April 24th, 2004, the date of the NFL Draft, was a day that shaped three franchises for the next decade. The Giants were coming off a miserable 4-12 campaign that simultaneously saw the end of the Kerry Collins and Jim Fassel era. With pro-bowlers Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer, and Michael Strahan already in place, they were in clear pursuit of a franchise quarterback. After somehow stringing along a trip to the divisional round under Tommy Maddox in 2002, the Steelers came back to earth in 2003, finishing with a 6-10 record. Coach Bill Cowher had a typically stingy Pittsburgh defense along with Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis, so they were also in need of a new QB. Lastly, San Diego held the first pick in the draft due to a 4-12 season under Marty Schottenheimer. The Chargers were plagued by horrible quarterback play all season from the combined efforts of Doug Flutie and, believe it or not, Drew Brees. They also had one of the worst defenses in the NFL (31st in points allowed) that year, but had one of the best running backs of all-time in his prime, LaDanian Tomlinson, coming off a season that only saw him gain 2,370 yards from scrimmage along with 17 total touchdowns.
So, in summation, all three teams were in desperate need of a franchise-altering quarterback, and lucky enough, for them, the 2004 QB class was arguably the best in history, slightly below the 1983 class of John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. Ironically enough, the similarities between the two classes do not end there. The Baltimore Colts had the first pick in 1983 draft and wanted consensus number one pick, John Elway. However, Elway and his father had other ideas, threatening to play baseball instead of being drafted to the Colts and their awful ownership group (they infamously moved the franchise to Indianapolis shortly thereafter). Almost the exact scenario played out 21 years later when the Chargers had the first overall pick and coveted Eli Manning, but Eli’s father, Hall of Famer Archie Manning, would not allow his son to play there.
In the end, the Giants traded the rights to Philip Rivers and Shawne Merriman to the Chargers for Eli Manning, while the Steelers ended up with Ben Roethlisberger. Almost a decade later, the trio has produced 4 Super Bowl titles and 9 Pro Bowl appearances. However, to this day, fans argue over which team got the best quarterback that day in April 2004. Let’s take a look at their overall numbers up until this point:
2004 QB Draft Class: Regular Season Stats
Across the board, it is easy to see that statistically Philip Rivers has been the best QB of the bunch, with a better than 2-to-1 TD to INT ratio, however Ben Roethlisberger’s teams have had the best winning percentage with a 66.7% mark. Eli trails in every category except for his impressively low sack rate, especially given what we know about his athletic ability (433 career rushing yards). So, looking at these regular season numbers, you could say that the Giants really lost out with Manning, but let’s also take a look at how the three QB’s have fared in the bright lights of the postseason.
2004 QB Draft Class: Postseason Stats
Comparing the two above tables, Rivers and Roethlisberger both have significant drops in production in each category, while Manning seems to take his game to another level in the postseason, sporting a better than 2-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 89.3 QB rating that is the 9th highest in postseason history.
The narrative on who the best quarterback in this class changes seemingly every week and probably will until the three of them retire, but what we do know is that each fan base probably would not change a thing about that fateful day in 2004.