Paul Tagliabue's fingerprints initially appeared on the first round of the NFL draft last week when Archie Manning revealed that the commissioner had called him and urged him to meet with San Diego Chargers President Dean Spanos in an effort to change the family's mind about whether quarterback Eli Manning would play for the team.
Despite that conversation, the Mannings were adamant about saying no to San Diego, who drafted Eli anyway with the first overall pick Saturday. It made for uncomfortable photo opportunities -- and perhaps a bit of schadenfreude in San Diego -- as Manning stood next to the commissioner, wearing a forced smile and holding a Chargers jersey as the New York crowd booed him. Manning's discomfort was mercifully brief. After about 45 minutes as a Charger, he was traded to the New York Giants.
A move that pleases everyone -- and this one elated the Mannings, Chargers and Giants -- naturally starts the conspiracy theories. This one fueled speculation about whether the commissioner played any further role in getting a stellar player to a storied franchise in a conference that is loaded with talent and story lines in the media capital of the world.
Negotiations for a new network TV contract that will begin in the 2006 season are expected to heat up this fall. By the time it goes into effect, Manning would be in his third season with a team in the No. 1 media market, and the Giants paid an extremely high price in assuming he'll quickly develop into a superstar clone of his big brother Peyton of the Indianapolis Colts.
If Eli is indeed playing at a Peyton-like level in his third year, that could only translate into higher local and national TV ratings in the first season of a new television deal. That certainly would give the NFL an even better bargaining position than it already enjoys as the most popular team sport on television.
As if the conspiracy theory needed more fuel, Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi, who drafted Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway for the Baltimore Colts in 1983, said recently there had been tremendous pressure on the Colts from all sides, including the league office, to trade the pick when Elway threatened to play baseball rather than show up in Baltimore.
And a representative for a number of players affected by the trade said Saturday he'd have a hard time believing the commissioner wasn't somehow involved in the pre-draft maneuvering.
The league denies it.
"It is just not true," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said yesterday. "The only role [Tagliabue] had in any of this was in taking a telephone call from Dean Spanos, who wanted to meet with Archie Manning. The commissioner was not involved in any other way whatsoever. End of story."
The result is that the Chargers received an extra pick in the third round Saturday, as well as the Giants' first- and fifth-round picks in 2005. The Chargers also got a highly rated quarterback in North Carolina State's Philip Rivers, a player they said they have admired ever since the San Diego staff coached Rivers for a week before the Senior Bowl in January.
Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer had admitted in an interview with The Post last Thursday that Manning was the quarterback they truly coveted, simply because he was a classic, prototype pocket passer and would likely pick him. On Saturday, Schottenheimer said of Rivers, "I don't know if we would have selected him number one, but we certainly think he's recognized around the league as a quality, number one quarterback."
Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith was asked after the trade was announced if the team had taken Manning out of spite.
"No," he said emphatically. "You take the best player at the time you think is a benefit to your franchise, and we did. We have strategy in our building. . . . We talk football all the time and we know exactly what we're doing. The Giants and Chargers got together and made a deal that's absolutely fantastic for both teams."
The Chargers said they didn't make the trade until Saturday because they wanted to maximize Manning's trade potential. Left unsaid was that the team also was looking to avoid a repeat of the '98 draft disaster, when the team moved up in the first round to take Ryan Leaf, one of the all-time QB busts. And, of course, this is the team that traded the No. 1 overall pick in 2001 to Atlanta rather than take a chance on quarterback Michael Vick.
Getting a potential starting quarterback in Rivers and those three extra picks, as well as avoiding a protracted squabble with the Mannings, including a possible season-long holdout, obviously helped ease the sting of losing a player like Manning.
A larger question, though, is how Chargers fans will react. The team has been embroiled in a protracted and messy battle with the city over a new stadium, and the vacant Los Angeles market has frequently been mentioned as a relocation destination, which ownership and the league deny. Rivers isn't the kind of player who will sell tickets -- at least not yet.
As for the Giants, and particularly Accorsi, this was a chance to get the No. 1-rated player on most teams' draft boards. Accorsi had been in this position once before, when he selected an equally reluctant Elway. Accorsi knew of the Elway family's dislike of then-coach Frank Kush, but took him anyway and thought he had a chance to make a deal to keep the Stanford quarterback.
But owner Robert Irsay traded Elway to Denver because he didn't want to pay the price Elway would have commanded, believed to have been a rookie record $5 million over five years. No wonder Accorsi said on Saturday, "history says if you get the right quarterback, you win championships."
Accorsi also said the reason the deal with the Chargers wasn't consummated in the days leading up to the draft was San Diego's insistence on getting the Giants' second-round pick this year.
"The primary objective of all these discussions was our second-round pick," he said. "Because it was two spots out of the first round [34th overall], we wanted to preserve that this year. We weren't going to give that up. That was a big sticking point for us."
The Giants used the choice to select Boston College offensive lineman Chris Snee, considered by most to be the best guard on the board. He also happens to be the father of Coach Tom Coughlin's grandson, Dylan. Coughlin's daughter Katie, a senior at BC who is not married to Snee, gave birth to the baby last fall and the two are raising the child together.
It was just another twist in a trade that may one day be regarded as among the most significant in league history. As Rivers said, "It was a whirlwind, that's for sure."