Best quarterback class ever? Trio from '04 makes its case over '83
Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers have excelled in five seasons
John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly have long been the gold standard
The '04 quarterbacks already have more Super Bowl wins than the 1983 QBs
For years now, it has been accepted gospel within the NFL that the celebrated 1983 first-round quarterback draft class is the best in league history, and with the three Hall of Fame careers of John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, how can anyone argue?
But this much is also now just as apparent: No crop of first-round quarterbacks has ever matched the start to the careers of the top three quarterbacks from the 2004 class: Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, who were selected first, fourth and 11th that year.
Now five years into their pro careers, with all of them having moved beyond their rookie deals into lucrative second NFL contracts -- Rivers signing just this week a six-year, $93-million deal that includes $38 million guaranteed -- it's the perfect vantage point to assess just where the Big Three from 2004 stand so far in the scope of history.
A word of warning: Be prepared to be bowled over by their cumulative body of accomplishment, because that's exactly the reaction I got Thursday from Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, retired Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, and Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert, the three men who drafted Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger and know better than anyone how good they've been ever since.
"I knew they were all off to good starts, but to be honest you startled me with those facts,'' said Accorsi, who drafted Rivers at No. 4 that year, but of course traded him to San Diego on draft day for the rights to Manning, the No. 1 pick. "That's overwhelming. As a quarterback in the NFL, it's about winning. That's their job. And to hear those numbers, you can't refute this is the best start ever for a class. This is unprecedented. All those guys from 1983 were great players, but only one guy (Elway) won a Super Bowl. I'm not going to predict Hall of Fame, but they're on the road, these guys. It's quite a remarkable thing, when you figure they went No. 1, 4 and 11.''
Here's what had Accorsi, who is not one given to hyperbole, so effusive in his praise. In the first five years of their NFL careers, Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger have accomplished the following:
They've won three of the five Super Bowls that have occurred since they entered the league, with Pittsburgh's Roethlisberger earning rings in 2005 and 2008, and New York's Manning in 2007. New England's Tom Brady (2004) and Indy's Peyton Manning (2006) have won the other two. The Class of 2004 is 3-0 in Super Bowl appearances so far.
In the seasons in which they have been their team's fulltime starting quarterback (the past three seasons for Rivers, the past four for Manning, and all five for Roethlisberger), they have combined to make the playoffs 11 out of a possible 12 times, and led their clubs to division titles eight out of a possible 12 times.
They've been to a combined three Super Bowls, five conference title games (with all three qualifying at least once), and are a gaudy 15-8 (.652) as starters in the playoffs. All three have made one Pro Bowl trip each.
Roethlisberger is 8-2 in the playoffs, and 51-20 (.718) as a starter in the regular season. Rivers is 3-3 in the post-season, and 33-15 (.688) in the three regular seasons since taking over for Drew Brees in San Diego. And Manning is 4-3 as a playoff quarterback, with a 42-29 record (.592) in the regular season. He and Rivers are a combined 7-of-7 in terms of taking teams to the playoffs as fulltime starters. Roethlisberger is four of five in that department, missing only when the Steelers went 8-8 in 2006.
"I don't know how you could expect that kind of production, because those are pretty astounding cumulative numbers,'' said Colbert, who said the Steelers never expected any of the Big Three quarterbacks would still be on the board at No. 11 in 2004. "Those numbers are kind of out there. From a success standpoint, you can definitely make the argument that's the best start ever. The great thing is they're all so young. Most great quarterbacks have best years in their later years. There are a lot of Hall of Fame quarterbacks who didn't have Hall of Fame starts.''
The Big Three from 1983 certainly had historic early career success, but it didn't match the bottom-line production of 2004's top three quarterbacks from a team standpoint. To wit:
Elway, Kelly and Marino combined to go to four Super Bowls in their first five seasons as NFL starters, but lost them all (keep in mind that Kelly played two seasons for Houston of the USFL, in 1984-85, and thus his first five NFL seasons were 1986-90). Elway was the top overall pick, Kelly was 14th to Buffalo, and Miami selected Marino 27th.
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