There is little doubt that Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning are among the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Sunday’s matchup between the Steelers and Giants will mark just the third time the two will face each other and based on the seasons they are both having, it should be an amazing game. The similarities between both quarterbacks don’t end with the terrific play they have been displaying. Both were drafted in the first round in 2004, both have two Super Bowl rings and they each have been to two Pro Bowls. The Quarterbacks couldn’t be any different off the field though. Manning comes from a family with a history in the NFL—his father, Archie was a stellar quarterback with the New Orleans Saints in the 70’s and his brother Peyton, now with the Denver Broncos, is another of the league’s best quarterbacks. Manning’s life off the field has been relatively quiet and uneventful. Roethlisberger’s, in contrast, has been anything but. He almost lost his life in a serious motorcycle accident the summer after he won his first Super Bowl and he has twice been accused of rape—although not charged in either incident. It’s safe to say that Roethlisberger has been quite reckless in his life outside the NFL. Below I will chronicle the circumstances leading to Sunday’s much anticipated matchup between two great teams and two great quarterbacks.
In 2002 Steeler’s coach Bill Cowher made a quarterback change from the inconsistent Kordell Stewart to the late-blooming Tommy Maddox. Maddox was more of a drop-back quarterback who was very immobile in the pocket, but often displayed accurate passing. Stewart was a more exciting player able to make plays with his feet, but with a very erratic arm. The Steelers started the 2002 season with losses against the Spygate-era Patriots and the Oakland Raiders. In the third game of the season, with Stewart struggling, Cowher made the switch to Tommy Maddox who led a come-from-behind victory in OT against the division rival Cleveland Browns. Maddox was the starter for the rest of the season which featured many thrilling victories including coming back from a 17 point deficit in a wildcard playoff victory against the Browns. The Steelers finished 10-5-1 that year and Maddox was firmly entrenched as the Steelers new starting quarterback. It didn’t last long, though. The Steelers struggled to a 6-10 finish in 2003 as Maddox threw 17 interceptions to offset his 18 touchdowns. He wasn’t the only reason the Steelers struggled, though, and was set to be the starter again in 2004. The Steelers drafted 11th that year by virtue of their rare poor record and Maddox’s career would take an unexpected turn.
The New York Giants were tied among the worst teams in football in 2003 with a 4-12 record. Only three years removed from a Super Bowl appearance (a loss to the Ravens), and coming off of a playoff season, expectations were high. Their futility would earn them the fourth overall pick in the draft and cost Jim Fassel his job. Kerry Collins was the starting quarterback but was coming off a very mediocre season. His career would also take a hit as the Giants used their high draft pick to select a quarterback. They would release him later that year and he would be picked up by the Oakland Raiders.
The 2004 NFL Draft
The 2004 quarterback class is second only to the hallowed 1983 class as the best ever. 1983’s draft featured three eventual Hall of Famers: John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O’Brien were also first round picks and ended up being solid starters for the Chiefs, pre-Spygate-era Patriots and Jets respectively. There were four quarterbacks taken in the first round in 2004: Manning, Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and J.P. Losman. Tom Donahoe, the Buffalo Bills General Manager at the time and formerly the Steelers Director of Football Operations actually traded the Bills 2nd round pick that season and their first pick in 2005 to move back into the first round to select J.P. Losman out of Tulane. Losman was playing for the Las Vegas Locomotives of the UFL a few years later. Donahoe was extremely overrated as a GM and pretty much caused the collapse of the once proud Bills franchise.
The other three quarterbacks taken in the first round that year would go on to have much more success and the story of how they ended up with the teams that they now play for is incredible. Leading up to the draft, the consensus among draft experts was that Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger would be the top two quarterbacks and would be taken very early in the draft. Philip Rivers was initially projected to go in the middle of the first round, but was quickly moving up the charts. The knock on him was an unorthodox throwing style which should have been a huge red flag since, well, the QUARTERBACK’S JOB IS TO THROW THE BALL.
San Diego had the first pick in the draft and was in the market for a quarterback despite having just taken Drew Brees as the first pick in the second round in 2001. They had given up on Brees and were vocal about selecting another quarterback leading up to 2004’s draft. There was conflict between San Diego and the Manning family, though, as Eli reportedly had told the Chargers that he did not want to play for them. (I have since heard conflicting reports about this, however, stating that the Chargers made up the story about Manning refusing to play for them in order to calm their fan-base when they selected Philip Rivers instead, whom they really coveted.) They did select Eli Manning with the first pick, however, confident that they could deal him to the Giants. One of the most enduring images of that draft was Eli Manning’s sourpuss face as he stood holding a Chargers jersey. Whether it was because he knew they didn’t want him, or because he really didn’t want to play for them—it was obvious he was not happy being a San Diego Charger.
The NY Giants’ GM Ernie Accorsi was rumored to have tried to work out a deal with San Diego for the first pick prior to the draft. When the deal couldn’t get done, and the Chargers had taken Manning, he reportedly was prepared to take Roethlisberger when a last minute trade was finally worked out. The Giants would take Rivers, then turn around and trade him for Manning. The Giants also gave up their 3rd round pick in 2004 and their first and fifth picks in 2005. The Chargers would use those picks to draft kicker Nate Kaeding, Defensive End Shawne Merriman and trade for the rights to Tackle Roman Oben. With Manning having gone first overall and Rivers surprisingly drafted ahead of Roethlisberger, the story became who would take the big QB from Miami of Ohio. SPOILER ALERT – It was the Steelers with the 11th pick. I remember being more nervous for that draft than any other—hoping that Roethlisberger would somehow drop to the Steelers. Going into the draft, I would have been happy with Arkansas Tackle Shawn Andrews (who the Eagles eventually selected with the 16th pick) or Cornerback Dunta Robinson from South Carolina (who Houston took with the 10th pick) or RB Steven Jackson from Oregon State (who dropped all the way to the Rams with the 24th pick). With Roethlisberger still on the board after the Giants picked, however, my focus was now on him.
Here is a list of the top 10 picks that year and all of the teams that passed on Roethlisberger:
1. Chargers – Eli Manning, QB
2. Raiders – Robert Gallery, T
3. Cardinals – Larry Fitzgerald, WR
4. Giants – Philip Rivers, QB
5. Redskins – Sean Taylor, S
6. Browns – Kellen Winslow II
7. Lions – Roy Williams, WR
8. Falcons – DeAngelo Hall, CB
9. Jaguars – Reggie Williams, WR
10. Texans – Dunta Robinson, CB
Now here is a list of the Quarterbacks each of those teams had going into the 2004 season:
1. Chargers – Drew Brees
2. Raiders – Rich Gannon
3. Cardinals – Josh McCown
4. Giants – Kurt Warner
5. Redskins – Patrick Ramsey
6. Browns – Kelly Holcomb/Jeff Garcia
7. Lions – Joey Harrington
8. Falcons – Michael Vick
9. Jaguars – Byron Leftwich
10. Texans – David Carr
David Carr was the first overall pick in 2002. Joey Harrington was the third overall pick that year and Patrick Ramsey was the last pick in the first round that year. Byron Leftwich was a first round pick in 2003. All of these teams had young, highly drafted QB’s that they were still trying to develop. You can’t blame them for passing on Roethlisberger. Vick was an established starter. There was no way that the Falcons were going to take another QB. The Raiders had Rich Gannon, who was a great QB at the time, but he was pushing 40! The Cardinals didn’t want to pass on a great talent in Larry Fitzgerald, but they still don’t have anyone to throw him the ball nine years later! The Browns…well, they’re the Browns. Steeler fans can thank these three teams for letting Roethlisberger slip to them. Most of all, however, we can thank the Giants for deciding that they absolutely had to have Eli over Ben. Maddox would get hurt early in 2004, and Roethlisberger would become the starter for good.
The Super Bowls
Roethlisberger quickly paid dividends for the Steelers, winning the Super Bowl in just his second season. He didn’t play particularly well in the big game, but he was the youngest to ever win one and he was superb the entire season, and especially in the three road playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl. Bill Cowher uncharacteristically came out aggressively on offense in those playoff games allowing Roethlisberger to throw the ball early and build a lead. He had seven passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown in those three playoff games with only one interception. Eight total touchdowns and only one interception in three consecutive road playoff wins against the 1st, 2nd and 3rd seeds in the AFC. The next time anyone says that Roethlisberger didn’t earn that first ring, throw those stats in their face. THEN MURDER THEM.
In 2007, Eli Manning and the NY Giants also won three road playoff games to get to the Super Bowl and faced what seemed like an impossible challenge—the undefeated New England Patriots. Manning was undeterred however, and made good on Plaxico’s Burress’ pre-game prediction of a Giants victory. Burress predicted a 23 – 17 score, to which Brady scoffed “We’re only going to score 17 points? Okay. Is Plax playing defense?” The Patriots only scored 14 as Burress caught the winning touchdown from Manning for a 17 – 14 win.
Roethlisberger won a second ring in 2008 and was undoubtedly deserving of it this time around, with a memorable78 yard last minute touchdown drive to win the game against the Cardinals, 27 – 23.
Roethlisberger would make a third trip to the Super Bowl with the Steelers only two years later in 2010, but would come up short losing to the Green Bay Packers, 31 – 25. The season began with Roethlisberger serving a four game suspension because of one of the aforementioned rape accusations. Although he was never charged with a crime and much of the evidence released supported his adamant claim of innocence, it had to be very difficult for Roethlisberger to perform under the circumstances. Yet, he still made it to the biggest stage and came within a touchdown of his third title.
Manning would win his second last season in a re-match with the Patriots. Although they only finished with a 9 – 7 regular season record, it was good enough for the Giants to win the NFC East division. After three consecutive playoff wins, including a very impressive win against the number one seeded Green Bay Packers, the Giants pulled off another close, come-from-behind win in the Super Bowl against the Patriots, 21 – 17. I wonder if Brady is happy that they scored at least 17 this time around? Incidentally, the Patriots now have a losing record in Super Bowls, 3 – 4. LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSERS!!!!!!!!
Head to Head
Roethlisberger and Manning first faced each other in their rookie seasons in New Jersey in 2004. The Steelers won that one, 33 – 30 in an unexpected, but thrilling shootout in week 15. That was the Steelers 12th consecutive win that season en route to a 15 – 1 record. (Their only loss was to the Ravens in week 2.) Roethlisberger threw for 316 yards and 1 TD but had 2 INT’s against the Giants that day. Manning threw for 182 yards with 2 TD’s and 1 INT.
They faced each other for a second time in Pittsburgh in week 8 of 2008 and Manning came out on top that time, 21 – 14. That was the game where James Harrison had to snap for a punt in the 4th quarter and snapped it over the punter’s head out of the endzone for a safety. The Steelers had been ahead 14 – 12 at that point. Roethlisberger had a very poor performance that day, throwing for only 189 yards and 4 INT’s. Manning was not spectacular, with only 199 yards and 1 TD, but he didn’t throw any INTs.
Sunday will be the rubber match for these two great Quarterbacks as they meet in East Rutherford, NJ surrounded by the devastation from hurricane Sandy. I expect a close and exciting game like their previous two matchups and I expect the Giants to win. The Steelers will not have Troy Polamalu for another game and they may be without Lamarr Woodley. They have not been good on the road this season and this is by far the best opponent they have played all season. With an ailing defense, stopping the Giants who seem to score at will lately will be a difficult task. The Steelers will also have a difficult travel schedule, unable to find lodging because of the hurricane. They will fly in the day of the game. I feel like shit on the day of a flight WHEN I AM ON VACATION. I can’t imagine getting off of a plane to play a football game. The Giants will also have an emotional boost from a city that is recovering from the horrible storms. Ben Roethlisberger will keep the game close, though. He has been playing very well lately and the offensive line has been keeping him upright and giving him a complementary running game to work with. Regardless of the outcome, savor this game. Whether you are a Giants fan or a Steelers fan or just an NFL fan, this should be a fun game to watch. Two of the best quarterbacks in the league will be on display. Two very different, yet very similar and very decorated quarterbacks.