It does’t happen that often. But then again that’s exactly why it’s so memorable when it does. It happened in the 1983 NFL draft: John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino. It happened in the NBA in ’84, again in ’96 and of course in 2003. Several future hall of famers to choose from. It also happened in the NFL in 1989, but only one of the future hall of famers (Troy Aikman) was a QB, the others were the most electric back in NFL history (Barry Sanders), a great pass rusher (Derrick Thomas) and the best cover corner ever (Deion Sanders). But when the sport is football and a draft features several future hall of famers that play QB, by far the most important position in the game, that draft is talked about for decades.
So in 2017 we talk more than ever about the 2004 draft class of quarterbacks. For more than one reasons. And I think it’s time we give these three living legends their due. They’ve had a tougher road to success than people might think, having to play during the Tom Brady–Peyton Manning era, the rise of the running QBs phenom (Vick, Young, Cam) and most importantly during the “no patience at the quarterback position” executive’s era, where all it takes is a couple of bad seasons and you might be out for good.
Eli Manning was benched in week 13, putting a stop to his streak of 211 consecutive starts. Creating controversy in a city that loves controversy like no other. The Giants lost, the head coach was fired and the next week the 2004 #1 draft pick was back at the helm. That short lived drama was the cause for more Eli talk. Is he a hall of famer? Was his career great? Solid? Just OK? Will he be remembered for his two rings and Super Bowl MVPs or for his interception titles? For his crucial throws or his memes? For being a spoiled brat on his draft day or for being a class act at the twilight of his career?
Well Eli will eventually end up in the HOF mainly because he is football royalty. Who said the HOF voting is fair? But based only on his availability and two titles he makes a strong case. Of course a strong couple of seasons now, towards the end of his career, either in NY or somewhere else won’t hurt him, they sure didn’t hurt his brother. When it comes down to the wire though, the much loved Ole Miss product in the tri-state area was an above average player in an era where extraordinary passers changed the game.
“Big Ben” Roethlisberger was picked at #11 in the ’04 draft. And by the end of his second season he had a Super Bowl ring, a terrible motorcycling accident and legal drama that turned a lot of fans against him. 13 seasons after his first start his rings are still two, his passing yards over… his legend of being able to escape tackles that would bring almost any other quarterback down, hold on to the ball and make plays downfield is still growing and -last but not least- he is often in the news with his “retirement” innuendos and antics.
Ben was always lucky enough to have a huge amount of talent in key skilled positions throughout his decorated career, but has always had an elite skillset of his own and has usually played up to it, and therefore a lock for Canton. If he wins one more title, he will elevate himself above the Elis, Warners and Aikmans of the world, maybe even above the other Steeler QB with multiple Super Bowl titles, Terry Bradshaw.
And so we come to the only top QB from that draft crop who hasn’t even played at the big game. Phillip Rivers is a throwback, a gunslinger with weird mechanics, a fast talker bow tie fun dude. Who by the way now has, by virtue of Eli’s benching (in yet another “their careers are tied at the hip” moment) the longest active streak for most consecutive starts at QB.
Rivers’ story is very different than the other two. He had Drew Brees ahead of him when he arrived in San Diego. Drew’s shoulder injury lead the Chargers‘ execs to let him go (we often forget that, mainly because Rivers found success quickly) and then he took over. Well not so much…. ‘cause the Bolts had the best running back in the game. Playing in coach Marty Schottenheimer’s conservative system does not help a pass happy young QB build his legend. Neither does losing to the Pats in the playoffs because a DB fumbles during an interception return in the last seconds of a game. Neither does relocation.
Rivers has fought all of these. He fought a 0-4 2017 season start (mainly due to a bad kicker) to make his team a dark horse favourite this year. His success, with zero home field advantage, with the team’s only exceptional unit being an intimidating pass rush, is a story worth following. And if they did make the playoffs, the Chargers and their feisty veteran signal caller would have been an opponent neither Tom Brady or Ben Roethslisberger would be happy to face.
If I was pressured to choose one QB that hasn’t won the big one yet, I’d go with Philip Rivers…