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Eli Manning’s benching is the beginning of the end for the all-star 2004 QB class

Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers are nearing career crossroads.

NFL: New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Four teams selected quarterbacks with their first-round picks in the 2004 NFL draft. Three found players destined for a Hall of Fame, whether for their franchise or the league as a whole.

The fourth was the Bills, which tells you everything you need to know right there.

Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger all came into the league on the same day. From the start of 2006 to Week 13 of the 2017 season, each was the unquestioned starter for his team when healthy. That streak ends Sunday after Giants head coach Ben McAdoo announced Geno Smith would start over Manning in a lost season in New York, much to the chagrin of, well, just about anyone who’s ever followed football.

It’s a harbinger for the end of three storied careers that will be forever intertwined — especially in the case of Rivers and Manning, who were swapped for each other on draft day. The trio has been a Sunday staple for more than a decade. They’ve won 334 regular-season games, 25 playoff games, and four Super Bowl rings.

Manning and Roethlisberger restored two fabled franchises to greatness and brought championship parades to their new hometowns. Rivers took an AFC punching bag and turned it into a fierce competitor.

But when Geno Smith — 12-18 as a starting quarterback, typically on teams equally as hopeless as the 2017 New York Giants — takes the field, it will mark the final stage for the stellar quarterback class of 2004.

If Eli Manning’s time with the Giants is done, what comes next?

The Manning-Rivers-Roethlisberger triumvirate isn’t just special because they’re three quarterbacks who made good on their promise from the same draft class. A unique thing about this grouping is that each of them only ever played for one NFL team.

All signs point to Roethlisberger and Rivers playing out the string with Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, respectively. Manning, on the other hand, may have come to the end of the line in New York. While head coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese, the architects behind this year’s 2-9 campaign and the benching of a probable Hall of Fame quarterback, may not return in 2018, the Giants may still look to move on from Manning as a total rebuild looms.

Cutting Manning would save $9.8 million on the team’s salary cap after eating $12.4 million in dead money. With a handful of valuable quarterback prospects at the top of next spring’s draft — and 2017 third-round pick Davis Webb on the roster — it could be time for New York to make a tough decision. Rather than keep the veteran around to play mentor through the end of his contract, the Giants may move on.

But Manning hasn’t been appreciably worse than average in a season where he’s watched a bevy of his top receivers go down with injuries and had very little support from his run game. Several teams in the middle of the next draft could balk at the risk of adding a top-tier QB prospect and instead turn to the two-time NFL champion. That includes possible suitors like the Broncos, Jaguars, Cardinals, and even a post-Kirk Cousins Washington team.

While Manning seems primed for at least one more year in the league, he may lose a member of his cohort.

Is Ben Roethlisberger really thinking of retirement?

Roethlisberger toyed with the idea of hanging up his cleats last offseason, though no one — not even head coach Mike Tomlin — really took his contemplation seriously. If he makes similar thoughts public this winter, they may garner some more traction, especially after telling reporters he wonders if he “doesn’t have it anymore” after a midseason loss to the Jaguars.

The veteran quarterback has been blessed with one of the NFL’s most explosive set of skill players but has struggled to drop his team into that extra gear that should separate them from the rest of the AFC. His passing accuracy and yardage numbers have fallen for the third straight season. His quarterback rating is the lowest it’s been since 2008.

Of course, Roethlisberger’s brilliance has never shined through his stats. The burly quarterback’s unquantifiable ability to get swallowed up in the pocket only to scramble out of an unseen hole before throwing a first-down dart is what makes him such a dangerous commodity for Pittsburgh. He’s remained a valuable leader in the team’s clutch games this fall: The Steelers are 5-1 in one-possession games in 2017. The most recent example came on Sunday night, when he led his team 35 yards in 17 seconds to set up a game-winning field goal against the Packers.

Like the Giants, Pittsburgh doesn’t yet have a clear succession plan in place — which will place an extra onus on preventing Roethlisberger’s retirement efforts. The Steelers drafted former Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs in the fourth round of this year’s draft, but the jury’s out on whether he can be a viable starting option — especially in 2018.

Keeping Roethlisberger around doesn’t just boost the team’s Super Bowl chances next season, but in the future as well. Having Ben around to serve as mentor for a project QB isn’t nearly as valuable as having him in the pocket slinging passes to Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, but it’s still significant.

And through it all, Philip Rivers persists.

Rivers is being put upon once more to carry the Chargers’ offensive burden, but a bounce-back season has proved he’s not yet slowing down as age 36 approaches. The veteran has cut his 2016 interception rate in half this season as Los Angeles has emerged as an unlikely playoff contender. His three-touchdown, 434-yard performance last week against the Cowboys proved he’s still able to play at a Pro Bowl level.

Prevailing wisdom suggested Rivers would retire when the Chargers left his longtime hometown of San Diego, but the noted family man hasn’t been vocal about any displeasure with the move. He even invested more than $200,000 on a mobile film review room in the back of his SUV, which has allowed him to commute without uprooting his life.

His team has also been dedicated to surrounding him with talent. Rivers doesn’t enjoy the same level of targets Roethlisberger does, but a healthy Keenan Allen and an upgraded offensive line — his sack rate has dropped from 5.8 to 3.0 percent this fall — is certainly making things easier. Over the past three years, the Chargers have spent draft capital to add talent like Melvin Gordon, Hunter Henry, Mike Williams, Forrest Lamp, and Dan Feeney.

The team’s free agent pickups haven’t been as effective — big-ticket players like Orlando Franklin and Stevie Johnson have failed to live up to their contracts, for example — but this willingness to spend tells a story. That’s the kind of investment you make for a quarterback who you plan on being around for a while. Rivers is an older veteran at this point, but his 2017 has shown no signs of slowing down.

All three QBs have had their own success, but one man truly ties them together.

In the end, Rivers and Roethlisberger can attribute some of their biggest playoff flops to the presence of Tom Brady. For Manning, his biggest triumphs came against the ageless passer, making him the transitive G.O.A.T.

Of the three, he’s the only one to have beaten Brady in the postseason.

Class of 2004 QBs vs. Tom Brady in the playoffs

QB Playoff record vs. Brady Yards/Game Completion rate TDs INTs QB rating
QB Playoff record vs. Brady Yards/Game Completion rate TDs INTs QB rating
Eli Manning 2W, 0L 275.5 66.20% 3 1 96.2
Ben Roethlisberger 0W, 2L 270 63.40% 3 4 77.2
Philip Rivers 0W, 2L 220.5 47.80% 0 3 50.5

That could change in early 2018. Roethlisberger’s Steelers look like a lock for a prime playoff spot. Rivers’ Chargers have battled from an 0-4 start to rally back into the postseason hunt. The only question is whether either man can take advantage of a steadily improving Patriots defense if given a third chance to end New England’s season.

Wither the rest of the QB class of 2004?

The 2004 draft produced a first-round quarterback class that ranks with the hauls of 1983 (Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, John Elway) and 1971 (Archie Manning, Joe Theismann, Jim Plunkett), but Manning, Rivers, and Roethlisberger weren’t the only players to make an impact that season. The forgotten member of that first round is J.P. Losman, who was swallowed up by the black hole known as the Bills and finished his career with a 10-23 record as a starter (0-2 against Rivers and Roethlisberger in that span).

Losman wouldn’t be the most notable QB to follow the lofty trio. Matt Schaub matriculated from the University of Virginia to Atlanta, where he backed up Michael Vick for three seasons before Houston pried him away for a pair of second-round picks. Schaub was never a star quarterback, but he had a pair of Pro Bowl appearances and stands as the best quarterback in Texans history — at least until Deshaun Watson gets a few years under his belt. Now Schaub is back with the Falcons, backing up Matt Ryan for the past two seasons.

Luke McCown, who went on to spend 13 seasons in the league as a backup, also spent his career looking up at the three players who defined the 2004 NFL draft.

The lesson to Steelers and Chargers fans: Enjoy your franchise QBs while you can.

The clock is ticking on three great careers. By 2020, all we may have of the 2004 class is a handful of Hall of Fame debates. Manning, Rivers, and Roethlisberger have all been great in their own ways — their longevity has tied them together more than any trades or draft class comparisons ever could. The light is starting to dim on one of these players after the Giants look to have moved on from Manning.

Roethlisberger and Rivers appear to be locked into homes that will keep them as long as they want to stay — but this is the NFL, where nothing good ever lasts. The end of the road is coming for one of the most successful QB draft classes of all time, and Manning’s demotion is just a sad reminder of it. That makes the end of the 2017 season even more important for the Chargers and Steelers — they don’t know how much longer these memorable eras can last.