JOHN MARSHALL MANTEL / AP Enlarge
DENIS POROY / AP Enlarge
Any pro football fan worth his salt remembers the moment at the start of the 2004 NFL Draft when then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue ambled to the lectern and said, "With the first pick in the 2004 draft, the San Diego Chargers select Eli Manning, quarterback from the University of Mississippi."
Ah, was that sweet. Manning, with his famous daddy and famous brother and famous agent all helping pull the strings, had tried to manipulate the draft by telling San Diego he would not play for them if selected. And the Bolts took him anyway.
The NFL draft has a lot of looks - mostly unbridled joy, glee, relief. This was the first time a player walked onto the stage looking like 6 feet, 4 inches and 225 pounds of stomach bile. Manning's persona was sadness, anger, confusion, and frustration, all rolled into one. He sheepishly posed for pictures, held up the Chargers uniform with the No. 1 on it, but he never put on the ball cap.
Other than making fun of Mel Kiper's hair, that was about as much fun as the draft gets. Spoiled brat takes one on the chops.
Alas, the fun didn't last long. About 40 minutes later, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith dangled Manning in front of New York Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, who had been drooling over Peyton's little brother, and vice versa, for weeks. Accorsi agreed to take quarterback Philip Rivers with the Giants' No. 4 overall pick, then immediately trade him, along with a third-round selection later in the day and the team's first-round pick in 2005, to San Diego for Manning.
So, Team Manning got what it wanted, for Eli to play in the Big Apple and not in San Diego. The Chargers got another highly touted quarterback. Both players are expected to start for their respective teams later today in conference championship games, both one upset win away from the Super Bowl.
Yes, everybody remembers Manning for Rivers.
You recall the rest of it? The Chargers took kicker Nate Kaeding, a Pro Bowler last season, with the third-round pick acquired from New York. And, with the first-round selection vacated by the Giants a year later, San Diego got a linebacker you may have heard of - Shawne Merriman.
They all went into the mix with running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who was acquired after another draft day swap, this one three years earlier with Atlanta that gave the Falcons a clear shot at Michael Vick - and how does that move look in retrospect? - to transform the Chargers into one of the AFC's best teams.
Rivers suffered a knee injury last Sunday in the Chargers' win at Indianapolis but was optimistic he'd be able to go this afternoon against Tom Brady in the AFC title game at New England.
In the NFC, it will be Manning vs. Brett Favre on the very frozen tundra in Green Bay.
In neither case, at least on paper, does it appear to be a fair fight, but the two young quarterbacks have indeed come a long ways from the '04 swap meet with which they're associated.
Manning, of course, is the better known of the two. First, there's the name. Second, it's New York City. Third, he's spent more time between the hashmarks.
He backed up Kurt Warner for the first nine games in 2004, but has been the Giants' starter since. Rivers, meanwhile, held a clipboard for two years as Drew Brees led the Chargers. He had only 30 pro passing attempts before becoming the starter for good at the dawn of the 2006 season.
Rivers is by no means an elite quarterback, not in the mold of a Brady or Peyton Manning or Favre. For that matter, he is often overlooked in a discussion of best young quarterbacks, a group that includes Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, and, based on recent performance, Eli Manning, to name a few.
Inconsistency is the biggest knock, but Rivers has completed 61 percent of his passes for 6,540 yards and 43 touchdowns while leading the talent-laden Chargers to 27 wins during his two seasons at the helm. He played extremely well last week in Indianapolis, but backup Billy Volek was on the field for the game-winning drive.
Still, a hot stretch late this season - the Chargers, once 1-3, are 13-5 with eight straight wins - and his performance in the playoffs have upped Rivers' stock, much like the last two weeks have been a boost for the Giants' Manning.
It has been suggested that the only player who can stop Eli is Eli, and in a five-game stretch from late November to late December he threw eight interceptions. But he has not thrown a pick during playoff wins over Tampa Bay and Dallas, and he has posted eye-popping, triple-digit passer ratings in his last three games, the first coming in a regular-season loss to New England during which the Giants and their quarterback played about as well as humanly possible without winning.
With the Colts out of the playoff picture, Eli is finally getting a chance to step from his older brother's shadow. He seems to be operating at a new level of comfort and confidence. He's showing patience and, despite not producing huge numbers in terms of yards and touchdowns, is avoiding the big mistakes that have plagued him in the past.
The Giants have a defense capable of pressuring Favre, whose boldness often complicates his greatness, and a running game made for the frigid conditions expected to exist today in Green Bay. If Manning can simply manage the game, a Giants' win would not stop the earth from spinning around its axis.
A win by the Chargers, regardless of Rivers' efforts, might.
Still, regardless of today's outcomes, and for that matter the future, Rivers and Manning will always be related by the way they were separated at the birth of their NFL careers.