Same owners, different culture and finally spending money to win. If Eli was selected first overall by the Los Angeles Chargers, and not San Diego, would he have taken that deal? However, when it comes to ownership, if walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...Well, you know the rest when it comes to the Chargers.
My very first national magazine cover story was reporting on this high school quarterback phenom in New Orleans. Big talent, big arm, and already had a big name. Eli.
The cover story headline read, ‘Last of the Manning’s.’ Some 20-plus years later, we now know he is not the last. Connor’s son Cooper who is Eli/Peyton-like, literally so far is the last Manning. With my very brief stint coaching college football in the ’90s, I remember recruiting quarterbacks that were light-years away compared to Eli.
A good portion of my interview with Eli was done playing catch with him on the field of Cardinal-Newman high school. Soft-spoken, very versed on interviewing but was not too keen on being picked at with a ton of questions. He was very much different than the Peyton and Father Archie interview later that day. He’s a high school kid for goodness sakes. It's not football season and there are things to do. Friends, girls, parties, having fun. Smart kid.
A few years later, I questioned his intellect. April 24th, 2004, he was the #1 overall pick by the San Diego Chargers. He walked out on stage to meet former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and I’ll never forget that smug look. He looked like a kid who was taking one for the team. You know, a double date with your best friend’s girlfriend’s friend? That look.
Eli had let the world know he did not want to be (Well, his dad didn’t want him to be) a Charger. Being a southern California kid, it was either the Chargers, Raiders, or Rams. The Chargers at that moment were about to pull off the best post-pick trade ever made in the NFL. And it was going to benefit two teams more than any two teams in the history of the league.
Three picks later the New York Giants picked North Carolina State’s Philip Rivers. Thirty seconds later, the trade for Eli to go the Giants and Rivers to the Chargers happens. One of the worst NFL general managers in the last 25 years, AJ Smith of the Chargers, made his one career move before he went on to destroy an NFL head coach with a 14-2 record and professional football team. When you take both teams, both quarterbacks, the wins, the record statistics, and two New York Giant championships, it is probably the best trade in NFL history...For both teams.
One year later, the ‘Eli game’ in San Diego was one of the most anticipated games in organization history.
I didn’t cover that game. I wanted to go watch it. In all my years in a professional and collegiate football stadium, I had never heard boos that loud and that constant. The Chargers public address announcer was poking at the bear known as the Charger fans. From the start of the game, every Giants offensive play, Eli broke the huddle and walked to the line of scrimmage. And every single play before the snap, the PA announcer would bellow, “at quarterback, Eli Manning.” Jack Murphy Stadium would be deafening for nearly three hours and the tormenting of Eli not only came from the fans.
LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 192 yards, three touchdowns, and threw for one. One of the greatest running back performances in the history of the game. Manning threw for a career-high at that time of 352 of the Giants 424 total yards.
16 years later, Eli recently came out and questioned his decision to not choose the Chargers. A great career with the New York football Giants, two Super Bowl championships, and beating Tom Brady and an 18-0 New England Patriots team in one of those games. Sounds like he got the best end of the deal. Or did he?
About 2 minutes after that trade went out for the world to see, all I could think was my interview with that 17-year-old kid. How soft-spoken he was, didn’t like being interviewed, didn’t like me which could be completely feasible. The second thing out of my mouth after ‘holy sh*t’ was, ‘New York media will eat this kid alive.’
And for the next 16 years, the big apple media picked the bone clean.
The reason Eli refused the Chargers pick was that he believed San Diego’s commitment to football was not serious enough. He has a point. The Spanos family has become one of the worst, if not the worst, NFL team owners according to the fans and even some players. I won't speak for Mr. Brees, Schottenheimer and Seau.
However, Eli was not capable to decide that without grown-ups in his ear. Archie was the main voice. He had a problem with the Chargers organization. There was a real issue with a commitment to winning with the Chargers. But the real reason was money. Not his contract but the outside revenue he can receive with big city brand leveraging. Bigger market, bigger exposure, more people seeing Eli. And in San Diego? Well, there is a lot of pretty people there, one heck of a beach. But the people and the city weren’t high on a football team or at least a place to play.
There were talks at that time of the draft and Eli becoming a Charger. A possible state-of-the-art stadium was coming to San Diego. Eli’s very own stadium if he accepted the pick.
The lack of funding and the rejection of a public-funded stadium during the 2016 elections, shut the door and proved what Archie and Eli saw all along.
But everything seemed to be full circle. Once Eli retired from New York, the Los Angeles Chargers now play in the greatest sporting venue in the history of the world.
So, would Eli have said yes to the ‘Los Angeles’ Chargers?
The two cities are the #1 and #2 sports markets on the planet. The big apple versus land of the stars. If it’s the sports market revenue the Manning’s were looking at, the star power in Los Angeles is untouched. LeBron ‘the SJW juggernaut’ James made the move to the Lakers at $153 million. The Dodgers Clayton Kershaw is a $116 million man and Clippers phenom Kawhi Leonard is close by at roughly $112 million. Plus, the weather and the so-called movie stars, the top sports radio personality on the air today, Colin Cowherd, said himself that LA is the top sports radio market in the world.
Is he right? If you do the numbers, apparently no. According to Barrett Sports Media, the top Los Angeles radio market and ESPN 710AM are 19th in the country. Boston runs the best radio station market. Overall though, Los Angeles is a firm #2 in radio and television.
In New York, the Brooklyn Nets pay three players close to $300 million combined. Even though the Chargers are in their new stadium in a big market, nearly 50% of the entire Chargers Sofi stadium capacity for the season will be for the other team. In their first home game against Dallas, the Cowboys has a larger fan market in LA than the Chargers do. By a wide margin.
Overall and the bottom line, the Los Angeles loyalty factor is 32 in the NFL as well as the entire state of California. Florida is a close second. Would Eli have been able to fix that? Probably not. You can’t change loyalty unless you win consistently like the Dodgers and the Lakers have. The adage does stand true, there so much to do in California so who cares if your team loses. You always have the beach. But if you win, that solves loyalty issues in California. I’ve heard some calling it band-wagoning.
Now that Eli and Philip are gone, there is nothing the Chargers can do right now to change that market besides having the Los Angeles name as opposed to San Diego.
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley will have a chance to change all that coming in September. And a new big-time quarterback that looks a lot like a super young Tom Brady. We will see if there is sophomore jinx.
And Eli? He did say, “If I knew about the New York media and how brutal it can be, I might have just said, ‘You know what, San Diego is the right spot for.’” After all, it is the greatest city in America and the best weather on the globe.
Nevertheless, it was fascinating to watch the San Diego fans throw the torches and pitchforks at Eli. And even though San Diego/LA had one of the top five quarterbacks in NFL history in starts, durability, and adoration by its fans in Philip Rivers, Eli made the right decision.
I guess you just have to determine if championships are worth eating your young.