Had Eli Manning not interfered at all with the 2004 NFL draft, had he just smiled when he was picked and boarded the first plane west to San Diego, he and the Chargers might actually have made a great team.
A major reason Manning did not want to join the Chargers was that he simply did not believe they were good enough. He did not want to hand off to LaDainian Tomlinson. He did not want to throw to Antonio Gates. He did not want to entrust leads to that mishmash defense.
And so, on the night that Manning played his best game as a professional, he had to have asked himself if he had picked the best side. The Giants lost to the Chargers, 45-23, on Sunday night not because they have Manning, but because they did not have enough to go along with him.
San Diego got back at Manning in the most passive-aggressive way, thoroughly embarrassing his chosen defense. The Chargers scored touchdowns on their first three drives of the first half and their first three drives of the second half. Tomlinson rushed for three touchdowns, passed for another, caught six passes and ran for 192 yards, showing Manning what kind of backfield they could have made.
The Chargers clawed the Giants without getting too many hands on Manning. Despite all the derogatory chants and cheers, Manning looked as if he felt at home. He completed 24 of 41 passes for 352 yards, and still the Giants were barely competitive in the second half. After every San Diego touchdown, the Qualcomm Stadium's stereo system blared the song, "We Got More Bounce in California."
Maybe this place would not have been so bad.
"I got about what I expected," Manning said. "Hopefully, we can put all this -- the Chargers and everything that happened -- in the past."
Perhaps Manning should have wanted to play at Qualcomm, after all. By halftime, he had thrown for 206 yards, a career high. He threw under pressure, on the run, in the face of intense noise. The last time Manning was in this sort of environment, he was in college, playing in the Southeastern Conference. He seemed to savor it. Ordering teammates at the line of scrimmage, he flapped his arms wildly, looking much like his older brother, Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning.
With the city of San Diego focused on Manning's right arm, no one gave much thought to Tomlinson's. But it was Tomlinson, the Chargers' tailback, who made one of the most impressive passes of the night, taking a sweep and tossing a 26-yard touchdown to Keenan McCardell to cap the first drive of the second half. Tomlinson, already abusing the Giants as a runner and receiver, demoralized them as a passer.
Many expected San Diego's defense to be inspired the most by Manning's presence, but it was the offense that seemed compelled to upstage him.
The Chargers, who lost the first two games of the season, changed their game plan drastically. On the first drive, San Diego ran eight plays, six to Tomlinson, culminating in his 1-yard touchdown run.
Although the Chargers and the Giants each have high-profile tailbacks -- Tomlinson and Tiki Barber -- the match-up of tight ends was perhaps more intriguing. Through three quarters, San Diego's Gates had 91 yards receiving and a touchdown.
The Giants' Jeremy Shockey had 101 yards receiving, including a 32-yard catch and run on the second offensive play of the game.