Every sport has its share of “what if” moments. Games that could have gone the other way and thus shift things up while trades and drafts that could have sent a superstar to another team. The NFL has its high share as so many careers changed by everything from injury to their team of choice and championships that could have been changed. Every team’s fan base has these questions, the arguments over what could have been and it’s intriguing to think on the very different ways pro football could have gone with just a minor change or two.
Trying to pick the biggest “could have beens” is tough as every fan base will insist their possibilities are bigger than others and mean a lot more. Yet there are some that can be seen as the biggest around. Keep in mind, until the mid-60s and the advent of the Super Bowl, the NFL was second to baseball in popularity in the U.S. and a lot had to happen to change that. It's fun to think back to what could have been.
Here are the 15 biggest “what if” situations for the NFL and how, with just a little shift here and there, the current landscape could have been a lot different.
15 The Falcons Keep Brett Favre
After wowing folks by coming back from a near fatal car crash to a record run at Southern Mississippi, Favre was drafted by the Falcons in the second round in 1991. It was marred from the start as coach Jerry Glanville openly said, “It will take a plane crash for me to put Favre in a game.” After a few rough games, Favre was traded to the Packers where he proceeded to become a three-time MVP and Super Bowl champion, putting up fantastic numbers and even after his later seasons with the Jets and Vikings, is still regarded as one of the best Packers players ever.
If the Falcons had just sucked it up and kept Favre, they would have benefited from his later stardom, putting them in serious playoff contention and probably winners (meaning, they might never have gotten Michael Vick). Green Bay would have suffered without Favre, the Bears perhaps getting more of a shot in the postseason and it’s unlikely they would have gotten their hands on Aaron Rodgers. If Glanville had just been a bit more forward thinking, Favre would have been a Falcon and his success would help Atlanta fly higher.
14 The Patriots Go Undefeated
For all their success, including winning Super Bowl XXXXIX, it always grates Patriots fans that one catch prevented them from laying claim to the greatest season in NFL history. After finishing 16-0, it was going to be the big one, crushing the Giants and adding the championship to cap it off. Boston stores were already set to sell “Perfection” shirts and officials had begun planning the victory parade. But then Eli Manning pulled off the stunning pass that set up a touchdown to end the Patriots’ dreams.
Had they hung on, that New England team can make a great case as the best ever and you’d still see “19-0” shirts all over the place. The later rematch between the Giants and the Patriots would have been a bigger deal and the Giants’ win meaning more. More notably, many speculate it was this loss that pushed Bill Belichick to his infamous moves (Deflategate) and had the Patriots kept to perfection, he might not have been driven to go to such lengths for further success. It’s not as if the Patriots are cursed by any means but keeping that perfect championship season would have cemented them as being the best of the best.
13 No Monday Night Football
When ABC launched MNF in 1970, it was a massive deal. It wasn’t just football in prime time, it was how it was presented, the action hard-hitting with close-ups and the commentary crew (led by Howard Cosell), provided both insight and entertainment to spark up even blowout games. This show was what really helped push football to overcome baseball as the national pastime with fans and reshaped how coverage on TV could be.
Football in prime time might have happened eventually but not an institution and even ESPN would be different without MNF to follow as an example of how to present televised sports. Innovative for its time as well as hugely popular, the lack of MNF would have meant a very different NFL in the 1970s and beyond. Having games in primetime is what helped push the NFL to the no.1 sports league in North America.
12 The Immaculate Reception Fails
It’s been called the most controversial play in NFL history. Trailing with 30 seconds left in the 1972 AFC Divisional playoff, the Steelers were desperate to beat the Raiders. Terry Bradshaw threw a pass that bounced off Jack Tatum and to the ground before Franco Harris scooped it up and ran it back for the winning touchdown. It would spark the Steelers to their first of four Super Bowls but many argue the pass was illegal, due to it touching receiver John Fuqua, rather than DB Jack Tatum
Had that been ruled the case, the Raiders would have won and possibly won the Super Bowl as well. This would have been a blow to the Steelers, perhaps shaking them so much that the famed “Steel Curtain” wouldn’t come to be and thus the Steelers would have missed out on so many Super Bowl titles. Bradshaw would still be considered a good QB but not ranked among the best while the Raiders might have gone on to be the team of the 70s. It would have robbed fans of a great moment and alter the fate of the AFC, showing how one play changed the game so much.
11 Norwood Makes the Field Goal
Just a few inches to the left and it would have been so much different. Super Bowl XXV was a terrific encounter between the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills, a thrilling contest that went down the wire to Scott Norwood, who attempted a game winning 47-yard field goal with no time left. It went wide to the right and thus gave the Giants the championship. This kicked off the agony of Buffalo as they would go to the next three Super Bowls without a victory.
Had Norwood made the kick, all that pain would have been avoided as Buffalo could boast a championship well-earned. The bigger question is the aftermath as it was always the desire to get that title that drove the Bills to three straight AFC titles. Without that drive due to a title, the Bills might have gotten lax, allowing the Broncos or Dolphins a shot instead. So a victory here would have changed things for the Super Bowl and at least spared Buffalo several decades of pain.
It's very possible this Bills team would have been regarded as one of the all time greats, rather than a painful reminder of Buffalo's misery.
10 Manning Stays in Indianapolis
You can forgive people for thinking Peyton was done in 2011. His last couple of seasons with the Colts had been rough and he was undergoing serious neck surgery with the conclusion he could never be the same afterward. With the acquisition of Andrew Luck and Manning’s high price tag, the Colts decided it would be better to let him go and Manning tearfully bid farewell to the city that loved him. He went to Denver where, in one of the most remarkable comebacks ever, he enjoyed some of the best seasons of his career, was named MVP, and would lead the Broncos to two Super Bowl appearances and retiring as a champion.
The Colts’ lack of major success shows that the loss of Peyton was a major blow as he clearly would have loved to stay and might well have helped Indianapolis to another championship or two while Denver would have suffered without him and Peyton retiring as a Colt would have been much more fitting for his legacy.
9 The 49rs Miss Montana
One would think Joe Montana would be a must-grab in the 1979 draft as the man had led Notre Dame to a national championship and won respect playing through a deadly flu. Yet, somehow, Montana was the last guy chosen in the third round. It’s a remarkable bit of fate as in only a few seasons, Montana would set up “The Catch” that led the 49ers to the first of four Super Bowl victories in the decade and made Montana one of the greatest quarterbacks in history.
The Bengals would naturally have loved having Montana rather than Jack Thompson as QB and even the Giants would have chosen him over Phil Simms. We would never have had the Catch or the great Super Bowl runs and so the entire NFC would have looked a lot different without Montana. Maybe Steve Young would never had gone to the 49ers for his own Super Bowl title and Montana’s legacy might include a couple less championships but still an amazing run of records. The difference would be another city would get the dynasty rather than San Francisco.
8 The Patriots Don’t Get Brady
It’s still remarkable that with so many first-round “can’t-miss” players turning into busts, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time was ignored until the sixth round. That’s what happened as it took that long in 2000 for New England to get Tom Brady and even them, had him as backup until Drew Bledsoe’s injury let Brady show his stuff and create the Patriots dynasty. Any number of teams could have picked up on Brady over the draft rounds and thus gotten a man who would have led them to possible championship glory.
The most interesting scenario here is the Jets landing Brady, as they needed a QB in 2000, but opted for Chad Pennington, and were reportedly considering taking a second one later in the draft. They could have nabbed Brady and thus been launched into massive success with his talent.
Even without Bill Belichick, Brady’s skills would still be clear and helping a team be champions. Obviously, the Patriots dynasty would not exist and New England would have remained a second-rate team while any number of franchises could boast having a master QB (who might also be a bit more honest without Deflategate) and not have to deal with such a missed opportunity.
7 The USFL Survives
The idea of the United States Football League was daring: pro football played in the spring and summer with teams going for players ignored by the NFL. They scored a huge coup by signing Herschel Walker out of college and weren't doing bad with a TV deal and despite financial issues, they had a following. However, various factors ended it as several owners (most notably a younger Donald Trump) wanted the USFL to immediately jump into competition with the NFL, which they weren’t ready for.
Had they managed to survive a bit longer, the USFL might have been able to keep going to recruit more stars and compete with the NFL in their own way, sticking to spring/summer for a football-hungry fandom. They would have benefited from the 1987 strike and perhaps given the NFL a bit more of a challenge. They perhaps inevitably would have collapsed but their merger with the NFL would help it boost like the AFL merger did and with things changing, the USFL could have sparked the NFL up more for 1990s and provided an alternative to fans in the offseason.
6 Elway Goes to the Colts
The Colts, of course, would later get Peyton Manning but it should be remembered that, for a brief time, they had another elite quarterback on their roster first. In the famed 1983 draft, the Colts selected John Elway, hailed for a great college tenure and seen as a star in the making. However, Elway was wary of the Colts and their harsh coach Frank Kush and was also interested in possibly playing baseball for the Yankees. So the Colts traded him to the Broncos, where Elway would quickly set records and become the most beloved player in the franchise’s history, retiring after winning back-to-back Super Bowls. He also helped as executive, signing on Manning for two more Super Bowl trips and a championship.
Had Elway stayed with the Colts, his career would have been different, perhaps with a different coach and lineup, he could have won a Super Bowl earlier…or perhaps never even gotten to one with a bad team around him. Denver would have suffered without him and not the later clout to sign on Manning so the Broncos might have no titles at all. It’s amazing to consider how one of the greatest QBs of all time might have never gotten the titles he deserved had he stayed with the team that drafted him.
5 The Cowboys Keep Walker
In 1989, the Dallas Cowboys pulled off a huge move by trading star running back Herschel Walker to the Vikings for several players and draft picks. It was called a very lopsided trade at the time and it turned out to be right…just not for the reasons people thought. Walker never worked out right in Minnesota and even held the Vikings back. Meanwhile, Jimmy Johnson would brilliantly use those draft picks to get his hands on several players (Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, Alvin Harper) who would forge the Cowboys team that would win three Super Bowls.
Without the Walker trade, the dynasty doesn’t happen as the Cowboys were a good team but Smith and the others helped make them truly great so they might have gotten to one Super Bowl but not the others. Smith and Woodson would ply their craft with other teams and boost them to success and thus the power of the NFC at the time would have shifted. Walker would no longer be the butt of jokes about the worst trade ever and the Cowboys history would have lacked their greatest era.
4 Jim Brown Doesn’t Retire Early
Few men have been so amazingly dominant on the field as Jim Brown in his prime. In nine seasons, the Browns star made a name for himself as the greatest rusher the league had ever seen, setting a record with 12,312 yards and leading the Browns to the NFL title. But in 1966, he stunned everyone by announcing he was retiring, an unexpected move as he was still at the top of his game and had plenty of good years left. Brown said he wanted to go out on top but many feel he robbed fans of more records to hold.
Had he stayed around longer, Brown would have just added more to his record, so much that perhaps even Walter Payton wouldn’t have been able to break it. He also would have kept the Browns in title contention for a while and shift the power of the AFC a lot. The Browns may have even managed to win a Super Bowl.
Brown would still be amazingly respected but his place in football would be even greater had he stayed to add more seasons and yards to an already incredible legacy.
3 The Tuck Rule Isn’t enforced
The Patriots were always going to be a Super Bowl title-winning team. Between Belichick and Brady, the idea they'd never get a championship without the Tuck Game is hard to fathom. However, the rise would have been a lot different if not for the 2002 AFC playoff between the Patriots and the Raiders as what appeared to be a recovered Raiders fumble, that was overturned by the refs into an incomplete forward pass due to this “rule.” Controversy about it still rages with Raiders fans claiming they were ripped off and the Patriots won the game en route to their first Super Bowl title.
Without that rule enforced, the Raiders would have won the game and probably the Super Bowl. That would have seen Jon Gruden remain in Oakland, and likely prevent the Buccaneers from winning their title the year after. Gruden could have been Oakland's John Madden of the era and it's unlikely they would have plummeted to the bottom of the league as they did in the mid to late 2000s.
The Patriots might still have gotten to the big game but the dynasty we know would have taken longer to forge and thus, Brady might have a couple less rings on his hands while the power of the NFL would have shifted up a bit.
2 Johnny Unitas Doesn’t Play
It’s rare that one man can transform an entire sport but that’s what Johnny Unitas did. Setting records, he made the quarterback spot one of the most important positions in football, a leader on the field and his flashy passing helped turn offenses into more dynamic sights that led to the NFL rising higher in success. But it almost didn’t happen as Unitas was cut by the Steelers (coach Walter Kiesling actually thought Unitas was “not smart enough” to be a QB) and soon was working as a construction worker who got a last-minute tryout with the Colts.
Without that break, Unitas would never have gotten to play and set new records and the Colts would be robbed of so many titles. It also means some other game would have the moniker of “The Greatest Game Ever Played” rather than the 1958 Colts-Giants battle and so many future QBs would have lacked that major inspiration. The NFL would exist but Unitas was the guy who truly helped push them to a new level and without him, that evolution would have taken a lot longer.
1 The AFL
Without the American Football League, the NFL of today would not exist. The AFL introduced a new wave of playing with flashy passing and more excitement that sparked things up. Also, the AFL was what introduced “second-tier” cities like Buffalo, Houston and Oakland to the pro landscape, setting the stage for the expansion we know today. Perhaps most notably, it was the clash of the NFL and AFL that created the Super Bowl so while there would be an NFL championship, it wouldn’t be the epic event we know today.
The AFL gave rise to the popularity of football in the late ‘60s that overcame baseball as America’s sport. The NFL would still exist but on a smaller level, not as huge as we know today, perhaps not in markets like Jacksonville, the Carolinas and elsewhere and thus the current landscape of not just football but all American sports would be a lot different.