The Chargers Made the Best Out of Eli Manning’s 2004 Draft

Quarterback Philip Rivers is leaving the Los Angeles Chargers for the Indianapolis Colts. Former Giants QB Eli Manning is officially retired. Both set off on incredible individual careers, which obscured the controversial moment in 2004 that intertwined their fates.

The Chargers, then in San Diego, had the No. 1 overall pick. Eli Manning — with his father Archie publicly on the offensive — made his intentions clear. He would not play for the Chargers even if they blew their pick on him.

Not only did the Chargers persevere. They may have come out in an even better position by the end. Here’s how it all played out.

That time Eli Manning stonewalled the Chargers

Sports agent Tim Condon did not hesitate to make his client’s intentions clear. Before the 2004 draft, he declared that Manning would not play for the San Diego Chargers even if they use their first overall pick. Archie Manning, potentially driven by his own career playing for poor NFL teams, said the same into any microphone he could find.

The Mannings never cleared up exactly why they were allergic to the Chargers. There are obvious reasons, like the Giants’ coaching structure at the time; the fact that endorsements and Manning’s profile would be higher in New York than in San Diego; or perhaps some grudge we’ll never know about.

The Chargers called Manning’s bluff. It led to a grimly hilarious moment where a deflated Manning dragged himself up to the stage upon getting the honor of the No. 1 pick. But he was officially a Charger for less than an hour, as SB Nation explains. San Diego’s front office decided to turn Eli’s high-profile disdain in their favor.

How the Chargers flipped Manning into bigger draft plans

Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith decided Manning would be a Charger just long enough to flip him for a better deal. They held out as the picks played out. Opportunity came. It was common knowledge that the Giants were the Mannings’ preferred landing spot. San Diego simply needed to wait and see.

The Giants used their fourth overall pick on Philip Rivers. The teams promptly swapped rights to the QBs. The Chargers secured a third-round pick in the deal, using it on kicker Nate Kaeding. The Giants also gave up two 2005 draft picks, which secured pass-rusher Shawne Merriman in that draft.

Defensive end Igor Olshansky, center Nick Hardwick, defensive end Shaun Phillips, and running back Michael Turner rounded out the rest of this top-flight draft year for the Chargers.

Was Philip Rivers’ era worth it?

The 2004 and 2005 picks added up to strong starting material. The Chargers almost immediately became playoff contenders with the new core. With Drew Brees struggling with injuries, Rivers transitioned into the starting role after two years. He kept the position for 14 years, starting with an explosive 14-2 initial season.

The major miss from these drafts wasn’t even particularly awful. Kaeding is infamous for his seemingly cursed playoff appearances. He was actually a solid regular-season kicker. He had an 86.2% career field-goal percentage by the end. Unfortunately, that’s paired with a 53.3% rate in the playoffs.

Now, this starting core is long gone. Rivers, an eight-time Pro Bowler and potential Hall of Famer, is setting the sun on his career with the Colts. While a Super Bowl win was never achieved, these Chargers consistently made strong cases for playing past the regular season.

Without the 2004 draft moves, the Chargers wouldn’t have become a threat at all. Manning likely sticks to sitting out. Philip Rivers stays in New York. The NFL looks different for an entire era. This pivotal draft put the league on a different path.

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