Chargers to Pass On Eli?

Will they or wont they? The last week before the 2004 NFL Draft for the San Diego Chargers should be filled with excitement as the team decides whether to trade the pick or keep it. History has not been on their side, but something smells different about this time at the podium.

Gee, have the Chargers been here before?

Yes, much to their chagrin.

For the second time since 2001, the Chargers sit atop the draft board. That's not an easy accomplishment in today's NFL of parity.

But meet the team parity forgot, as it tries to rebound from yet another dismal (4-12) season.

And if this woeful squad is going to rebound, it must do it through the draft. The Chargers were hardly a key player in the free-agent market, restricting their signings to linebackers Steve Foley and Randall Godfrey, guard Mike Goff, injury-prone wide receiver Kevin Dyson and backup offensive lineman Leander Jordan.

So it's hard to overestimate how important this draft is. Not only to the team, but the job security of general manager A. J. Smith and head coach Marty Schottenheimer.

But can team president Dean Spanos really anticipate the team flipping in one offseason?

"We better," he said.

Consider the heat being turned up on the backsides of Smith and Schottenheimer.

Other than not picking another Ryan Leaf?

It's highly unlikely the team could be cursed that badly again. But the ghost of the surly, and expensive Leaf hangs over this franchise, even if Spanos won't admit as much.

The Chargers are hoping to jack up the price for peddling the No. 1 pick, looking for clubs to get into a bidding war to increase their booty. Smith wasn't shy about revealing that the Giants came calling about the pick. Many believe the Redskins have also tested the trade waters, although Smith won't confirm that.

The Chargers need so much in so many places, the philosophy should be to trade down and down and down and accumulate as many selections as possible to fix this train wreck -- eight straight seasons without a winning record, or postseason appearance.

But it's not that easy -- although many believe it should be.

Looking back at the Chargers in that No. 1 spot is what many speculate is a franchise-type quarterback in Eli Manning. The brother of Peyton and son of Archie has the bloodlines and talent to be something special. As special as his brother, the NFL's co-MVP last year? Hard to say.

But the younger Manning didn't blink in following his dad's considerable football steps by playing at Mississippi. It can't be easy performing at a place where your dad's name graces the street signs, but he did it.

Passing up on Manning would mean the Chargers didn't get it right on three chances to fix the team's most important position.

They can't be faulted for going with Leaf with the second pick in 1998, as Peyton Manning was taken by the Colts on the previous pick. But he was a $12 million investment who spit out but four wins.

In 2001, the Chargers had the chance to snag Michael Vick with the first pick. Instead, they got cold feet and justified not taking him by the collection of players and picks they received from the Falcons.

And while running back LaDainian Tomlinson -- picked at No. 5 -- is among the NFL's best, the truth is none of the other components had an impact: wide receivers Reche Caldwell and Tim Dwight; cornerback Tay Cody.

And the rubber of that maneuver really hits the road when considering that Chargers are but 17-31 since.

So now here sits Eli Manning, a quarterback most would have trouble ignoring. But these being the Chargers -- and with as many holes they have -- they could go a different direction.

They wouldn't mind trading down, as long as they could get North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers. Yes, he has a funky sidearm delivery. But the coaching staff -- which coached Rivers' South team in the Senior Bowl -- returned from Alabama raving about him.

So the team would consider trading down, if it was assured it could get Rivers. The same could be said for Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger, but it appears Rivers has shot ahead of him in the Chargers' eyes.

There also the massive matter of Iowa left tackle Robert Gallery. Many think he's in the mold of the Rams' Orlando Pace, the last tackle to be picked No. 1 overall.

Gallery was brought in for a series of private interviews, and didn't do anything to hamper his stock. Plus, everyone knows how much Schottenheimer loves to run the ball, and his best weapon -- by far -- is Tomlinson. So it's not a stretch to say the Chargers could nab Gallery at No. 1, then go out and get a veteran free agent quarterback to get through this season.

Decisions, decisions. Once again the Chargers are at a crossroad, and once again they'll try to avoid being T-boned in the intersection. The jobs of Smith and Schottenheimer -- and the future of the NFL in San Diego as the Chargers seek a new stadium -- could ride on the draft's outcome.

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