A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

With Philip Rivers recently joining Eli Manning in retirement, NFL fans debate each of their legacies and recall that fateful 2004 draft day trade.

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After 17 seasons and 240 consecutive starts, longtime Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has retired from the NFL, joining fellow 2004 draftee Eli Manning. Both had stellar careers and were rare pictures of durability and longevity in a league in which most players don’t even last three seasons.

Before Eli Manning and Rivers even took an NFL snap, their legacies were destined to be intertwined forever. Not only were they both selected in the top five picks of the 2004 NFL Draft, but they were also members of arguably the most famous, and controversial, draft trade in league history.

The Draft Day Saga

“With the first choice in the 2004 NFL Draft, the San Diego Chargers select Eli Manning, quarterback, Mississippi.” And so it began.

Eli Manning walked up to the stage, clearly disappointed with the move. He reluctantly held up the Chargers jersey and sulked back off. Leading up to the draft, the Manning family made it known that they weren’t going to let Eli Manning play in San Diego. Entering the 2004 season, the Chargers boasted only four winning seasons since 1983. Given his own experiences, Father Archie Manning didn’t want his son to have to slog through his career surrounded by a weak team. The elder Archie Manning was the starting quarterback for the New Orleans Saints for 11 seasons, but his team was never able to put together a winning season, much less make the playoffs and Super Bowl. The Giants, at the time, were the team in a better position to contend right away. Eli Manning went as far as to say that he’d rather go to law school than play for the Chargers. Nonetheless, then Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith still elected to select Eli Manning with the first pick, saying that it was best for the franchise.

Three picks after Eli Manning was selected, the Giants chose NC State’s Rivers, who looked like a kid in a candy store. Little did he know that the day was far from over.

Rivers would never suit up for the Giants, and Eli Manning would never suit up for the Chargers. The Chargers traded Eli Manning to the New York Giants for Rivers, in addition to a bundle of later round picks.

Eli Manning and Rivers went on to be two of the greatest quarterbacks in recent history, in addition to Ben Roethlisberger, who was selected later in the first round. The 2004 draft class is often considered one of the best quarterback classes in NFL history, combining for four Super Bowl wins and 18 Pro Bowl selections.

Career Comparisons

Both Eli Manning and Rivers entered their rookie seasons in talented quarterback rooms, with the Chargers starting young Drew Brees and Doug Flutie ahead of Rivers and the Giants switching between Eli Manning and Kurt Warner.

As a rookie, Eli Manning got a significant snap count but was inconsistent, starting seven games. He topped 1,000 yards passing while tossing six touchdown passes and nine interceptions. In his second year, though, Warner left the team, handing Eli Manning the reigns of the G-men. Eli Manning had a breakout season, leading the third highest scoring offense and ranking in the top five in passing yards and touchdown passes. The Giants clinched the NFC East title, giving him invaluable playoff experience early on (granted, the Giants lost 23-0, and Eli Manning tossed three interceptions).

While Eli Manning was making a name for himself in the league from the jump, Rivers didn’t assume the starting job in San Diego until his third season in 2006. Rivers saw flashes of playing time in 2004 and 2005, but he finally got his chance to lead the Chargers in the 2006 campaign after the departure of Brees, and he made the most of it. Rivers led the Chargers to a 14-2 regular season record and earned his first Pro Bowl nod. Despite the dominant regular season record, the Chargers fell to the Patriots in the Divisional Round. Eli Manning’s Giants also made the playoffs that season but fell in the Wild Card round again (not something Eli Manning would make a habit of doing, though).

Eli Manning did the unthinkable in the 2007-2008 season. Coming into the playoffs with the number five seed in the NFC, he guided the Giants to the Super Bowl, where they faced the undefeated New England Patriots, looking to make history. The Pats were favored by double digits over the G-men, but Eli Manning didn’t back down, leading the Giants with a signature fourth quarter comeback highlighted by the famed Helmet Catch. The rest of Eli Manning’s career is history. After winning Super Bowl MVP, he did it again four years later in 2011 against, you guessed it, Tom Brady and the Pats. The Giants entered the playoffs with the lowest seed in the NFC, but no matter. Eli Manning, underdog at heart, comeback kid, and younger brother, swiftly brought the Giants their fourth world championship.

After 2011, Eli Manning continued to lead the Giants until 2019, when they selected his successor, Daniel Jones. Though he never reached the peak for the third time, Eli Manning continued to be a stalwart starter in the NFL. He earned four Pro Bowl nods, holds Giants franchise records in virtually every passing category (including interceptions, to be fair), and ranks in the top 10 in all-time NFL passing yards and touchdowns. The legendary quarterback finished his career with the most Eli Manning record ever, 117-117.

While Eli Manning experienced the highest highs and lowest lows in his career, Rivers played at a dependably high level throughout his career. He was named to eight Pro Bowls and made the playoffs seven times (one with the Colts in his last season). However, he had a 5-7 postseason record, only making it to the AFC Championship once. The only knock on him is his lack of a Super Bowl appearance. He is fifth on the all-time passing yards and touchdowns list and won the hearts of NFL fans around the country with his signature trash talking, including his signature “dadgummit.” He also has become the butt of many jokes for having nine kids, quite literally his biggest legacy.

The Hall of Fame Conversation

Eli Manning and Rivers both had tremendous careers. Rivers was the picture of consistency in the NFL, looking like the best quarterback in the league for several seasons. However, he was never able to fully achieve greatness. Eli Manning, on the other hand, led the league in interceptions three times and was benched twice toward the end of his career, but also won two Super Bowl MVPs. Both of these quarterbacks should be shoo-ins to the Hall of Fame given all their accomplishments, but the question then becomes, who deserves it more?

It’s called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Talent for a reason. The Hall of Fame is about achieving greatness. So what if Rivers had more accurate throws and a better deep ball? Eli Manning won the Super Bowl twice and is one of just five other players to be named Super Bowl MVP two times. The other four? Joe Montana, Brady, Bart Starr, and Terry Bradshaw, three Hall of Famers and one G.O.A.T.

Eli Manning is one of the most clutch players in NFL history and should be ultimately voted into the Hall of Fame as such. Though Rivers certainly should be inducted as well, if someone had to choose between the two, Eli Manning would be the right choice. As Eli Manning himself once iconically said, “With the game on the line, I want the ball in my hands.”

While fanatics continue to argue about the Rivers vs. Eli Manning debate, both players are looking to enjoy retirement life. Eli Manning spent a year away from football, instead spending time with his family, playing golf, and, most notably, getting a Twitter account with his signature dry humor. In fact, it was on Twitter that he announced his first throw in seven months after retirement with his old friend Larry Fitzgerald. “When you retire, you are allowed to workout in khakis,” he wrote. Needless to say, Eli Manning is thriving in retirement. Recently, rumors have grown that he would like to work with the Giants in some capacity.

Rivers is set to coach high school football at St. Michael’s school in Alabama, hoping to eventually coach his son.

Rivers and Eli Manning, two polar opposite personalities, finally retired after two polar opposite NFL careers, both with a place forever in the NFL history books.