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Don't blame Mannings; Chargers stink

Easy to see why QB doesn't want to be drafted by S.D.

The family that breeds NFL quarterbacks has told the San Diego Chargers, "No way." The Mannings told the sorry, no-account Chargers that Eli, the brother of Peyton and the son of Archie, does not want to play for them. It's not about any great desire to play in New York, specifically, though that would be just fine in the scheme of things. But really, it's just that they think Eli would be better off just about anywhere else.

And I don't blame Archie Manning a bit. He played 13 seasons in the NFL, almost all of them with the New Orleans Saints, who were pathetic. And you can bet he hasn't forgotten what it was like to spend a career in competitive purgatory, with rarely a chance to come close to winning.

Yes, the NFL is different now because teams go from bottom to top all the time; the rules facilitate the worst teams becoming better immediately. And Archie's sons have the benefit of something he never had: free agency. Even so, when you know the game, the industry and the personal trials and tribulations as well as Archie and you can do something to influence things in your son's favor, you do it. From the day Eli signs a contract until he leaves pro football, the NFL will have all the leverage. Heck, the contract Eli signs won't even be guaranteed. Whatever team he joins will undoubtedly come knocking one day, asking him to renegotiate his contract so the team can sign a young stud, or have more salary cap flexibility.

Archie Manning knows how this works. And any father worth the title should be commended for doing whatever he can to keep his kid away from the likes of the football Cardinals, the NBA Clippers and Wizards and baseball's Expos. And yes, the Chargers are in that group. Since Bobby Ross led them to the Super Bowl in 1994, the Chargers have gone — get this — 9-7, 8-8, 4-12, 5-11, 8-8, 1-15, 5-11, 8-8, 4-12. That's eight straight non-winning seasons, surpassed only by the Bengals' 13 straight non-winning seasons. But at least Cincinnati's on the upswing.

It's perfectly legit to wonder about the Chargers' competence, especially when it comes to picking quarterbacks. After missing out on Peyton Manning, the Chargers took Ryan Leaf with the second pick of the draft in '98. Owning the top pick in the 2001 draft, they traded the chance to pick Michael Vick and settled for Drew Brees (and LaDainian Tomlinson).

Can you imagine how bad a team has to be for a kid to not want to throw the ball in Southern California? The Chargers must really stink if Eli, a Mississippi kid, would rather sling it through the swirling winds of Giants Stadium than the gentle breezes by the Pacific.

"About the last three weeks of the season, San Diego is looking pretty good to me," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs cracked yesterday.

Goodness mercy, how could the NFL draft have any more drama?

We've got one of football's royal families, a polite, even-tempered bunch of folk, embroiled in a messy controversy. We've got two Supreme Court justices ruling on draft eligibility 36 hours before the first pick. And this is in addition to all the stupid mock drafts. ESPN's Mel Kiper, just so you know, has now projected pick for pick into the sixth round. Some clown from the Sporting News is on his XIIIth mock draft . . . that's 13th for those of you who are Roman numeral challenged.

At least we won't have to wait long for the good stuff. The Chargers, as Coach Marty Schottenheimer told The Post's Mark Maske and Leonard Shapiro yesterday, likely will still take Manning with the first pick. My question is, why? Manning isn't John Elway, whom Baltimore selected first and had to trade him when Elway (with an assist from his dad, Jack) refused to play for the Colts in 1983. Is Manning really that much better at this point than Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger? Is Manning really that much better than North Carolina State's Philip Rivers?

Okay, you want a real cynic's view: The guy the Chargers really want is Rivers, and they can extort the Giants, move to No. 4, or even lower, and still get him. Why else would Chargers boss A.J. Smith disclose that the Mannings wanted no part of his team? Now Smith can tell Chargers fans he had no choice but to take Rivers because Manning wouldn't come.

We also won't have to wait long around here for the only local move that matters. The Redskins pick fifth. There will be plenty of great players left. If it's not Miami tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., it'll be Miami safety Sean Taylor, whom the Redskins could also use. Texas wide receiver Roy Williams probably will be on the board. Gibbs said emphatically he did not promise to take Winslow if he is available, contrary to Internet reports.

I must admit, it didn't really hit me Gibbs was actually the coach of the Redskins again until I saw him sitting there with Vinny Cerrato and Dan Snyder talking about the draft yesterday at Redskins Park. There was Gibbs, talking about how the draft isn't that much different than it used to be, about how he told his scouts not to ask him to change any of these kids once they arrived, warts and all.

"I'll tell you what really excited me," he said. "Free agency . . . In the old days we didn't have that."

Well, actually they did to a smaller degree because the Redskins signed Wilber Marshall away from the Bears back when Gibbs was still head coach. But we get his point. Teams can re-shape themselves so much more in the offseason before the draft than they could 15 years ago.

If you're looking for tip-offs as to who the Redskins will take, there was one moment when Cerrato, when asked about the club's investigation of college players' personal lives, said, "We've sent people down to their campus." Very quickly, Snyder said, "Or up . . ."

Whichever player the Redskins select, especially if we're talking about Winslow or Taylor, will help and probably immediately. But one thing we know for sure is the Redskins won't be the stars of Saturday's draft; the Chargers, Archie and Eli Manning have already made certain of that.