If Eli Manning hadn’t refused to play in San Diego in 2004, Drew Brees may never have played for the Saints, inspired New Orleans and built a Hall of Fame career.
And Manning never would have led the Giants over the New England Patriots twice in the Super Bowl, making his own Hall of Fame bid.
If the Chargers hadn’t called the Giants on Draft Day and traded Manning to New York after selecting him first overall, and if the struggling Brees hadn’t had the opportunity to start the 2004 season as the Chargers’ QB, there is no telling where Brees, 39, and Manning, 37, would have been this Sunday.
They certainly would not be at MetLife Stadium this afternoon, clashing for the sixth time time (Brees leads 4-2) in their 18th and 15th seasons in the league, respectively, with three Super Bowl titles and Super Bowl MVP awards between them and the reverence warranted by their historic accomplishments.
There is a rarely-discussed, chain link-strong connection, however, between the two iconic QBs.
While Manning and Philip Rivers are forever linked after being swapped on draft day in 2004, the dramatic turn in Manning’s fate facilitated by Giants GM Ernie Accorsi’s trade on the clock at No. 4 had a domino effect that afforded Brees the second chance he needed to audition for his eventual home franchise in The Big Easy.
An intriguing breakdown and reflection upon what was and what could have been:
SECOND CHANCES: By draft day 2004, Brees, a 2001 second-round draft pick of the Chargers out of Purdue, had thrown 31 interceptions to 28 touchdown passes in 27 starts for San Diego, with a sub-60 percent completion percentage. So Chargers GM A.J. Smith was going quarterback in the draft, and once he traded Manning for Rivers on draft day, Rivers was the presumed new San Diego starter. Rivers held out into deep August, however, missing four weeks of training camp, keeping Brees under center to start the 2004 season. And Brees turned his second chance into the 2004 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award with 27 TDs, seven INTs and a 65.5 completion percentage and his first Pro Bowl appearance. Brees kept Rivers on the bench for two seasons, and his resurgence led the Saints and Dolphins to pursue him in free agency in the Spring 2006 even after he had suffered a career-threatening shoulder surgery in the final game of the 2005 season. The Dolphins, concerned that Brees never would be the same, opted to trade a second-round pick for Minnesota Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper instead. Culpepper was coming off a serious knee injury but was considered a safer risk than Brees by the Dolphins’ doctors. The Dolphins were Brees’ first choice, but the Saints gave Brees a six-year, $60 million deal with an $8 million signing bonus. A pivotal decision on Miami’s part, to put it mildly.
LEGACIES CHANGED: If Manning hadn’t publicly refused to play in San Diego, he could have been starting as a Chargers rookie ahead of Brees. Then maybe Brees never gets his second chance and never finds the right fit not only with Saints coach Sean Payton, but also with the city of New Orleans. Brees’ talent and performance is only part of his story; his contributions as a franchise and community leader in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the area back in 2005 are indelible and memorialized in his Walter Payton Man of the Year Award a year later. As Odell Beckham Jr. said Thursday: “This is Drew Brees and the Saints we’re talking about. I grew up in New Orleans. He gave life to a city when we were — I don’t want to say hopeless, but we were all down.”
Manning’s legacy forever would have been different, as well. Even if he had excelled, consider how much of Manning’s identity is defined not only by his two Super Bowl MVP awards but by the fact that he won both of them by defeating Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on the game’s biggest stage — twice! He would have had to go through New England — or his brother Peyton and the Colts — in the AFC Championship Game instead. Manning’s impact as a pediatric cancer advocate and donor no doubt would have been just as great, but it would have happened primarily in California and not in New Jersey/New York. Manning, of course, won the 2016 Walter Payton Man of the Year award alongside Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald.
BIG BEN IN BLUE: If Smith hadn’t called Ernie Accorsi when the Giants were on the clock at No. 4, Accorsi was prepared to draft a quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger out of Miami (Ohio). Accorsi had coveted Manning but had refused in prior talks with the Chargers to trade pass rusher Osi Umenyiora, whom Smith had demanded. So Smith and Accorsi had not spoken for five days prior to the draft. And when the Chargers drafted Manning No. 1 overall, the Oakland Raiders took Iowa tackle Robert Gallery at No. 2, and the Cardinals drafted Fitzgerald, it was beginning to look like Big Ben would be playing for Big Blue. Accorsi and the Giants, though, did not make the pick immediately, electing to use their full 15 minutes on the clock. And with fewer than seven minutes remaining for the Giants, Smith called Accorsi. Then, still, Accorsi had to agree to include the Giants’ 2005 first-round pick in the trade, as well, to get it done. Smith and Accorsi had not discussed that element of the deal prior. Accorsi preferred to give up that pick instead of the Giants’ 2004 second, and after acquiring Manning, he used that 34th overall second-round pick to draft a Boston College guard named Chris Snee. The rest is history. And yes, consider how dramatically this decision also impacted the Pittsburgh Steelers’ future, as well.
BREES-MANNING FAMILY RELATIONSHIP: Brees and the Mannings had known each other before he became a Saint, but Brees’ signing in New Orleans deepened his connection with the family, especially father Archie Manning, the two-time Pro Bowler and longtime Saints QB who raised his family in New Orleans, the birthplace of both Peyton and Eli. Brees recounted in a 2010 interview with CBS’ Katie Couric that he leaned on Archie for almost everything when he first got to New Orleans, all the way down to where to get a haircut. And he and his wife developed a special connection and admiration for the Mannings as community leaders in New Orleans, so close that the only time Archie wouldn’t root for Brees was, of course, when he faced his sons. That included Brees beating Peyton’s Indianapolis Colts, 31-17, in Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7. 2010. “Archie will send me texts a lot just before games wishing me luck,” Brees said in the 2010 interview. “There was one time where we were about to play Eli and he shot me a text that said, ‘You’re on your own this week, buddy.’ Just joking around. And he even sent me a text a few days ago, proud of the game obviously, and said if you were playing anybody else I’d be all over this ‘Who Dat’ extravaganza, festivities and everything else. He said, ‘unfortunately you have to be playing the Colts.’ I know that his heart is with the Saints having played here so many years, but blood’s thicker than water.”