Giants' stubbornness paid off in '04 megadeal that almost wasn't
Ernie Accorsi was wise not to include Osi Umenyiora in trade for Eli Manning
The hard-hitting 49ers won a game for the ages in knocking off the Saints
With the Packers gone, there's a new look atop Fine 15 for first time all year
Here are two questions for you to start your Championship Week: What would have happened if Ernie Accorsi hadn't had such a backbone on April 24, 2004? And what would have happened if A.J. Smith had played hardball with Accorsi as the clock wound down on the fourth overall pick of the 2004 NFL Draft, with just seven minutes to go and the Giants on the clock?
Ben Roethlisberger a Giant.
Osi Umenyiora (not Shawne Merriman) a Charger.
Eli Manning a Charger.
It takes a big story to throw the 49ers off the front page of Monday Morning Quarterback today -- and you Niner fans will get your love soon enough, courtesy of the man who made the block of the year in NFL -- but the fates of Manning and Umenyiora, after their huge combined role in the Giants' 37-20 trouncing of the top-seeded Packers last evening, were on my mind as I sat down to write. I've told the story of the 2004 draft and the Manning/Chargers/Giants love triangle before, but the Umenyiora part of it has never gotten its due.
Smith, the Chargers' rookie GM at the time, asked then-Giants GM Accorsi for unknown second-year pass-rusher Umenyiora in the week before the draft. No, Accorsi said; I don't trade young pass-rushers. San Diego had the first pick in the draft, and Manning said he didn't want to play for San Diego, but the Chargers picked him anyway -- and everyone in football knew they wanted North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers instead; the Manning pick was going to force the Giants to deal a ransom for him because Accorsi loved Manning and Smith knew it. So with the Giants on the clock, Smith called again.
"He brought up Umenyiora again,'' Accorsi told me last night, "and I said no. We were not giving him up. There was no way.''
So now the trade teetered. If Smith had insisted on Umenyiora and killed the deal, Accorsi had an ace up his sleeve: He could trade down three spots and pick up a second-round pick from Cleveland ... and still draft the Giants' No. 2 quarterback on the board, Ben Roethlisberger from Miami of Ohio. The Giants liked Manning much more, but Accorsi wouldn't budge on Umenyiora. Accorsi offered the Giants' first- and third-round picks in '04, and an '05 first-rounder. "We still want Osi,'' Smith told him.
Tick, tick, tick ...
Two minutes left.
Accorsi's last, best offer.
"No Osi,'' he said. "That's still a deal-breaker. But we'll throw in a six next year.''
Pause on the line from San Diego.
Tick, tick, tick ...
"Make it a four,'' Smith said.
"I'll give you a five,'' Accorsi said.
On Sunday, here came the Packers, down 20-10 to start the second half, starting and stopping down the field, trying desperately to find some rhythm. Five minutes into the half, Aaron Rodgers had the Pack at the Giants' 30, and it was first down, and he took the snap and looked over a packed secondary that had frustrated him throughout the first half. From Rodgers' left, Umenyiora took an inside move against left tackle Chad Clifton, beating him as Clifton flailed away.
Now 30 and coming off knee and ankle injuries and a contract hissing match with current GM Jerry Reese earlier this season, Umenyiora sped in and batted the ball out of Rodgers' hand just as he went to pass. (Telling stat from FOX just then: The forced fumble was the 32nd of Umenyiora's nine-year career. That's a lot.) Giants recovered. Packers never got closer than seven the rest of the way. Umenyiora had two of the Giants' four sacks, and the line made sure Rodgers was never comfortable all day.
Accorsi liked defensive linemen, and he stocked this team with Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka before he left the team after the 2006 season. In came Reese, and he's taken it up a notch: Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard in free agency, along with Dave Tollefson (a seventh-round pick from Green Bay who was cut, signed to Oakland's practice squad, and then signed by the Giants from the Raiders), and Linval Joseph and Jason Pierre-Paul in the draft. Can't have enough defensive linemen. That, plus their cool quarterback and his receiving weapons, is why the Giants are one win away from their second Super Bowl in four years.
"People have always depicted what we did in that '04 draft as an obsession with Eli Manning,'' said Accorsi. "It wasn't. If we'd have had to, we'd have taken Roethlisberger, and we'd have been fine with that. We just weren't giving up Umenyiora.''
Almost eight years later, Accorsi's stubbornness is a big reason the Giants are headed to San Francisco for Sunday's NFC Championship Game ... and just as big a reason the Packers feel so deflated this morning.
Five most noteworthy events of the playoff weekend, with Ravens-Patriots and Giants-49ers on deck:
1. How lousy Green Bay was -- or how bad the Giants made the Packers look. Aaron Rodgers cut off a question before it was finished last night, about whether the long layoff -- he hadn't played in 20 days -- had anything with the stunning 37-20 loss to the Giants. "No,'' he said firmly. Sure looked it. The amazing thing about this game is that, without a couple of shaky calls by ref Bill Leavy, this could have been 44-13, or some similarly stunning score.
FOX counted eight Green Bay drops; I counted six. Victor Cruz found big gaps in Packer coverage. Hakeem Nicks scored on a Hail Mary that Packer safety Jarrett Bush, who had the best seat in the house to see, let him have. The Packers looked a lot more like a 7-9 team Sunday than 15-1. Credit the Giants quarterback for being better than the presumptive MVP, the Giants receivers being better, and the Giants defense being loads better.
2. The Packers and Saints will be bitter about this weekend for a long, long time. Combined, the Packers and Saints were a plus-21 in turnover margin this year. This weekend, they were a combined minus-7. The Packers and Saints were 29-4 entering the divisional round because they were two efficient offensive machines all season. Efficient offensive machines don't turn the ball over nine times in eight quarters.
3. If you thought the Ravens would be the most physical team left in the playoffs, you didn't watch the Niners beat the tar out of the Saints. Last week, former 49er Bill Romanowski went on TV in the Bay Area and advocated that the Niners knock out one of the Saints. Maybe Niners safety Donte Whitner heard. He kayoed Pierre Thomas with a crushing helmet-to-helmet hit -- legal because Thomas is a back, not a quarterback, and wasn't defenseless -- setting the stage for big Niner blasts on the Saints all game. Even the winning touchdown left a Saint dazed and confused: When tight end Vernon Davis caught the winning touchdown pass with seconds left, the collision with Saints safety Roman Harper left Harper woozy.
4. The Patriots are better-suited to win the Super Bowl right now, at 14-3, than they were exactly four years ago, at 17-0. After New England's 45-10 beat down of the Tebows in Foxboro, Vince Wilfork agreed with me that the Patriots were in better shape at this stage of the playoffs than they were after their undefeated season. "Four years ago, we peaked too early,'' he said.
Four years ago, New England scored 34 or more 11 times in the regular season, then won by 11 and nine in the playoffs before losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl. They had Randy Moss in his prime then, and he was great. I'd rather have Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
5. Houston with Matt Schaub could very well have won in Baltimore. T.J. Yates threw three interceptions and was overmatched on the big playoff stage. Maybe Schaub would have had some jitters, but not like Yates. The Ravens scored three points in the last 46 minutes, and amassed 227 yards all day. That's not going to cut it Sunday in Foxboro.
Non-playoff team bonus noteworthy event: Jeff Fisher didn't choose against Miami as much as he chose St. Louis. Simply put, Fisher wanted to avoid another situation like he had in Tennessee, where owner Bud Adams, if he chose, could tell him what to do on personnel. Adams told him in 2006 to take Vince Young in the first round. Fisher didn't want to do that, but it was Adams' call. Now, understand this: I'm told reliably Fisher did not ask the Rams or Dolphins for final say on draft day, or total control over the roster. All he wanted was the ability to -- in the event he was categorically opposed to a decision being made by the general manager -- have a mechanism in place for a third party, like an owner, to decide which way the team would go. St. Louis was fine with that. Miami wanted to leave ultimate personnel authority with the GM, Jeff Ireland.
Seems like a little thing for Miami to surrender with owner Stephen Ross wanting Fisher badly, but consider this: The last six Super Bowl winners leave the final draft and personnel say up to the general manager. Maybe Miami should have given in, but that would have violated Ireland's contract and changed the structure Ross wanted in place. ... and flown in the face of the way most (but not all) winning teams operate.