In April of 2004, four quarterbacks went in the first round of the NFL draft. The number 22 pick by the Bills was a Tulane hopeful, J.P. Losman. Losman is now riding the pine in Miami and has a career 33 TD-to-34 INT record. His best year with the Bills was in ’06, when he actually threw more TDs than INTs, but he has never really amounted to much.
The number one pick, Eli Manning, went to the San Diego Chargers. The son of a Hall of Famer and brother of a future Hall of Famer, Manning flat out refused to play for the Chargers. Much ballyhoo was made, and Papa Manning pulled some strings to make sure his son ended up in the Meadowlands. The number four pick from NC State, Phillip Rivers, was traded to San Diego from the Giants (along with a third round pick in the ’04 draft AND a first round pick in ’05 AND a third round pick in ’05).
Rivers fell into place at San Diego, and he ran a tight offense along with RB sensation Ladanian Tomlinson, beginning full-time in ’06 (starting the Great Brees vs. Rivers debate, of which reams of opinion were written). Rivers has thrown for consistent 4,000-plus yards for the last four seasons, but San Diego can’t find its way under coach Norv Turner.
(As an aside: While Manning was at Madison Square Garden sobbing on his Daddy’s shoulders at the prospect he should end up in sunny San Diego, a colleague of his, one Pat Tillman of the Arizona Cardinals, who gave up his NFL contract to join the Special Forces and earn an enlisted man’s pay, was killed in action just two days earlier. Let’s get a little perspective, kid.)
That leaves Manning and a QB from Miami (Ohio), Ben Roethlisberger. He went #11 overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he has been steady in his position since his first season. He’s been banged up a bit over the years, but always managed to return from his injuries, be they from on-field play or off-season shenanigans (like riding a motorcycle without a helmet). In fact, injuries have limited his availability to a full 16-game season only once, but he seldom misses more than one or two games a season, damn the injuries.
He has led his team to three Super bowls and has two rings to prove it. His fellow Class of ’04 alumnus Manning also has two rings in his two appearances. So who got the better deal, Pittsburgh or New York?
Roethlisberger went 13-0 as a rookie and carried the Steelers to a Superbowl win in only his sophomore year. Manning struggled out of the gate. In his first full year as a starter, 2005, Manning threw 17 INTs and 24 TDs, and he fumbled the ball nine times (though his team helped him in that department, as he only lost the ball twice). Manning has played seven more games in his career than Roethlisberger, but he’s never finished a season with a QB rating better than 93. His Pittsburgh counterpart has five seasons under his belt with a better rating than that, and that doesn’t include this season’s current 101.1 rating. Still, numbers can never tell the whole story: Roethlisberger’s worst season was arguably in 2006 when he pitched 23 INTs to 18TDs and an end-of-season rating of 75.4. 2006 was also the year he won his first Superbowl.
For only the third time since these ’04 grads stepped onto the professional field, they met on Sunday afternoon in New Jersey. The teams are 1-1 head-to-head, but after a late-game rally and sensational running from Isaac Redman, the Steelers came out on top. A couple questionable calls went the Giants’ way, first with a personal foul for a late hit on Victor Cruz by Steeler Ryan Clark (replays showed the hit was not up high, and Cruz still had the ball when Clark tackled him); Shortly after that, Roethlisberger was charged with a fumble when replays showed his arm going forward for an incomplete pass. Assuming the personal foul call hadn’t happened, the Giants were still in field goal range, so we’ll give them three. But the fumble recovery and 70-yard TD run gave the Giants a potential 11-point swing that kept them in the game.
Maybe the officials felt bad for the team and their displaced families. Maybe they wanted to give New Yorkers something to cheer for, even if only for three hours. But even through a sloppy first half, the Steelers and Roethlisberger proved who the better team was. On that Sunday afternoon.