That memorable NFL draft turned out to be as consequential as any for the league’s balance of power over the ensuing 15 years. The Giants made their draft-day trade for Manning after the Chargers, then based in San Diego, took Manning first. Philip Rivers ended up with the Chargers, and Roethlisberger, passed up by the Giants at No. 4 in favor of Rivers and the pending blockbuster trade, went 11th to the Steelers.
“I’m a little happier now than I was 10 minutes ago,” Manning said that day, having told the Chargers that he didn’t want to play for them. “I didn’t expect a trade to happen. Obviously this is news to me, and it’s good news.”
That is four Super Bowl triumphs ago, two by Manning with the Giants and two by Roethlisberger with the Steelers. Manning, Roethlisberger and Rivers have remained with their original NFL teams, with Rivers accompanying the Chargers to Los Angeles. Each is arguably a future Hall of Famer.
But the early stages of this season have not been kind to NFL quarterbacks, and Manning and Roethlisberger became part of the attrition. Roethlisberger exited the Steelers’ loss to the Seattle Seahawks after grabbing at his elbow following a throw. He was replaced by Mason Rudolph, and the 0-2 Steelers announced Monday that Roethlisberger needed season-ending surgery. A day later, Manning was told by Coach Pat Shurmur that he was losing his starting job with the winless Giants to rookie Daniel Jones, taken sixth in this year’s draft.
They joined a list of shelved quarterbacks that includes the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees and the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Nick Foles, both injured, and the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold, diagnosed with mononucleosis. Andrew Luck retired from the Indianapolis Colts just before the season. Cam Newton is out for Week 3 after he aggravated a foot injury in the Carolina Panthers’ second game. It is dismaying to a league that increasingly has built its appeal on keeping its star quarterbacks healthy and historically productive.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Next man up,’ but this is ridiculous,” former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said by phone this week. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Manning, in consultation with his family and representatives, told the Chargers leading up to the 2004 draft that he wouldn’t play in San Diego. Ernie Accorsi, then the general manager of the Giants, considered Manning a once-in-a-generation talent. A.J. Smith, then the GM of the Chargers, liked Rivers but held off on a trade until after he drafted Manning.
A day before the draft, a Roethlisberger associate was told by the Giants that they might take Roethlisberger at No. 4 if the Chargers took Manning first and wouldn’t trade him. But Leigh Steinberg, then Roethlisberger’s agent, warned Roethlisberger to remain wary of that possibility.
Several years later, Steinberg recalled telling Roethlisberger during the ride to the draft at Madison Square Garden to remember that the Chargers had been locked on Rivers since the Senior Bowl scouting event and Accorsi had been locked on Manning basically forever.
Steinberg was right. The Chargers took Manning with the top selection, leading to the awkward scene of Manning holding a Chargers jersey and cap while posing with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
“It’s an important day for the NFL,” Manning said that day before the trade. “The draft is a special time. I did not want to cause a scene. We already kind of caused one in a way, but I did not want to embarrass the commissioner.”
The trade was completed soon after. Accorsi, who had been forced as GM of the Colts to trade John Elway to Denver when the future Hall of Famer refused to play in Baltimore, had his man. Rivers landed in Southern California. The Chargers also got draft picks that would yield kicker Nate Kaeding and pass rusher Shawne Merriman.
Roethlisberger headed to Pittsburgh, saying on draft day, “It shows how much of a game this is, and no one really knows what’s going on.”
Fast-forward to this week’s quarterbacking churn. With Manning and Roethlisberger, the sense of finality seems greater. Manning told reporters Wednesday, “I’m not dying, and the season’s not over.” But he’s in the final year of his contract, and he turns 39 in January. Even if he would want to play elsewhere, would any other team want him? The Giants already have moved on.
“I’ve been through the passing of the torch before with Johnny Unitas,” Accorsi told the Giants’ website last week. “This is a very difficult time for me, although I knew sooner or later it would come. Eli Manning gave me the two greatest moments of my time in the National Football League. He will always be very special to me, as will his two Super Bowl championships.”
Roethlisberger turns 38 in March and will be coming back from his elbow surgery. He has contemplated retirement previously. But he reiterated in a written statement last week what he said during training camp — that he intends to play out a contract with the Steelers that runs through the 2021 season.
“This is such a physical sport,” Roethlisberger said in training camp in Latrobe, Pa. “You also can’t control your injuries, your health and things like that. Having a family, you always take that into consideration. Now that I signed a new deal, I’m going to be out here and honor that contract.”
But Roethlisberger’s future — and the consideration of his and Manning’s Hall of Fame credentials — is for another day. For now, Jones and Rudolph are joined as NFL starters by the Colts’ Jacoby Brissett, the Jaguars’ Gardner Minshew II, the Jets’ Luke Falk, the Saints’ Teddy Bridgewater or Taysom Hill, the Miami Dolphins’ Josh Rosen (for the benched Ryan Fitzpatrick) and the Panthers’ Kyle Allen. The league marches on.
“Welcome to the NFL,” Theismann said. “It’s like the weather: Stay tuned. It’ll change soon.”