The wait already has been longer than expected for Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, the top two quarterbacks selected in the NFL draft in April.
When they were traded for each other on draft day, it seemed likely that both would be playing a lot this season for teams rebuilding around them. The New York Giants regarded Manning as a once-in-a-generation quarterback prospect and it appeared that he had a good chance to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Peyton, a fellow top overall draft choice who was an immediate starter for the Indianapolis Colts in 1998. The San Diego Chargers obtained Rivers, after being shunned by Eli Manning, during an offseason in which they seemed eager to oust Drew Brees as their starter.
But now, Manning and Rivers are watching and waiting because their teams, after going a combined 8-24 last year, have become two of this season's most surprising success stories without them. Veteran Kurt Warner, signed to help mentor Manning and perhaps keep the starting seat warm for him briefly, has led the Giants to a 5-2 record. Brees suddenly is thriving in his fourth pro season and has the Chargers tied for first place in the AFC West at 5-3.
"I'd like to be playing, but Kurt is obviously playing well right now and the team is playing well," Manning said by telephone this week. "I'm trying to learn all I can from Kurt and trying to prepare each week just like I would if I was starting. You have to make the best of every situation you're in. It's something I've done before. I redshirted for a year and didn't play much for a year in college, and I just have to take the approach of doing everything I can to improve."
He said he's happy for Ben Roethlisberger, the rookie quarterback drafted 10 spots beneath him who is wowing the NFL after inheriting the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting job from injured veteran Tommy Maddox. "He's made the best of his opportunity," Manning said. "I just have to be ready when my chance comes."
The ways of today's NFL say that Manning and Rivers will get their opportunities by the outset of next season. All four of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round last year -- Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich, Baltimore's Kyle Boller and Chicago's Rex Grossman -- began this season as starters. The Bengals switched to Palmer, last year's top overall pick, even after veteran Jon Kitna played well last season and nearly took the club to the playoffs. Teams have too much money and hope invested in prized young quarterbacks to keep them on the bench for long.
Still, Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said this week it's possible that Warner could remain the Giants' starter next season. "If we go far this year and Kurt wants to come back, he could be our quarterback next year," Accorsi said. Making Manning the starter "doesn't have to happen overnight."
Accorsi signed Warner after the two-time NFL most valuable player in St. Louis was released by the Rams in June. Warner signed a two-year contract but acknowledged from the outset it might be only a one-year arrangement.
"I wasn't going to take Tiki Barber and [Jeremy] Shockey and [Michael] Strahan and our cornerbacks and sell them down the river," Accorsi said. "Every year of your career is too precious for that. . . . The only way Eli was going to play this year was if he gave us the best chance of winning."
Manning has been limited to two mop-up appearances while Warner has played the sort of mistake-free football that Giants Coach Tom Coughlin wants to see, throwing only two interceptions in 202 passes.
"If we had drafted Roethlisberger, he wouldn't be playing," Accorsi said. "Sometimes divine providence enters into it. Roethlisberger got his chance when he got it because someone got hurt. . . . As long as we're winning and Kurt is healthy, Kurt is going to play. . . . We basically agreed to use each other. We're using him to win, and he's using us to revive his career."
Rivers's chance to open the season as San Diego's starter essentially ended when he missed 29 training-camp practices and two preseason games because of a contract dispute.
Brees is the AFC's second-rated passer behind Peyton Manning. He has thrown 14 touchdown passes and only three interceptions and the Chargers have scored the most points in the league (219). Brees was nearly perfect in last Sunday's 42-14 dismantling of the Oakland Raiders, completing 22 of 25 passes for 281 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Brees is eligible for unrestricted free agency in March, and the Chargers might not be able or willing to keep him. His price tag climbs with every good outing. But General Manager A.J. Smith, echoing comments made by Coach Marty Schottenheimer earlier in the week, said by phone that he's not concerned about that issue yet.
"Drew Brees is our guy, and he's unrestricted at the end of the season," Smith said. "People say, 'What are you going to do?' Well, we don't have to worry about that until after the season."