Peyton Manning drafted on This Date, but what if he wasn’t?

April 18, 1998 Peyton Manning was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, which set him on his path to Denver. However, what if he declared for NFL as a junior?

Sometimes it’s interesting to contemplate the what if question in professional sports.  Last week, Sports Illustrated had a “what-if” section in their magazine with a Chargers helmet.

That’s a scenario we can all agree would have drastically changed the NFL for the past two decades.  No Manning trade from the Colts means probably no SB 48 or 50 appearances for the Broncos.

On this date (4/19) in 1997, Orlando Pace was drafted # 1 overall by the St. Louis Rams following a trade with the New York Jets who owned the #1 pick heading into the draft. But what if that never happened and Manning had entered the draft in ’97?

Some scenarios and stories are more interesting and realistic than others when you contemplate the what ifs. For example, what if the Colts hold on to win their game, thus giving Arizona the #1 pick in the 1998 draft? Would they have drafted Manning?

The SI article speculates AZ would have passed on Manning since they had Jake Plummer. Maybe. At the very least the Cardinals wouldn’t have passed on trading Manning’s rights to SD/Indy or another team. Zero chance that happens that way. The Cardinals got a pretty good bounty moving from #3 to #2, allowing the Chargers to snag Ryan Leaf. Certainly AZ would have added to that bounty had the prize been Peyton Manning and the #1 pick (assuming they don’t move Plummer and keep the #1 pick).

Then the Sports Illustrated article went on to say that PFM might have ended up in Indianapolis anyway had he and Archie pulled out the Eli/Ron Burgundy card saying no to San Diego. This is a fair point.

In my opinion, the biggest “what if” concerning Peyton Manning would have been what if he comes out of Tennessee as a junior? The New York Jets owned the #1 pick. Coached by Bill Parcells, with Bill Belichick as the defensive coordinator. That decision would have knocked the last 20 years of the National Football League off of its current orbit.

What about the Jets? If Manning had gone to the Jets in 1997, what can we imagine for their team?
For starters, Keyshawn Johnson would have been thrown the damn ball and would be enshrined in Canton at this point, while who knows how Marvin Harrison develops in Indy.

This is the kicker, in this alternative universe where Manning goes to the Jets, Bill Belichick likely never leaves New York for New England.  If Belichick stayed with the Jets, the football world doesn’t have to deal with the obnoxiousness of a single Patriots championship.

It would pair the best coach (Belichick) with the best quarterback(Manning) and the combination would likely have been deadly. The only downside to this scenario is that it would be Manning who would have had his legacy tarnished by Spygate (if it’s ever uncovered), because you know Ernie Adams would have been brought back into the fold once Belichick took over and kept the reigns of the Jets. Every rule would have been bent if not broken, but it’s easy to see the Belichick/Manning combo dominating the league.

What about Tom?
Who knows. Maybe Tom Brady goes on to have a Hall of Fame career with another team. Maybe he wins a championship, maybe he never does. The Jets certainly wouldn’t have drafted Chad Pennington at #18 out of Marshall in 2000, that is for sure. Who knows exactly where Brady ends up.

Maybe all the QB’s slide back a slot, which would have had Brady in Washington working with Norv Turner. (just to be clear, that is not a likely progression, but one that is easy to use). There is always a chance he still ends up in New England, but the results would not have likely been the same. The same system would not be in place. It’s quite possible Brady actually has to put that resume he created to use in the non-football world. You can’t rule it out. As it was he was the 199th pick and made the most of his opportunity when it was presented, but there are no promises that a similar opportunity would have been there for him.

What about the Colts?
Let’s say they waste the 1998 first pick on Ryan Leaf and he acts and plays like he did in San Diego. They are easily taking on the role of the Chargers, and looking for a replacement QB. One could argue that had Manning not ended up in Indianapolis, that Colts owner Jim Irsay would have played “like father, like son” and found a new city for the Colts to play in. Drafting Peyton Manning married the Colts to Indianapolis for decades, if not forever.

What about the Chargers?
Assuming the Colts draft Leaf, San Diego might reach for a Charlie Batch. They might have brought in a Doug Flutie or Jim Harbaugh type sooner rather than later, and could have still been in a position to chase a Michael Vick or Drew Brees, or even the 2004 trio of Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Phillip Rivers. Some things would have been different, some things might have been the same. With A.J. Smith calling the shots, you can’t bank on a championship. It should also be noted that they will be the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017 if you haven’t heard.

What about Denver?
This QB shift might have taken Brian Griese out of Denver. With John Elway’s retirement following the 1998 season and back to back Super Bowl Championships, they had a huge need for a QB. They took Brian Griese in the 3rd round. They might have drafted Griese in the 2nd round, or looked elsewhere for Elway’s replacement. You could possibly see them drafting a Chad Pennington in 2000, or Drew Brees in 2001, it’s really hard to say. These past 5-6 years would have been grossly different.

Denver could have been in a position of chasing a higher draft pick and wanting to use it on a QB. Broncos fans might not have a first hand knowledge of any of the following: Jay Cutler, Josh McDaniels, Kyle Orton, Brady Quinn, Tim Tebow, Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch.

Manning might not have ever faced the injury issue that he suffered at the hands of Gregg Williams’ Washington Redskins back in 2006(what type of bounty did those guys get?).

So the second and final act of his career in Denver might not have ever materialized. Again, no promises on anything, but there is no doubt the past 20 years would have been vastly different. Would it have been better? That is up for debate and your rooting interest, but you can’t really argue that it would have changed the entire course of NFL history had NFL Commissioner, Paul Tagliabue announced on this day 20 years ago, “With the first pick of the 1997 NFL Draft, the New York Jets select, Quarterback, Peyton Manning, University of Tennessee”.

Let’s all thank Manning for staying his senior year, without him in Denver it’s tough to imagine DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders, Aqib Talib or TJ Ward coming to Denver. Without them, no World Championship with Super Bowl 50. This date is truly momentous in Denver’s history–because of what didn’t happen.


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