NFL "National Football Lookback" - The Chargers keep Eli Manning

It’s back by popular demand (I hope so anyway), the National Football Look Back. My last article was on the Chiefs and today’s edition remains in the AFC West and moves on to the Los Angeles Chargers. I will be taking a look back at one of the most infamous draft moments of all time, the Chargers drafting Eli Manning number 1 in 2004 and then trading him to the Giants.

As we all know by now, the then San Diego Chargers had the number 1 pick and seemed set to use it on a quarterback. Eli Manning was the presumed top quarterback and it seemed to line up perfectly, until Eli and his dad Archie came out with the news that Eli would refuse to play for San Diego. At the same time it became apparent that the New York Giants were interested in Manning and that the Mannings hoped Eli would end up in New York.

All this transformed a straightforward pick into one of the biggest standoffs in NFL history. Who would blink first, the Chargers, the Giants, or the Mannings?

The Chargers would stick to their guns and draft Manning, leading to the Giants drafting Phillip Rivers, knowing he was the Chargers next favourite quarterback and hoping to strike a deal. It would play out how both sides hoped, the Giants got Eli and the Chargers picked up Rivers plus some extra draft picks.

They would gain the Giants third-round pick in 2004 along with their first and fifth-round picks from 2005. The star amongst those extra picks for San Diego was Shawne Merriman, who would go on to be the NFL defensive rookie of the year and be a great player until injuries derailed a promising career.

Fast forward to the present day and Eli Manning has delivered New York two Super Bowl titles. He was the quarterback that led the Giants to one of the biggest upsets of all time, ending the 2007 Patriots hopes of an unbeaten season. However, Eli has also been very inconsistent throughout his career, he is perhaps the luckiest player of all time with plays such as the “Helmet Catch” and a strong defence being the main factors behind those Super Bowl runs.

You could argue that Philip Rivers has actually been the better player over his career, but the biggest knock on him has been his inability to win the big games. He led the Chargers to a 14-2 record in his first season as a starter, guided them to their first playoff win since 1994, and has thrown for nearly 60,000 passing yards in his career. Rivers also has the superior career passer rating at 95.1, far better than Eli’s 84.1.

However, despite the success, the Chargers never made it to a Super Bowl with Rivers and while Eli Manning would vanquish the Patriots twice, it always seemed to be Brady stopping Rivers and the Chargers from winning it all.

Now with that history lesson over, how might the last 15 years have played out for the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers had Eli Manning not rejected them and he remained their first pick in the 2004 draft?

Well let’s assume that as with Rivers, the Chargers would’ve sat Eli Manning behind Drew Brees for the first 2 seasons of his career, and Eli would’ve got his first start in 2006. With a strong Chargers team behind him, there is every chance Eli would’ve guided them to the playoffs, just as Rivers did. This would’ve set up Manning vs Brady for the first time and it would’ve gone down how it always did, with “Mr. Lucky” Eli Manning finding a way past Tom Brady.

This, in turn, would’ve meant we would’ve been treated to the Manning Bowl in the 2006 AFC Championship. With the LaDainian Tomlinson-led 14-2 San Diego Chargers riding high after beating the Patriots in the Divisional round, it is Eli, not Peyton Manning that goes on to play the Bears in the Super Bowl.

This stops Peyton from getting his first Super Bowl ring and he continues to be dubbed a choker in the playoffs. Would he go on to win one in Denver without that first ring? How would we view Peyton Manning now if he never won a Super Bowl? Would he even go to Denver at all if Eli was already in the division? The career of one of the all-time great quarterbacks could be viewed very differently in this timeline.

Anyway, back to Eli and the Chargers. With only Rex Grossman and the Bears to beat, I have no doubt that the fantastic Chargers team of the mid-noughties would’ve gotten the job done. In his first season as a starter, Eli Manning is the saviour of San Diego and more amazingly the Chargers would’ve finally won a Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.

As a bonus thought, what other knock-on effects would this have produced over the 15 years that Eli Manning was the quarterback of the Chargers?

Well for a start, the following (2007) season I don’t think anyone would’ve stopped the New England Patriots from finishing off their unbeaten season. Yes, Eli would’ve still faced them in the playoffs, but without the freak “Helmet Catch” play and that Giants defensive front led by Michael Strahan, I think Brady would’ve made it past Eli and whoever the NFC had to offer that year.

Moving forward, Eli and the Giants wouldn’t have pulled off the miraculous 2011 playoff run, beating Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Lambeau Field on their way to again upsetting the Patriots. Instead, it would’ve been the 15-1 Green Bay Packers powering past all in front of them, beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl and we would have been treated to a Rodgers vs Brady Super Bowl.

One little moment in time can change a lot in the NFL. Imagine how we would view the career of Aaron Rodgers with another Super Bowl, the same for Peyton Manning without a Super Bowl. What about Tom Brady if the Pats went undefeated?

Hmm, on second thought, maybe nothing ever changes for Brady.

Article written by Scott and first published on 19/05/20.

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