Thursday, September 29, 2005

Carson and Eli

I'm searching my soul trying to understand why I detest so viscerally the millionaire quarterback picked No. 1 in the 2004 draft at the same time I enjoy cheering for the millionaire quarterback picked No. 1 in the 2003 draft. I guess it boils down to an aphorism you might've heard from your grandpa, who would have attributed it to some football coach in the '20s: Winners play the hand they're dealt. Losers whine that the cards are stacked against them.

Going into the 2003 draft, the Cincinnati Bengals held the first pick. Considering their draft history, littered with the likes of Ki-Jana Carter and Peter Warrick, wthe team was more than willing to deal it away, but no one was sufficiently interested. The Bengals kicked the tires on a number of players, including Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich, Michigan State receiver Charles Rogers and Kansas State corner Terence Newman, before settling on Southern Cal quarterback Carson Palmer.

Now, if any team had a reputation as a Mickey Mouse outfit, it was the Cincinnati Bungles. They'd gone a typically lousy 2-14 the year before and an obscene 19-61 over five years. They'd taken two quarterbacks in the first round -- David Klingler in 1992 and Akili Smith in 1999 -- whom they threw into the deep end as rookies and watched drown. The team was notoriously cheap and hadn't been to the playoffs since 1990.

And if any player had an incentive to ask -- plead -- that he not be that No. 1 pick, it was Carson Palmer. He'd won the Heisman Trophy. He'd helped rebuild Southern Cal into the juggernaut that it remains today. He had spent a lifetime as a winner and probably had little desire to join a group of chronic losers. He was a Southern California kid and probably would have preferred not to settle down to a life of working outdoors in December in sunny southwest Ohio.

Nevertheless, Palmer sent his agent to sit down with the Bengals. (The team with the first pick is the only one allowed to negotiate with a player before the draft.) Two days before the draft, and with a minimum of noise, a deal was in place with close to $20 million in guaranteed money. Some agent, huh? Palmer appeared to think so: "I really didn't get too involved in it," he told "I just kind of went with the flow and did whatever (my agent) told me to do."

That's one way to put it. Look, credit for the particulars of the contract may have gone with the agent, but the person most reponsible for getting this deal done at all was the client himself. If Palmer didn't want to be a Bengal, his agent could have played chicken, and Cincinnati probably would have swerved. But the decision was Palmer's to make, not his agent's. See, despite all the fingers pointed at "difficult" agents -- Drew Rosenhaus, Scott Boras, et al -- the players set the tone for negotiations. Agents take direction from their clients. It's unethical for them to do otherwise. If the player wants to be under contract and in camp at a certain time, he will be. (And if the player doesn't want to sign, or wants more money, or wants out of his contract, or whatever, the agent will work to make it happen -- and will take the heat for it. Think Terrell Owens' holdout was Rosenhaus' idea? Think again.)

On Draft Day 2003, then, Cincinnati announced that Palmer was the first pick, he got up and put on the hat and held up the jersey, and the smile on his face was genuine. He had committed to the team -- and had accepted his role on it. Marvin Lewis told him that he was going to spend his first year as a backup to Jon Kitna. Palmer said OK. From
It will give me a chance to learn instead of being like David Carr and getting thrown in there right away. I think it's great as a quarterback to be able to sit back and learn. It's a lot easier to learn the game on the sideline than it is on the field. To see things unfold and all the defenses and to watch another quarterback make plays and make mistakes, I think you can learn a lot from that. It sounds like I'm going to get that opportunity.
People heard that and said, "Oh, he's just saying the right things." And he was. I have no doubt that he would have preferred to play from Day One. But it wasn't going to happen, and if he had spent his rookie year complaining about sitting on the bench, he'd have poisoned his relationship with the team, alienated the city and earned a reputation around the league as a strong arm connected to a weak head. (Like, say the millionaire quarterback picked No. 1 in the 1990 draft.) Instead, he sat, he practiced, he learned, and today he's the hottest quarterback in the NFL.

Flash forward a year.

Going into the 2004 draft, the San Diego Chargers held the first pick and were looking for their quarterback of the future. Again. The club had been burned in 1998 when it took the unhinged Ryan Leaf as their quarterback of the future with the No. 2 pick. Still smarting three years later, the Chargers traded the No. 1 pick in 2001 to Atlanta, who used it on Michael Vick, their quarterback of the future. The Chargers came out of the deal with LaDanian Tomlinson and Drew Brees, their quarterback of the future. After two years, Brees was still stuck in the nondescript present.

San Diego had gone 4-12 in 2003, the very definition of a non-factor, and 26-54 over five years. Their options at QB in the draft were Eli Manning of Ole Miss and Philip Rivers of North Carolina State. (No one seemed all that impressed with Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger, so, you know ...) Manning had the pedigree, just like Jeff Kemp, and more important, the hype. San Diego believed that hype. Unfortunately, so did the Manning clan. In a frankly appalling display of the same kind of sense of entitlement that we despise in poor people, Manning decided that San Diego just wasn't the right fit for a future Hall of Famer like himself. So he told the Chargers that. Or, more accurately, he had his agent and daddy tell the Chargers that.

And what team would his highness prefer to play for? The New York Giants, of course, who had also just finished 4-12 and had fired coach Jim Fassel, the quarterback guru who rescued Kerry Collins' career and made a winner out of Danny Kannell. A perfect fit for a young QB! The media exposure one gets in New York as opposed to San Diego had absolutely nothing to do with it, and shame on you for thinking otherwise.

Eli Manning's father, Archie (125 career TDs, 173 interceptions), said this week that he had been told by people within the Chargers organization, "Don't let your son come here." Maybe, but it sounds like something he heard because he was listening for it. As in, "Well, Archie, if it's so important that Eli get a chance to appear on The Bachelor, then don't let your son come here."

Ultimately, the Chargers went ahead and picked Manning, not because they were calling his bluff but because they had worked out a trade deal with the Giants. They appear not to have told Eli, though, and he had to get up there and hold up the Chargers jersey and hat and force a smile and look like a sucker, a punk and a sissy in front of all the hard-core fans watching at home. When he found out what was really going down, he told, "I'm a lot happier now than I was 10 minutes ago." That was honest, at least. And: "We wanted a trade to happen." True, true! And: "We never had favorite teams." Liar.

Manning fans will point out that in 1983, John Elway refused to play for the Baltimore Colts, warned them not to choose him with the No. 1 pick, and forced a trade to Denver. Yes, but at least Elway did his own dirty work. And still he spent years trying to live the episode down. Elway was immediately tabbed a crybaby, a label that stuck until he had lost three Super Bowls. Then he was a crybaby and a loser. It wasn't until the twilight of his career, when the Broncos won two NFL titles, that he finally put it behind him. Manning should be so lucky. Even if he makes it to the Super Bowl, he'll have to hear about how his brother should be the one in the big game, and how he got to go only because he plays in the weak NFC.

So Manning got to New York and was told he'd have to sit behind Kurt Warner. Nobody expected him to like it, either, and he didn't. You could see it in his face.

No one can say now who will be the better quarterback, Carson Palmer or Eli Manning. But I can say that one is a hell of a lot easier to pull for.

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