club is intent upon trying to win big this season.
"We added bits and pieces,'' Smith said. "You get the best football players you can. We stayed with it even into the season. I didn't know that Keenan McCardell really would be available, that they really would move him, until a few days before we got him, and obviously that makes a difference for us. We're looking at this with guarded optimism. We've been down this road before, getting out of the gate fast and then having it fall apart. Hopefully at the end of the year we'll be talking about these same good things.''
The league-wide passer rating in this throwing-friendly season is 84.5. That would be the highest in league history if it holds up over the entire season. The record is 80.4, set in 2002. . . .
Brees's performance Sunday marked the sixth time this season that a quarterback has thrown five touchdown passes in a game. Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper has done it three times -- an individual single-season record -- and Peyton Manning has done it twice. The single-season high for such performances league-wide is eight, done in 1962 and '69. . . .
Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick had the fourth 100-yard rushing performance of his NFL career in Sunday's triumph over the Broncos, moving him into a tie with Billy Kilmer for the all-time lead among quarterbacks. Kilmer had four 100-yard rushing performances in 170 career games. Vick has four in 36 games. Vick on Sunday became the first player in NFL history to top 100 rushing yards and 250 passing yards in the same game. He ran for 115 yards and passed for 252 yards. . . .
Philadelphia wideout Terrell Owens has had five straight 100-yard receiving games, two shy of the NFL record by Charley Hennigan for Houston in 1961 and Michael Irvin for Dallas in '95.
Public Funding for Cowboys' Stadium Approved
Arlington, Tex., voters approved a proposition Tuesday to fund half of a proposed $650 million new stadium for the Cowboys through increases in the city's sales tax, hotel-occupancy tax and car-rental tax.
The 75,000-seat, retractable-roof stadium will replace the 33-year-old Texas Stadium in Irving, Tex., as the Cowboys' home. The new stadium is scheduled to open in 2009 near Ameriquest Field in Arlington, where the Texas Rangers play baseball.
Roethlisberger Keeps Job
In a far-from-surprising announcement, Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said during a news conference Tuesday that Roethlisberger will keep the club's starting job even though Maddox is scheduled to practice today and should be available for Sunday's game against the Eagles. Maddox injured a tendon in his right (throwing) elbow during a Sept. 19 game in Baltimore.
"Tommy threw a significant amount of balls at the end of last week,'' Cowher said. "I think we are going into this week with him practicing and see where he is by the end of the week in terms of seeing what his status would be would be relative to either being a third [stringer], in the worst-case scenario, or being ready to back up Ben, in the best-case scenario. In regard to that, I talked to both Tommy and Ben. At whatever point Tommy does come back healthy, there will be no change made at quarterback. I think they both understand, and we are ready to move on with that being the case.''
Roethlisberger's backup since Maddox got hurt has been second-year pro Brian St. Pierre. Roethlisberger has completed 70.1 percent of his throws and is the AFC's third-rater passer, and made Cowher's decision about his starter easy. Cowher praised Maddox's willingness to serve as a mentor to Roethlisberger, the first quarterback drafted in the first round by Pittsburgh since Mark Malone in 1980.
"I know when Ben comes off the field, the first person he is looking for is Tommy, and Tommy understands that,'' Cowher said. "Tommy is another guy that has put the team before him. . . . I think that we have had a number of players on this football team that have been able to do that, and need to continue to do that for us to go where we want to go.'' . . .
Steelers linebacker Kendrell Bell is scheduled to make his season debut Sunday, Cowher said. Bell, who underwent hernia surgery last month, won't start against the Eagles but likely will play, Cowher said. . . .
Miami linebacker Junior Seau, who tore a pectoral muscle in the Dolphins' loss Monday night to the Jets, is scheduled to undergo season-ending surgery Thursday in San Diego. Seau, 35, told reporters today that he hopes to play next season but he can't be certain that the injury won't end his 15-year NFL career. He was a 12-time Pro Bowl selection for the Chargers before being traded to the Dolphins last year for a draft pick.
"I'm a football player, and always will be,'' Seau said during a news conference. "If you need something done on the football field, I'm going to say yes. . . . Assessing my situation after the surgery is definitely going to be something that I need to do. . . . I never thought I would be walking away with a sling, and that doesn't sit well with me. As far as what I may do in the future, if you ask me today, I'm going to say yes [he'll play again]. But it will be assessed after everything is said and done.''
It will be the first major surgery of Seau's career. He faces a four-month rehabilitation, and he said there was no sense of relief even though he gets to escape from the Dolphins' 1-7 season.
"I would rather be part of this team than be in the situation where I am today,'' Seau said. " . . . The game is only a game when you win. But when you lose, it becomes a business. Sometimes through the business we lose track of how special it is to be part of the National Football League, to be part of Sundays and Mondays and practices and training rooms and weight rooms. It's something that you don't ever want to take for granted.'' . . .
Ty Law's agent, Carl Poston, told the Boston Globe that the cornerback will seek a second medical opinion about the broken bone on the top of his left foot that will keep him sidelined at least a month and will follow an aggressive treatment program to try to play as soon as possible. . . .
Cincinnati released defensive end Greg Scott. . . . Minnesota released defensive end Chuck Wiley and wide receiver Ryan Hoag, and promoted wideout Ben Nelson from the practice squad and reinstated tailback Onterrio Smith to the active roster after he completed his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.