The year is 2004 and the San Diego Chargers have the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Despite vowing to never play for the Bolts, Eli Manning is selected and then promptly traded to the New York Giants.
In return, San Diego gets the fourth overall pick, Philip Rivers, the Giants third-round pick in 2004 and the their first-round pick in 2005. Those picks become future pro-bowlers Nate Kaeding and Shawne Merriman respectively.
It’s a tough call to say who got the better deal in that trade. On one hand, the Chargers received three Pro Bowl caliber players who have had great careers, while the Giants got one.
But the Giants went on to win a Super Bowl with Eli.
If your only criteria for greatness are championships, then the Giants' 2007 Super Bowl ring would put an end to this argument before it has begun. If, however, you are looking for which quarterback is the better of the two, then you need to look a little deeper.
From a performance point of view, Rivers is far and above the better quarterback. In fact, he is the best quarterback to come out of the first round of the 2004 draft—a draft which also saw two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger selected 11th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Manning was thrust into the starting role for the Giants almost immediately where Rivers had two years to develop as a back-up to Drew Brees. That means that Eli has started 23 more NFL games than Rivers and therefore has thrown for more yards (22,646 to 19,661) and touchdown passes (156 to 136).
And that’s where Manning’s advantage ends. His career completion percentage, 58 percent, is far below Rivers’ 63.7. Rivers averages 8.0 yards-per-pass attempt while Manning averages 6.8.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two players is the number of interceptions they throw—Eli has 113 to Rivers’ 58. More importantly, Rivers’ touchdown-to-interception ratio is 2.34 to Manning’s 1.38.
In Eli’s best year ever, he managed a quarterback rating of 93.1. That doesn’t even match Rivers’ career average of 97.2. Rivers has had only one season out of five with a QB rating below 90, Manning has had only one season above 90 out of six.
There is really no comparison.
The two teams have only met twice since the trade, both won by the Chargers. The first game was in San Diego in 2005 while Rivers was still backing up Brees. Manning had a great game going 24-for-41 for 352 yards and two touchdowns, but his team lost 45-23 to an overpowering Chargers rushing attack led by LaDainian Tomlinson’s 192 yards and three touchdowns. In so far as a quarterback comparison, that game was a bust.
The next time the two teams faced off was at the Meadowlands in November of 2009. The Giants led late in the game until Rivers capped an 80-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson with 21 seconds to play.
Manning had better stats in that game, but Rivers had the last laugh with his come-from-behind late fourth quarter drive, reminiscent of the great John Elway. Ironically, that game ended when Merriman, who could have been a Giant, sacked Manning.
When all is said and done, what it really comes down to is perception. Would San Diego have been better off with Manning as their quarterback all these years instead of Rivers?
I highly doubt that.
Had both players stayed put and played for the teams that drafted them, Rivers would have that Super Bowl ring on his finger, maybe two; while Manning would have struggled in San Diego and could have easily become the second coming of Ryan Leaf.
Thank God for "The Trade."