Giants almost missed on Manning

NEW YORK -- Ernie Accorsi retired as the New York Giants general manager nearly six years ago, but you can still find him bounding through the corridors at the midtown Manhattan offices of the National Football League.

His title is consultant, but he still works the phone, solving problems of all magnitudes. On Thursday morning, a few blocks away at his high-rise home, Accorsi, who just turned 71, was doing just that. Later, crisis averted, he arrived for a TV interview wearing a blue cable sweater, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as they used to say.

Accorsi graduated from Wake Forest with a degree in journalism but eventually discovered his true passion. He worked for the Baltimore Colts for 13 years then rose to GM positions with the Colts, Cleveland Browns and Giants.

The Giants play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon, the third meeting between quarterbacks Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. This has inspired a spirited discussion: Who has been the better player in his eight-plus seasons?

Their teams have won four of the past seven Super Bowls; the 2004 NFL draft is the only one to produce two quarterbacks who each won multiple Super Bowls.

It almost didn't happen that way, Accorsi will tell you. Big Ben could have been, under marginally different circumstances, the one under center for Big Blue.

How close did the Giants come to drafting Roethlisberger?

Accorsi closed his eyes.

"Pretty close," he said, sighing.

The Giants and Steelers, two of the NFL's proudest, most successful franchises, first met in 1933. They won six Super Bowls between them in the '70s, '80s and '90s but then suffered a severe drought. They had gone a combined 39 seasons without winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy when a single spring day, April 24, dramatically changed their fortunes.

Three stellar college quarterbacks were in that 2004 draft -- Mississippi's Manning, Miami (Ohio)'s Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers of North Carolina State -- but the Giants' organization, drafting fourth overall, wanted Manning. Accorsi had scouted the last two Ole Miss-Auburn games and was impressed, more than anything, with Manning's poise.

"You evaluate a quarterback and project him -- can he win championships for you?" Accorsi said. "That's the only criteria."

Accorsi attended Manning's workout in New Orleans and, frankly, left it depressed because he had been so good. Two days before the draft, Eli's father, former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, said he didn't want his son going to the San Diego Chargers, which had the No. 1 pick.

They took him anyway. Offensive tackle Robert Gallery went second to the Raiders, and the Cardinals selected wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Then the Giants stepped up for their 15 minutes of fame.

Accorsi had heard rumors that the Chargers would offer Manning in a trade sometime during that period on the clock, but seven minutes in, there hadn't been a call. The Browns, sitting in the seventh spot, offered to switch positions and throw in a second-round pick. The Giants were certain they could get Roethlisberger, who had terrorized MAC opponents.

"I thought, 'We're going to get Roethlisberger at seven,'" Accorsi said. "Our fallback position was never a bad one, because we really liked him. I had seen him in the [Senior] Bowl game down in Mobile, where I think he threw four touchdown passes in the first eight minutes of the game.

"But we stopped just short of sending anything to the league. At that point, the chances of making a trade for Eli seemed diminished. I thought, 'If I enable [the Browns to move up and trade] for Eli, I'm not going to be able to live with myself.' At the last second, I thought 'I'm not moving.'"

Then the Chargers called. They offered Manning and asked for Rivers at No. 4 along with pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora and a bunch of draft choices. Accorsi wouldn't give up Umenyiora but eventually agreed to draft Rivers and send him to San Diego along with a third-round pick that year and first- and fifth-round picks in 2005.

"You better be right," Accorsi said. "If you're right, you don't worry about the price. If you're right, it's Super Bowls. If you're wrong, now you've really crippled the franchise."

Roethlisberger went to the Steelers with the No. 11 pick and, in his second season, took them to victory in Super Bowl XL. Two years later, the Giants, led by Manning, stunned the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Roethlisberger's fifth season produced another title (XLIII), and last season Manning won his second championship in Super Bowl XLVI.

So, what if?

"Nobody knows," Accorsi said, shrugging. "The stars are up there for a reason, so once you rearrange them, things come out differently. It's fun to speculate, but there are two Super Bowl trophies in that trophy case in East Rutherford, largely because of Eli. And that's all that matters."

Well, not all. Where does the Class of 2004 stack up with the vaunted Class of 1983? Accorsi is something of an authority in this area, because he was the Colts' general manager when they drafted a guy named John Elway with the first pick in 1983.

"That is considered the all-time great quarterback draft," Accorsi said. "They won two titles, the whole class, and that was won by one guy [Elway]. This class has already won four and been in five."

Matt Schaub, drafted in 2004's third round by the Atlanta Falcons, could join the club this season with the Houston Texans.

"He could very well win titles," Accorsi said. "I think you have to call this [2004] class the better class because they've won more championships and they're young. Rivers may win championships; Roethlisberger and Eli may win more. … They actually could retire the trophy."