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What If the Giants Never Landed Eli Manning?

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What If the Giants Never Landed Eli Manning?
Harry How/Getty Images
Could Kurt Warner have done just as much as Eli Manning the last 10 years?

In parallel universes, the Giants are being quarterbacked by Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and whoever the hell relieved Kurt Warner in 2010. Confused? Let us explain.

If you dislike hypotheticals, feel free to hit that "Next Article" button in the top right corner of the page, because it's the offseason now and we're about to go back almost a full decade in order to dream up some scenarios that never happened. 

This stems from a conversation I had with a New York Giants fan in a Manhattan sports bar earlier this month, so it has literally been reaped from an American sports debate hotbed.

During a break in the Georgetown-Michigan State college hoops game playing out in front of us, we became acquainted and he asked what I did. When I told the guy I covered the Giants, he asked me something I'd never really thought about in seven years covering the NFL and two years focusing on the NFC East.

"Hey, what do you think would have happened had they never drafted Eli and went with Warner?"

These are technicalities, because the Giants actually did go with Kurt Warner to start the 2004 season and actually didn't draft Eli Manning. They traded for Manning—a blue-chip prospect—on draft day in '04, so by the time they signed Warner in early June, we knew he was just there to ease the transition to the heir apparent. 

But it made me think for a moment, which is a rarity in itself. What if the Giants had never made that trade with the San Diego Chargers? What if they had held onto Philip Rivers or taken Ben Roethlisberger instead? And what if they had decided against drafting a quarterback altogether, gambling instead on incumbent starter Kerry Collins and the prospect of landing Warner upon his anticipated release from the Rams?

Put another way, what if Manning stuck with the Chargers and Rivers and Roethlisberger landed in Oakland and Arizona, who picked between San Diego and the Giants at the top of that draft? What if the Giants had simply missed on a quarterback that year? 

Let's break down all of the "what ifs" above by focusing on three potential scenarios, the third of which has a wacky twist. 

 

Scenario 1: They get Ben Roethlisberger instead

In 2012, Giants general manager Jerry Reese recalled that Roethlisberger was the backup plan all along in '04. 

"We thought he would definitely fit in for us," said Reese of Roethlisberger, according to ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "We didn't have any issues with picking him if it came down to that."

According to Reese, per Youngmisuk, Ernie Accorsi, who was the general manager then, was "fixated" on Manning but willing to take Big Ben if a deal couldn't be swung with San Diego in order to land the No. 1 overall pick. 

I'll never fully understood why Manning didn't want to be drafted by the Chargers, but the widely-held belief is that helped the Giants in a huge way. After all, Rivers has just four playoff wins and zero Super Bowl appearances in 10 years with the Chargers. 

But based on what Reese said eight years later, there's a good chance that the Giants wouldn't have wound up with Rivers regardless. If Manning went to San Diego first overall, New York would have selected Roethlisberger. 

And who's to say Big Ben wouldn't have experienced just as much success as Manning in New York? He has, after all, won just as many Super Bowls as Manning. And while he's probably had a lot more support in Pittsburgh, he's actually been more successful individually and in terms of wins and losses. 

Eli Manning vs. Ben Roethlisberger
Manning Roethlisberger
Super Bowl wins 2 2
Super Bowls 2 3
Playoff wins 8 10
Winning % .563 .669
Completion % 58.5 63.3
Touchdown % 4.6 5.0
Interception % 3.4 2.8
Yards/attempt 7.1 7.9
Passer rating 81.2 92.6

Pro Football Reference

Don't forget, too, that the Giants gave up something resembling an arm and a length in order to swap Rivers for Manning. Had they stayed up and taken Roethlisberger, they'd have retained their first-round pick the following season (which the Chargers used on impact pass-rusher Shawne Merriman) as well as a third-round pick in '04 and a fifth-rounder in '05. 

Picture the 2005 Giants the way they were. Now replace Manning with the only other quarterback who has won two Super Bowls since that year and add a guy like Merriman as well as two more mid-round youngsters. 

Honestly, it might be a toss-up. 

 

Scenario 2: They get Philip Rivers instead

Based on what Reese established above, this scenario only would have had a chance to come to fruition if Manning and Roethlisberger went off the board in the first three picks, which is much less realistic but also isn't wildly far-fetched.

I mean, it's not as though the Raiders or Cardinals were sitting pretty at quarterback. And besides, if Big Ben were to have gone off the board first, who knows who might have traded into the top three in order to grab Manning (the Steelers come to mind as a possibility). 

Anyway, the reality is that Rivers could have been the Giants' new franchise quarterback. Not necessarily a bad thing, because the guy has had one hell of a career.

Eli Manning vs. Philip Rivers
Manning Rivers
Super Bowl wins 2 0
Super Bowls 2 0
Playoff wins 8 4
Winning % .563 .617
Completion % 58.5 64.4
Touchdown % 4.6 5.4
Interception % 3.4 2.5
Yards/attempt 7.1 7.9
Passer rating 81.2 96.0

Pro Football Reference

But most of the time, he's been surrounded by just as much talent as Manning but hasn't been able to win in January or February. And while, again, it would have been nice for the Giants to have kept that third-round pick as well as that first-rounder in '05 (which could have been used on Merriman or Logan Mankins or Roddy White), I'm pretty sure there isn't a Giants fan on the planet who would choose that scenario. 

 

Scenario 3: They don't land a quarterback at all

At the time, moving away from Warner and toward one of the draft's top three quarterbacks seemed obvious. So obvious, in fact, that it's easy to forget how much success Warner had after moving on to Arizona in the years that followed his short stint with Big Blue. 

In the unlikely scenario that the Giants ended up without Manning, Rivers or Roethlisberger, they might have stuck with Warner longer than one season. Of course, Warner hadn't exactly been lighting it up before he was relieved by Manning in '04, so there's also a chance they'd have taken a quarterback in the first round of the 2005 draft. 

Guess who that quarterback might have been? The Giants had the 12th pick in that '05 draft, which fell right as Aaron Rodgers was beginning to plummet into the bottom of the first round. That is a magical digression, but it's one we'll avoid going deep on because it's too far separated from the dimension we're living in.

It's obviously impossible to know if they still would have won the Super Bowl in 2007 with Warner at the helm, rather than Manning. But consider that, one year after that, Warner was the quarterback for the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl. You could make a perfectly valid argument that between 2005 and 2009, he was better than Manning.

Eli Manning vs. Kurt Warner, 2005-2009
Manning Warner
Super Bowl wins 1 1
Super Bowls 1 1
Playoff wins 4 4
Winning % .613 .474
Completion % 57.7 65.1
Touchdown % 4.6 4.8
Interception % 3.0 2.8
Yards/attempt 6.8 7.5
Passer rating 81.0 91.9

Pro Football Reference

No, this isn't a likely scenario, but hindsight makes that more clear than it might have actually been. Here, for example, is what Lynn Zinser wrote in the New York Times in the lead-up to that draft: 

Do they go conservative and trade down for more picks and more help across the board? Do the Giants take the safe step and pick Iowa's giant offensive tackle Robert Gallery, who plays a position with high upside and little danger?

Gallery became somewhat of a bust in Oakland, so that wouldn't have been ideal. But keep in mind that in that scenario, the Giants still would have had Warner—and maybe even Rodgers the following year—as well as the 2004 third-round pick, the 2005 first-round pick and the '05 fifth-rounder that they had to surrender in order to swap Rivers for Manning. 

Those picks, plus Gallery. Or in a better scenario, Larry Fitzgerald (who ironically was matched with Warner one year later in Arizona). That's not shabby. DeAngelo Hall and Jonathan Vilma, both of whom became top-tier playmakers for years to come, were also picked in the early part of that round. 

You keep Warner and those draft picks and you get one of those guys? Hmmm.

But there's a but. 

Even if the Giants still would have won Super Bowl XLII with Warner, it's doubtful they'd have gotten that second championship in 2011. Warner retired after the 2009 season. He was 40 years old when the Giants won the second time around.

So naturally, Giants fans are happier with Manning than Warner. Unless, of course, Warner might have been able to lead the franchise to two championships within that smaller window, which had, of course, been abbreviated by Father Time. 

The Rodgers 2005 scenario is a significantly larger stretch within this discussion, but that would be enticing for Giants fans because Rodgers not only has a title under his belt and is younger than Manning, but he's also the highest-rated quarterback in NFL history. 

 

There is no right or wrong answer

Giants fans, you can now tell me to shut up. But this isn't intended to be anti-Eli. It's just fun to relive these pivotal moments in the history of franchises like the Giants and consider what could have been under slightly altered circumstances. 

I don't believe the Giants would have been any more successful in terms of the grand picture the last 10 years with anyone else at the helm, but the thought of what might have gone down with Big Ben, Rivers, Warner, and even Rodgers (or even Alex Smith, Vince Young or Matt Leinart, all of whom went off the board in Round 1 in either 2005 or 2006) is open for debate. And who doesn't love that? 

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