How the Chargers drafted Eli Manning and Drew Brees and ended up with nothing

Photo by Dave Adamson on Unsplash

April 23rd, 2020 saw the National Football League soldier on during a global pandemic by hosting their first ever virtual draft. It went smoothly and the first round concluded without too much drama. The Los Angeles Chargers, finally with a stadium to call their own and the move from San Diego officially in the rear view mirror selected sixth overall and took Justin Herbert, quarterback out of Oregon.

They are hopeful that Herbert can step in and be their next franchise quarterback after Philip Rivers decided to leave for the Indianapolis Colts this off season. While hopes are high for Herbert and the LA Chargers to blaze a new path into the future, this draft inevitably made me think of the past.

Many people forget, that the then San Diego Chargers drafted both Drew Brees and Eli Manning before ending up with Philip Rivers in a wild tale that is not told enough.

Brees and Manning, are hall-of-famers who have combined to post the following achievements in their careers.

Ten NFL records set

Three Super Bowl championships

Three Super Bowl MVPs

17 Pro Bowl appearances

Both drafted by the Chargers in the first half of the century

Chargers Super Bowls in that same time period: 0

How does an organization get and lose two of the greatest quarterbacks of this generation and end up not winning a single Super Bowl?

Enter Drew Brees (2001)

Drew Brees will be forever linked to the city of New Orleans, he is the face of the Saint’s franchise and brought the city unprecedented success. He is so synonymous with New Orleans that it is easy to forget that he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in 2001 to be their starting quarterback.

Brees was selected as the first pick of the second round of the 2001 NFL draft, selection #32 and was the second quarterback taken off the board after Michael Vick.

His first season in San Diego he backed up Doug Flutie before gaining the trust of the organization. Moving forward Brees would be the starter but he never performed the way that the Chargers expected him to.

Career stats in San Diego

12,348 passing yards

80 passing touchdowns

30–28 record as a starter

Although his numbers were slowly ticking upwards towards the end of his rookie contract, the relationship between the Chargers and Brees were beginning to strain. The perceived lack of performance was exasperated in 2003 when Brees went 2–9 as a starter and only played 11 games. This dropped the Chargers to the bottom of the league where they ended up with the first overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft.

Enter Eli Manning (2004)

In 2004, Eli Manning was the consensus #1 selection in the NFL draft. After a season in which the Chargers struggled mightily, only going 4–12, they had the first pick in the draft and had made it known that they were interested in Eli. Upon hearing this news, Eli Manning and his family made a public statement saying that Eli would not play for the Chargers if they selected him in the draft. Despite this threat, the Chargers saw an opportunity to grab the best available player, and selected Manning first overall anyways. Then things got weird.

Eli Manning stood up on stage, looking absolutely distraught, at the draft before going to a press conference less than an hour later. It was at this press conference that Eli Manning told the cameras that he was thinking about giving up on football to go to law school instead.

There are many theories as to why Eli Manning did not want to go to San Diego. Some said, his father Archie Manning got information from Ryan Leaf regarding the Chargers organization. Some say, Archie wanted him to go to New York for other personal reasons. Eli said after the incident that he just didn’t want to play for the Chargers. No matter the reason, their defiance in the 2004 draft left a mark on the NFL.

With a PR disaster looming, the Chargers struck a deal with the New York Giants that changed history forever.

The Trade

Chargers get:

Philip Rivers

Giants 2004 3rd round pick

Giants 2005 1st round pick

Giants 2005 5th round pick

New York Giants get:

Eli Manning

On paper, it looks like the Chargers came out on top. They basically traded back in the draft to obtain Rivers and a plethora of picks but it did not work out that way.

Reenter Brees and Enter Rivers

While this is all going on, a disgruntled Drew Brees is still a member of the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers wanted Rivers to push Brees to perform better but Rivers decided to hold out during training camp. Brees entered the 2004 season as the starter. At this point the quarterbacks on the Chargers roster are Drew Brees, Doug Flutie and Philip Rivers. Not too shabby.

This is not the first time an incumbent starter is threatened and annoyed by an up and coming draftee. Brett Favre infamously froze Aaron Rodgers out when he was drafted. The Patriots traded away Jimmy Garoppolo for a second round pick after it was rumored that Tom Brady did not want him in the building anymore. Drew Brees was also frustrated with the franchise’s attempt to draft Eli Manning and then getting Rivers. The message was clear.

Despite Brees being unhappy at the time, the Chargers plan worked and the addition of Rivers pushed Brees to have his best year yet. He won NFL comeback player of the year and posted career highs in multiple metrics. It looked as though Brees was trending upwards once again even though the Chargers had signed Rivers to a six year deal that same year.

After the 2004 season, Brees made it clear that he did not want to continue playing for the Chargers and he wanted to become a free agent. However, the Chargers franchise tagged him, retaining his rights for the 2005 season in which Philip Rivers served as his backup.

Brees would go onto post a 9–7 record, tossing 24 TDs and 15 INTs.

The Chargers moved to resign Brees and offered him a 5/year deal with little guaranteed money. The Chargers were trying to lock up both Philip Rivers and Drew Brees through 2010. It was an ambitious plan that would have been a coup d’etat. The plan failed.

Brees did not take their deal and instead signed with the New Orleans Saints in spring of 2006.

A Cruel Twist of Fate

Sports are fickle, it is one of the reasons that makes them so entertaining. This saga could have played out many different ways and at the time the Chargers felt as though they had made the best decision for their franchise. Unfortunately, they could not have foreseen what came next.

Rivers would go on to be a successful starter. He would start at quarterback for the Chargers from 2006 to 2019. He was good enough to post franchise record numbers in almost every category but he could never get the team to where they wanted to be. Any general manager will tell you that an iron-man thirteen year starter for a franchise quarterback is a good thing. Rivers is a good quarterback and built a legacy at the Chargers that is going to stand the test of time but he never won when it counted.

Philip Rivers took the Chargers to the playoffs six times and posted an overall record of 5–6. The closest he got to the Super Bowl was the 2007 AFC Championship game in which they lost.

Over that same period, Brees and Manning would go on to win Super Bowls in 2007, 2008 and 2012. Manning went to the playoffs six times as well but posted a post season record of 8–4. Brees has taken the Saints to the playoffs eight times and has a post season record of 8–7 with one Super Bowl win to his name.

Drew Brees is still the starting quarterback of the New Orleans Saints. Eli Manning retired last year and the Giants retired his jersey number. Philip Rivers recently left to try and find the ultimate success that eluded him at the Chargers by going to the Colts.

Rivers might still get his Super Bowl ring yet but it won’t be with the Chargers.

Enter Justin Herbert

Now, it is Justin Herbert’s time to try and right the wrongs of quarterbacks past. While there were multiple coaches, general managers, two cities and multiple stadiums that made up the Chargers tenure between 2001 and now, Herbert is going to be tasked with painting a brighter future for a franchise that deals in frustration.

It is a new era for the now Los Angles Chargers, they are going to be playing in a brand new stadium with the Los Angeles Rams. Times have changed. Yet one can’t help but think back at the events that transpired in the early years of the 2000s and at what could have been.

What if Brees had stayed with the Chargers with Rivers?

What if Manning had held out but ultimately swallowed his pride and played in San Diego?

What if Rivers had stayed in New York?

Would it have been different? Would the Chargers have gotten a championship?

No one can answer these questions but it is now up to Justin Herbert to play well enough to make everyone forget about the questions to begin with.

Written by

Hobbyist historian | Political scientist | Story teller | Lover of animals | Freelancer | Always open for work ->

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