Mannings, San Diego in stare down

Imagine this scenario: Around 12:15 Saturday afternoon, with San Diego on the clock and its time limit for exercising the first choice in the draft about to expire, Paul Tagliabue steps to the podium and announces that the Chargers have selected quarterback Eli Manning of Ole Miss.

Then the commissioner turns, holds up a San Diego game jersey for the traditional photo opportunity with the top pick -- and finds himself staring at Eli Invisible.

Can't happen? Guess again. Thursday, a day rife with intrigue, filled with brinkmanship and fraught with rumors and mounting misinformation, ended with the Chargers and the Manning family locked in an old-fashioned stare down, with neither side prepared to blink.

All the rhetoric about the New York Giants being close to a deal that would net them the top choice (and Manning) and permit the Chargers to squeeze out of an ignominious situation in which their Chosen One chooses not to play for them? Forget it.

There were midday rumors that the Giants had offered the Chargers their first- and second-round choices in this year's draft, along with a choice of their second-round pick in 2005 or wide receiver Ike Hilliard. It sounded good, but it wasn't true. There was a shred of substance to the whispers that Tagliabue was maintaining a personal presence in the standoff, but league officials debunked the notion the commissioner was attempting to broker a deal, and one owner noted that would be overstepping his bounds.

On Thursday night, key sources from both franchises acknowledged to ESPN.com that the teams are no closer now to a trade than they were two weeks ago, when Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi first contacted San Diego counterpart, A.J. Smith.

In fact, as of late Thursday, the Giants had not phoned the Chargers. Said one New York source: "Whatever long-distance carrier we've got better not plan on getting rich off this thing." Giants officials speculated that San Diego executives would call on Friday, but that was simply supposition.

There is a good chance the Giants will wait until Saturday, when San Diego is on the clock, and see how the Chargers feel then about choosing a player who has hinted that he could sit out the 2004 season and re-enter the draft in 2005.

And there is this nugget: One high-ranking NFL official told family patriarch Archie Manning, who is privately fuming that the Chargers went public with the request that the franchise not choose his youngest son, that San Diego management has informed the league of its intent to choose Eli Manning.

If that's the case, and there is still a long way to go until the moment of truth arrives on Saturday, it could be a choice made with the guest of honor in absentia.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.