The book on the quarterback class of the 2004 NFL Draft closed for good on Thursday. Ben Roethlisberger, the last of the trio of stars from the 2004 Draft, including Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, announced is retirement from the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday, ending his brilliant playing career after 18 seasons.
All three of the top quarterbacks selected in the 2004 Draft – out of 17 quarterbacks selected that year – will soon be enshrined in Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH. Manning will be the first to go in, in 2025, followed in ’26 by Rivers, then Big Ben will get the call in ’27.
But among the three of them, which one had the greatest NFL career?
3. Philip Rivers: The best quarterback never to play in a Super Bowl
Rivers was never able to match Roethlisberger and Manning for postseason prowess, failing to reach a single Super Bowl in his 17-year career. The closest he came was against those same Patriots in the 2007 season, playing the AFC Championship Game with a torn ACL and still managing to keep the San Diego Chargers close.
Rivers’ individual accomplishments were voluminous. Rivers was named to eight Pro Bowls and took the Chargers to the playoffs six times, securing their first postseason win in 13 years in 2007.
Rivers is now sixth all-time in passing yards, having been passed by Roethlisberger this season. His 240 career starts with San Diego and Indianapolis is second all-time.
2. Eli Manning: Two Super Bowl victories enhances his legacy
Playing in the shadow of his brother Peyton, Eli Manning forged his own Hall of Fame-worthy career with the New York Giants, after engineering a Draft Day trade with the San Diego Chargers.
Though at times inconsistent, and with a ragged end to his career after the drafting of Daniel Jones, Manning still managed to set the Giants’ all-time records for passing yards, touchdowns, and completions. Manning, who ranks eighth all-time in passing yards and ninth in touchdowns, started 201 consecutive games from his rookie season of 2004 through 217, the third-longest consecutive-start streak by a quarterback in NFL history.
But Manning’s career will forever be defined by two remarkable, clutch throws in two Super Bowls against the New England Patriots. In 2007, after leading the Wild Card Giants out of the NFC Playoffs with stunning victories over the Dallas Cowboys, then the Green Bay Packers in a frigid NFC Championship Game, Manning took on the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl 42.
Trailing 14-10 and the clock running out, Manning led a fateful touchdown drive that will forever be remembered for the “helmet catch” by wide receiver David Tyree, who caught Manning’s desperation heave after escaping a near sack, pinning the ball to his helmet as he was tackled.
Manning then connected with Plaxico Burress for the winning score in the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.
Four years later, it was a pinpoint sideline pass to Mario Manningham that again set the Giants up for the winning score against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, cementing Manning’s legacy as one of the best clutch performers in NFL history.
1. Ben Roethlisberger: The best in his class
No offense to Philip Rivers, whose career numbers are among the best in NFL history, but if we’re going to judge which of the three 2004 quarterbacks had the best career, the first criteria has to be championships, and though Manning and Roethlisberger each won two Super Bowls in their careers, we’re giving the nod to Big Ben, who remains the youngest quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl, in his second season in 2005.
Roethlisberger also took the Steelers to a third Super Bowl in 2015 after famously winning his second Super Bowl in 2008, clinching the game with a touchdown pass along the sideline of the end zone to a toe-tapping Santonio Holmes to beat the Arizona Cardinals in an all-time classic.
Roethlisberger ends his career 5th all-time in passing yards with 64,088, just above Rivers on the all-time list. The first rookie to win 15 games in a season, Big Ben was the fourth QB to reach 100 career victories inside his first 150 games and ended his career fifth in regular-season wins with 165.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference