In 2004, Eli Manning stood at the podium beside Paul Tagliabue as the number one overall draft pick. The San Diego Chargers could not resist selecting the highly rated collegiate passer, even though he and his family had publicly stated that he did not want to play for the Chargers.
They called his name anyway, and Eli accepted one of the greatest honors a football player can receive with the look of a child who got a pair of socks for Christmas.
The Chargers eventually swapped with the New York Giants for Philip Rivers and a handful of draft picks. Each team got the quarterback they were after and now, thousands of passing yards later, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning are in the Hall of Fame conversation.
But it was a bad look for football.
Instead of going to the Chargers and doing his best to make himself, his team, and the organization better, Eli opted for the big city of New York. It was what he wanted (which, as any coach could tell you, does not mean it was what he needed).
Joe Burrow just completed one of the most incredible college football seasons on record. The undefeated National Champion, Heisman winning All-American, holder of multiple school and NCAA records, is not a flash in the pan. He has all the tools to be a success at the next level. Including the humility and intelligence to break down top-tier defensive schemes.
The Cincinnati Bengals, who seem far from anything that could be described as NFL success, are in position to draft him first overall.
Jason Whitlock of First Things First suggests that Burrow find a way out of the situation, a way out of what he considers an unwinnable position in Cincinnati.
Some agree with that idea, suggesting that if burrow goes to the Bengals, then the championship ring he just won with the LSU Tigers will be the only one in his case. Burrow’s brand might be tarnished by lack of success in Cincinnati, if he can’t find a way to improve the struggling franchise.
There is a counter sentiment building, however, which believes that a move like that would be “soft,” and tarnish Burrow’s reputation forever.
If Eli Manning had been grateful for the opportunity presented to him by the Chargers and accomplished all he’s accomplished (57,000+ passing yards and 366 touchdowns) in San Diego, then he would be a California hero, destined for the Hall of Fame.
Instead, the two-time Super Bowl champion with mediocre dependability (84.1 career passer rating and a knack for turning the ball over) is looked at in a different light. In the minds of some fans, the guy who was too good for the number one draft spot, who in his own mind should have been able to pick wherever he wanted to go, ought to have produced more.
He shined a heavy light on himself. While the two Super Bowl championships are the envy of most players, 244 career interceptions are not.
Manning’s brand has been influenced by his approach more than his production. Bleacher Report ranks Eli Manning as the #15 NFL prima donna of all time. Fair or not, the only way to avoid being dubbed a prima donna is to produce.
Ryan Leaf was a great talent who wanted things done his way, but failed to produce. He’s a prima donna.
Michael Jordan was a talent who wanted things done his way and his production was off the charts. He’s one of the greatest of all time.
Eli Manning is somewhere in between.
If Burrow tries to land somewhere other than Cincinnati, he will be under the same microscope. Should he land in Green Bay, New Orleans, or Denver, then anything less than multiple Super Bowls and MVP trophies would be a letdown.
If he goes to Cincinnati, and takes them from 2-14 to the playoffs, then he will have proven what so many believe: Joe Burrow is not only a great talent, but a great leader.
And if he gives the Cincinnati Bengals a shot at the Super Bowl, then Joe Burrow would enter the conversation with all-time NFL greats.
There are other factors to consider. Maybe Joe isn’t interested in his football legacy. Maybe he wants a big city to promote his brand (New York or Chicago), or maybe he wants to stay down south, where his brand is already known and he seems to feel comfortable (Houston, Miami, Carolina).
There is no ethical right or wrong in the conversation. There is not necessarily a “correct” professional move here. It all comes down to what Joe Burrow wants.
If he wants a championship, Cincinnati will offer a long and difficult road to one.
If he wants to build his brand, then he will aim for a team with a prime market in a big city.
But if he wants to prove he is a true football player, then he will go to the place he was drafted and do his best to make himself, the team, and the organization better.