It is inconceivable, if not largely impossible, that any draft class will replicate the passing numbers produced by the three quarterbacks who were selected in the first round in 1983 -- John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.
In 64 combined years in the NFL, the trio accumulated 148,303 yards passing -- or 84.3 miles -- and 957 touchdowns. They rewrote record books, appeared in 10 Super Bowls and were all first-ballot inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The 1983 class didn't just include Elway, Kelly and Marino. Three other quarterbacks were also drafted in the first round -- Todd Blackledge of Penn State (No. 7 overall), Tony Eason (15th) and Ken O'Brien (24th) -- though none had the success approaching the more famous trio.
But, for all of their success, the quarterback draft class of '83 produced just two Super Bowl victories -- both by Elway. Kelly made four consecutive trips with the Buffalo Bills from 1991-94 but never won. Marino's only appearance was 1984, his second season, when the Miami Dolphins lost to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. Elway was 0 for 3 until the Denver Broncos won back-to-back titles in his final two seasons, 1997 and '98.
Maybe that's why, as unlikely as it might have appeared 10 years ago, that another ballyhooed quarterback class has a chance to exceed the level of greatness established by the one from 1983. If it hasn't already.
The 2004 class that produced Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.
"I'm old-fashioned when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks," said former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, the man who acquired Manning in a draft-day swap with the San Diego Chargers. "I don't evaluate stats -- that's a baseball concept. This is a team sport. I evaluate quarterbacks based on championships. Ben and Eli have won four; that whole class won two. I think this class is going to turn out to be the best and most illustrious class."
It is something of a rarity in the NFL when quarterbacks with two Super Bowl rings meet in a regular-season game. But it will happen today in East Rutherford, N.J., when Roethlisberger and the Steelers (4-3) face Manning and the New York Giants (6-2) in a 4:25 p.m. game.
It is rare because only three active quarterbacks have multiple Super Bowl rings. New England's Tom Brady, who has three, is the other.
The two who will meet today have combined to win four of the eight Super Bowls since they entered the league. Roethlisberger was the youngest quarterback (23) to win a Super Bowl when he took the Steelers there in his second season. He won a second in 2008 on a dramatic final-seconds play with Santonio Holmes and played in -- but lost -- a third in 2010.
Manning followed Roethlisberger there in 2007 and again in '11, each time besting Brady and the New England Patriots. And, each time, Manning was named the game's Most Valuable Player.
Almost from the time each was drafted -- Manning as the No. 1 overall pick, Roethlisberger No. 11 -- debates have ensued over who is the better quarterback. The Super Bowl has been testament that both make big plays at critical moments.
"What Ben and Eli have done already, in three of those [Super Bowl] wins, the quarterback made plays to win the championship," Accorsi said. "They made the play at the end of the game to win the championship.
"A lot of people say defense wins championships. I think defense is a mandatory element. But take it back to the 1950s and write down the name of the world champion and the quarterbacks who won and, in those 62 years, with about five or six exceptions, all the quarterbacks are Hall of Famers. Quarterbacks are the difference-makers."
Accorsi had no idea at the time he was altering the power structure in the NFL when he drafted Rivers with the fourth overall selection in 2004 and engineered the trade with the Chargers to get Manning, who was the No. 1 overall pick.
He said he was prepared to draft Roethlisberger with the fourth pick if the Chargers weren't willing to trade Manning, who said he wouldn't sign with them.
"If we didn't make the Eli trade, the fall-back position was Roethlisberger," Accorsi said on the phone the other day. "It wasn't Rivers. We made that selection only so we could make the trade. They were 1-2 on our board. That's why we weren't panicky. We felt completely comfortable with both of them."
His decision made all three teams better, especially the Steelers and Giants.
It is no coincidence that the Steelers, Giants and Chargers are three of four teams that haven't had a losing season since 2005. The other is the New England Patriots.
"What little I've been able to note of Ben in his career, he's done a good job of working the chemistry of his team and that's the way Eli has worked here," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "Both have been the voice of their franchise and done a good job of that. That was a very good, talented draft, and both the Steelers and the Giants got a couple of outstanding players."
Asking which quarterback is better -- Roethlisberger or Manning -- is like asking who had the better singing voice, John Lennon or Paul McCartney?
Statistically, Roethlisberger has the edge in the most important categories -- victories (94 to 83) and winning percentage (.701 to .601). He also has a better career completion percentage (63.4 to 58.7), passer rating (92.8 to 82.6) and one more Super Bowl appearance.
Manning, though, has thrown for more yards (29,880) and touchdowns (197) than Roethlisberger, but he has also thrown more interceptions (137).
"They both kind of elevated themselves to greatness," said ESPN analyst and former quarterback Trent Dilfer, who helped the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl in the 2000 season. "I think all quarterbacks are judged and should be judged on how they do with the hard things, the critical stuff -- third down, red zone, all that -- and they both do the hard stuff as well as anyone.
"But if you look at the technical part, there's 30 percent beyond the X's and O's, and they do that 30 percent as well as anyone in football. They do it differently, they have different traits they rely on, but the result is the same."
Dilfer said part of that 30 percent is how they handle themselves when things aren't going right. And the two principal elements of that, he said, are what he referred to as "pocket conflict" and throwing to receivers when they're not necessarily open.
"Eli has always been good at the first two," Dilfer said. "Ben was excellent at the first one and has grown into the second. Both of them are tremendous at it."
Rivers is the only quarterback from the '04 class not to win a Super Bowl, but he is the only one of the three to make three consecutive playoff appearances in his career.
Rivers has a better career passer rating (94.6) than Roethlisberger (92.8) and Manning (82.6) and a better winning percentage (.627) than Manning (.601). But he is largely viewed as an underachiever because the Chargers have won only three playoff games with him at quarterback, despite having a roster than many viewed as Super Bowl capable.
"I'm not trying to be presumptuous, but I don't think Ben and Eli are done winning Super Bowls," Accorsi said. "And I think Rivers can win one."
The forgotten quarterback in the class of 2004 is Matt Schaub, primarily because he was drafted in the third round by the Atlanta Falcons and was traded to the Houston Texans before the '07 season.
In six seasons with the Texans, he has never completed less than 61 percent of his passes and has a passer rating of 94.02. He has passed for 18,553 yards and 103 touchdowns with 56 interceptions in 71 starts with the Texans. His regular-season record is 38-33, though he is 13-4 since 2010.
Right now, Schaub looks as though he has a better chance of winning a Super Bowl than Rivers.
And his classmates are watching.
"I think you always pay attention to guys in your draft class, and especially quarterbacks at the same position," Manning said. "In my case, you root for the guys and when people look back years from now, you say that was a great draft class, Philip Rivers and Roethlisberger and some of the quarterbacks."
"A big part of it for me, at least, is when we get done playing, I want to say that it's the greatest quarterback class of all time," Roethlisberger said.
It's headed in that direction, thanks to him and Manning.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published November 4, 2012 4:00 AM