Historic Draft: 2004
The story of the 2004 NFL Draft revolved around a quarterback reluctant to go to the team likely to pick him at No.1. As well as a controversial trade, and a general manager named Ernie Accorsi. It was like the 1983 Draft all over again!
The key players
Going into the Draft, the buzz amongst NFL fans and front offices across the league was around the top pick. Would it be contested by Ole Miss’s Eli Manning and “Big” Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio) University?
If quarterbacks were racehorses, Manning would be a thoroughbred with a strong bloodline. His father Archie was the second overall pick in the 1971 NFL Draft, to the New Orleans Saints. Like his son thirty years later, Archie enjoyed a highly successful career at Ole Miss where his jersey was retired. The speed limit on the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford remains 18 mph, in honour of Manning’s No.18 jersey. Eli’s older brother Peyton would go on to win two Super Bowls and break most NFL passing records. His nephew, Arch, is currently the one of the highest ranked high school quarterbacks in the class of 2023.
Ben Roethlisberger broke passing records at Miami (Ohio) University. (Image credit: sportscasting.com)
Roethlisberger was more akin to a wild stallion. Known for his powerful arm and ability to run away from defenders and make plays outside the pocket. His idol was the top pick in the 1983 Draft, John Elway. Because of which Big Ben wore the number 7. He led the RedHawks to an unbeaten season in which he threw for close to 4,500 yards and 37 touchdowns. Roethlisberger was highly rated heading into the Draft.
Philip Rivers was traded to the Chargers so the New York Giants could land Eli Manning.
(Image credit: denverpost.com)
The third player in this game of high stakes was North Carolina State’s Philip Rivers. Rivers was not regarded as being in the running for the top pick. Yet he became a key factor in the destinations of Manning and Roethlisberger. Rivers was an upbeat, chatty character. Known for his unusual throwing style. Likened by his offensive coordinator Norm Chow as a “javelin throw”. He left college as the second ranked all-time passer in NCAA history with 13,484 career passing yards.
The futures of these three top quarterbacks effectively lay in the hands of Ernie Accorsi. The general manager of the New York Giants, who were picking at No.4. Accorsi had been GM of the then Baltimore Colts in 1983. Refusing to back down from taking the consensus top pick, John Elway. Who had made his displeasure at potentially playing for Baltimore abundantly clear.
Fast forward 22 years, and Accorsi was on the other side of this situation. New York was desperate for a quarterback and were said to be considering Manning or Roethlisberger. Ole Miss’s quarterback Manning was the favourite to be selected first overall. Which was the pick held by the San Diego Chargers.
The influence of team Manning
Team Manning were not said to be keen on Eli going to the Chargers. They were eyeing up the bright lights and media markets of Manhattan for their man. Accorsi had stated that he was comfortable taking Roethlisberger at No.4. Big Ben, represented by super-agent Leigh Steinberg, was keen on a move to the Big Apple. Accorsi sensed an opportunity to trade up for Manning.
As with Elway in 1983, the team at No.1 called the bluff of the reluctant college quarterback and selected Manning. The sight of the Ole Miss quarterback awkwardly holding up a Chargers jersey to a cacophony of boos was the image of the Draft. Accorsi then played his hand. He took Philip Rivers at No.4, much to the surprise of everyone. Rivers has said to this day no-one in the Giants’ organisation ever spoke to him when he was drafted. Leigh Steinberg, sat next to his client Roethlisberger, shook his head, as he realised what was about to unfold.
Taking a Risk
Accorsi had spoken to the Chargers about a deal for Manning. Although nothing had been agreed when San Diego took him as the draft kicked off. In an interview with Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Accorsi said:
“Everybody thought my second choice was [Philip] Rivers, but that wasn’t the case — Roethlisberger was. We scouted Roethlisberger very, very thoroughly. (At the Senior Bowl) He threw four touchdowns in the first quarter or the first 20 minutes. He was on fire. I loved him. We all did.”
With Manning now a Charger, Accorsi was ready to select his man. Wary of a hold out from their selection, San Diego proposed a new deal with the Giants. They liked Philip Rivers. The Chargers would trade Manning if New York selected Rivers at No.4. It was high risk for Accorsi. If San Diego backed out, he would be left without either of his preferred options.
Ernie Accorsi (right) and Coach Tom Coughlin got their man. (Image credit: nytimes.com)
The picks all prospered
The trade went ahead, and the situation worked out well for all the players. Manning would go on to win two Super Bowls in New York. Rivers usurped Drew Brees in San Diego, breaking every franchise passing record. Then took one last unsuccessful shot at the Super Bowl appearance he craved with the Indianapolis Colts. Accorsi got his man and Super Bowl. Roethlisberger, slipped to Pittsburgh at No.11. Which worked out pretty well because he became the youngest Super Bowl winning quarterback aged 23 in 2006. He added his second Lombardi trophy in 2008.
Other notable picks
Seven wide receivers were taken in round one, including the legendary Larry Fitzgerald, taken at No.3 by Arizona.
Six players from the University of Miami went in the first round. Including the late Sean Taylor. Who redefined the safety position before being tragically murdered by intruders to his Miami home in 2007. Kellen Winslow, Vince Wilfork, and Jonathan Vilma would join him in the Pro Bowl.
Idaho State’s Jared Allen was a steal in the fourth round. Taken at No.126 by Kansas City, latterly playing for the Vikings, Bears and Panthers. He notched 136 sacks in a stellar 12-year NFL career.
Texas Tech’s Wes Welker would go on to lead the NFL in receptions three times. Also racking up three Super Bowl appearances catching passes from Tom Brady in New England and Peyton Manning in Denver. Jason Peters became a leading offensive lineman for Buffalo and Philadelphia.
There were twenty-eight trades in the first round. The three likely future Hall of Fame quarterbacks produced four Super Bowl wins. And fifteen first round picks were selected to the Pro Bowl. 2004 has a strong case to challenge 1983 as the greatest draft class.