Extra MustardSI On CampusFantasyPhoto GalleriesSwimsuitVideoFanNationSI KidsTNT

Bolt of luck

Chargers' indirect route to get Rivers should pay dividends

Updated: Monday April 26, 2004 8:38AM
Free E-mail AlertsE-mail ThisPrint ThisSave ThisMost PopularRSS Aggregators

CLEVELAND -- Maybe A.J. Smith had a plan all along.

For all his bumbling ways, bad breaks and questionable tactics in the days leading up to the NFL Draft, the San Diego Chargers besieged general manager found a way Saturday to avoid the Eli Manning error and start the Philip Rivers era.


Make no mistake, if Manning develops into the same kind of franchise quarterback that his older, co-MVP-level brother Peyton Manning is, the deal the New York Giants made at the top of the first round will be remembered as a bold masterstroke.

But for now, give the Chargers their due. San Diego took a mighty circuitous route to success, but in the end, Smith and the Chargers clearly found a profitable way out of their nasty little stare-down with the Giants and the Manning family. In landing New York's 2004 third-round pick, plus the Giants' first- and fifth-round selections next year, San Diego extracted more from a bad situation than initially looked possible.

And on top of that, in North Carolina State's Rivers, the Chargers acquired the quarterback they had all along rated side-by-side with the more celebrated Manning. Score it a win-win for San Diego. From the vantage point of late April, that's the bottom line in the most confusing, bizarre and entertaining turn of events to dominate the top of the first round in recent NFL history.

"We all had the unanimous opinion that he [Manning] was a special quarterback,'' said Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, after executing the trade that sent Rivers, the draft's No. 4 pick, to San Diego in exchange for Manning, the top selection. "We all felt this was a quarterback you wait for for a long time.''

The Manning-Rivers trade, which was being bandied around the league's rumor mill starting late Friday afternoon, provided the draft with some exquisite theater at Madison Square Garden's Paramount Theater. Who will ever forget the spectacle of Manning being booed lustily as he stood beside NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue on the podium, a Chargers jersey and cap in his hands as the chant of "Eli sucks!'' echoes throughout the room?

"It's nothing new,'' Manning said, feigning nonchalance in what had to be his nightmare draft-day scenario. "I've heard boos before. I've been in a lot of stadiums where they've booed.''

Ah, but this wasn't young Mr. Manning's typical football venue, and those weren't shoulder pads and enemy colors he was wearing. This was the day when it was all supposed to be hiccups and giggles for Manning, with one verbal bouquet after another being tossed his way.

And who won't long recall the sight of Rivers sitting home in Raleigh, N.C., surrounded by family, trying to celebrate his No. 4 selection by the Giants. Only one problem. No one from the Giants franchise had actually picked up the phone and congratulated the Big Apple's new quarterback, a rock-solid sign that Rivers was momentarily headed west to San Diego.

Lastly, there was a Manning again back on stage and under the spotlights, holding up a Giants jersey and wearing a New York cap just an hour or so after he had grudgingly posed with that Chargers paraphernalia. We all know free agency has made the NFL a much more transient league, but this was ridiculous.

After repeatedly saying this week that they would not be held ransom to trade up to No. 1 and select Manning, the Giants wound up giving up plenty. The Chargers kept pushing for New York's second-round pick this year, the 34th overall, to be included in any deal. The Giants held fast, refusing to do so, and made their third-rounder (65th overall) a tenet of any trade. But the Chargers demanded that the pot be sweetened some how, and that's when New York made their 2005 first-rounder a part of the package.

If Manning plays well and the Giants rebound from their disappointing 5-11 season of 2003 under new head coach Tom Coughlin, that first-rounder could well be in the lower third of the opening round -- an affordable price for a player of Manning's potential. But if New York endures another losing season, as teams starting rookie quarterbacks usually do, San Diego could walk away with a high first-round pick and a distinct trade advantage, at least in the short term.

"It's one of those things that's good for San Diego, good for Eli, a win all around," Manning's agent Tom Condon said.

In a related note, let's start the bidding for Giants incumbent quarterback Kerry Collins, who is suddenly an endangered species, with a year left on his New York contract at about $8 million. Anybody got the number of San Francisco general manager Terry Donahue?

The other winner in this confounding saga is, of course, Manning himself. His don't-take-me ultimatum to San Diego worked like a charm, with him garnering the coveted No. 1 pay slot in the draft and still getting to, in essence, pick the team he played for.

If he's a hit in New York, all will be forgiven and he'll be one of the biggest, brightest stars in the NFL galaxy. But if he doesn't hit the ground running, the luster he loss on his reputation could continue to erode. Manning was booed on two coasts Saturday, in San Diego and in New York, and that could be an emerging trend that leads him to rue the day he tried to dictate his own draft fate.

Then again, it might be best to remember that the last two times the NFL's No. 1 overall pick tried a similar power play, things worked out just fine. In 1987, Auburn running back Bo Jackson didn't want to be sentenced to Tampa Bay, and he refused to sign and went on to a fine, albeit abbreviated, career with the Raiders. In 1983, in a case that has been often cited in recent days, Stanford quarterback John Elway forced Baltimore's hand, prompting the Colts to trade the future Hall of Famer to Denver. Elway became the Mile High City's premier civic icon and won two Super Bowls.

Jackson and Elway, however, had their baseball careers to use as leverage in both cases. That's an advantage Eli Manning doesn't have at his disposal. His only game of hardball came in the days leading up to the draft, when he buzzed a high-and-tight purpose pitch under the Chargers' chins.

Knocked off balance for the longest time, at least Smith and San Diego found a way to dig back in and take their cuts. In the immediate hindsight of a wild and wacky Saturday afternoon, it's only fair to say the Chargers and Manning both connected solidly. The Giants? It's too early to tell. New York might just have stroked a grand slam. But this is, after all, a quarterback taken No. 1 in the draft we're talking about. History says there are as many misses as hits.

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.