One of the most fun things we sports fans can do is ask ourselves “What If”?
But this question is best asked when you wonder where some of the greatest NFL legends could have played. Did you know that John Elway was close to not being a Denver Bronco? Or that Peyton Manning had a handful of teams after him, and he chose the Mile High City? Denver’s always on the right end of acquiring superstar quarterbacks, for example.
In fact, take a look at many of the greatest icons in NFL history. Many of them were close to being traded to new teams. Some almost signed contracts with a different team than the one they chose. And of course, some NFL greats wound up being drafted extremely late, and they made the rest of the league pay the price.
Here is a look at how 15 NFL legends could have gone to other teams, while changing the course of history.
15. Buffalo Bills Draft Russell Wilson
The Bills can blame their struggles of the last two decades on two men: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The New England Patriots just seem to take apart any great team the Bills have tried to create for the past 10 years. There’s no denying the Bills have built a formidable defense – Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Stephon Gilmore and others have been a dominant group.
However, the Bills haven’t had a quality quarter since the Jim Kelly days to go head-to-head with Brady. Their chance was to nab Russell Wilson with the 69th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but they took receiver T.J. Graham instead. He was off the Bills by 2013, while Wilson is a Super Bowl champion and star quarterback.
Wilson is 2-1 vs. Brady, and it would be 3-0 if the Seahawks ran the ball. Buffalo would have a game manager quarterback capable of beating Brady and challenging the Bills for the division, but Wilson fell down the board and went to Seattle with the 75th pick.
14. Chicago Bears Draft Brett Favre
The Green Bay Packers were a powerhouse in the ’90s and early 2000s, led by three-time league MVP, Brett Favre. He led them to a Super Bowl XXI championship and wreaked havoc on divisional rivals – the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions. But it didn’t have to end up like that.
Favre wasn’t drafted until the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft, when the Atlanta Falcons took him with the 33rd pick. He would get traded to the Green Bay Packers the following season, and become one of the most decorated quarterbacks in NFL history.
Chicago passed on Favre and drafted tackle Stan Thomas with the 22nd-overall pick.He was out of the NFL by 1994. Meanwhile, Favre went 22-10 with 53 touchdowns and just 18 interceptions as a Packer against the Bears.
Favre made the Bears pay for their mistake, and they haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1985. Perhaps if they had just taken Favre, they could have been great and the Packers would have been a mess in the ’90s.
13. Nnamdi Asomugha Signs with New York Jets
Long-time Oakland Raiders star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha hit the free agent market in 2011, and the New York Jets were after him. Asomugha was highly regarded as the NFL’s best cornerback, but the Jets also had a shutdown corner in Darrelle Revis and were coming off their second-straight trip to the AFC Championship.
Having Asomugha and Revis would have terrorized the New England Patriots in the AFC East, but the Jets couldn’t get him to come on board despite hard efforts. Asomugha then went to the Philadelphia Eagles on a five-year deal worth $60 million. He struggled with injuries and his career went downhill as a result, however.
But if Asomugha and Revis were together? Imagine Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson on the same team. There would simply be no way of getting through that Jets defence. They’ve failed to make the playoffs since failing to sign Asomugha.
12. San Diego Chargers Keep Eli Manning
The San Diego Chargers drafted Eli Manning with the first-overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. However, Peyton Manning’s little brother had no desire to play for San Diego, and demanded a trade. The New York Giants took Philip Rivers with the fourth-overall pick, then swapped him for Manning with the Chargers.
Though Rivers has definitely been the more consistent and all-around better quarterback, Manning has led the Giants to a pair of Super Bowls, while Rivers has had a terrible playoff track record in San Diego.
Manning has gone 8-4 in the postseason, including two wins in Lambeau Field (hard to do),and Super Bowl wins over Tom Brady. Rivers is 4-5 in the playoffs, and his struggles in crunch time held back many talented Chargers teams from winning the Super Bowl.
Seeing how money Manning is in the playoffs, imagine him in January with Antonio Gates, Vincent Jacksonand LaDainian Tomlinson. Perhaps the Chargers would be the team with two Super Bowls since 2007, not the Giants.
11. Carolina Panthers Draft Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis is one of the most decorated and dominant defensive players we’ve ever seen. He was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 13-time Pro Bowler, seven-time First Team All-Pro and two-time Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens. He racked up 2,055 career tackles, 41.5 sacks and 31 interceptions in a career that lasted from 1996 to 2013.
The Ravens were lucky to land Lewis with the 26th pick in 1996, but the Carolina Panthers could have had him and gone far with No. 52. Instead, the team took Tim Biakabutuka with the eighth-overall pick. He never became a star and was out of the NFL by 2001. Carolina could have won Super Bowl 38 if they had Lewis face Tom Brady, who torched the Panthers defence in that game. Carolina could have also beaten Seattle in the 2005 NFC Championship if they had Lewis as well.
10. Darrelle Revis Signs with San Francisco 49ers
The New York Jets traded Darrelle Revis to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013 after failing to agree on a contract extension. However, the San Francisco 49ers and Revis seemed to have mutual interest.
Revis said that joining the 49ers would be awesome, seeing how they almost won a Super Bowl without him on the roster. But the 49ers defence was strong enough, and they didn’t pay the Jets the hefty price for Revis Island. The 49ers narrowly missed out on a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII after losing to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. If they had Revis, perhaps that could have been the difference maker.
San Francisco never recovered from that loss, having missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. If Revis was able to win a title in San Francisco, then Jim Harbaugh probably stays in the long run, and the team doesn’t lose all of its stars in free agency.
9. Dan Marino Gets Traded to Oakland Raiders
Dan Marino was one of the top quarterbacks of his era, transforming the Miami Dolphins into a juggernaut for much of the ’80s and ’90s. Trading him sounded like a crazy idea at any point during his career, but they actually came close to dealing him to the Oakland Raiders in 1990.
Armando Salguero from The Miami Herald touched on a story where Dolphins head coach Don Shula was frustrated after finishing the season 8-8 and missing the playoffs altogether. Shula and Raiders’ owner Al Davis were reportedly close to making the deal, but the former kept increasing his asking price to the point where Davis walked away last minute.
Oakland made the playoffs in 1990, 1991 and 1993, but struggled through the rest of the decade. If they had Marino, perhaps that would have been the piece to win a championship or two. Instead, the Raiders struggled and haven’t fully recovered from the years of misery.
8. Drew Brees Signs with Miami Dolphins
The San Diego Chargers had a good problem to have: Too many good quarterbacks. They opted to go with Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees hit the free agent market in the summer of 2006. The New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins were his top two suitors, but Miami walked away, because they were scared off by his shoulder injury.
The Dolphins wound up taking Daunte Culpepper. All Brees has done in New Orleans is toss over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in all 11 seasons as a Saint. Miami has made the playoffs twice since passing on Brees. Their best quarterback of the past decade is Ryan Tannehill – he is solid, but not great.
7. Phil Simms Signs with Cleveland Browns
Phil Simms was the quarterback of a New York Giants team that won two Super Bowls. He finished with 33,462 yards and 199 touchdowns in a 15-year career with the Giants. However, Simms suffered a series of injuries and needed shoulder surgery after the 1993 campaign.
With Simms preparing to take over again as the starter in 1994, the Giants chose to release him. Simms chose to retire, but the Cleveland Browns made a push for him to join their team in 1995. Browns head coach Bill Belichick met with Simms’ agent, but the two sides never agreed to a deal.
The Browns have obviously struggled more than any NFL team over the past two decades, but landing a potential Hall of Famer in Simms could have been a difference-maker for the franchise. Instead, they struggled to find a franchise signal-caller, a trend that has continued into this decade.
6. Minnesota Vikings Draft Roger Staubach
The Vikings were among the NFL’s best teams in the ’70s. The Purple People Eaters defence shut down most of the NFL’s elite offences, while Fran Tarkenton was one of the most efficient passers of his era. That being said, the Vikings lost three Super Bowls in the ’70s, and were a step behind the Dallas Cowboys, who were led by star quarterback Roger Staubach.
The Vikings held the 19th pick in the 1964 NFL Draft, and opted to take Hal Bedsole, who played just three seasons in the NFL. Staubach led Dallas to a pair of Super Bowl wins in the ’70s, and his Cowboys knocked off Minnesota three times in the playoffs.
Though Tarkenton was great, Staubach just came through more in crunch time and led Dallas to the moniker of “America’s Team.” If Minnesota had Staubach, Dallas would not have had the Hall of Famer at quarterback. Maybe Minny would have been America’s Team.
5. Oakland Raiders Draft Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers was passed on 23 times in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft. All he’s done is show his case as the best quarterback ever, with a Super Bowl XLV title, two league MVPs and greatest quarterback rating in NFL history.
Rodgers has been the most dominant quarterback I have ever watched, and could go down as the greatest of all-time in many eyes. But here’s the thing: Rodgers should not have been a Packer. The Raiders could have had him. They owned the 23rd pick and took cornerback Fabian Washington, who was off the team by 2007.
Now, if Oakland had Rodgers, it’s anybody’s guess how great they could have been. He may have single-handedly turned them into a juggernaut and Super Bowl contender. The Raiders had instead wait nine years to find their future quarterback in Derek Carr.
4. John Elway Traded to Indianapolis Colts
One of the greatest quarterbacks ever was drafted by the Baltimore Colts with the top pick in the 1983 NFL Draft. However, John Elway had no desire to play for the team and requested a trade immediately. We all know he went to the Denver Broncos, where he went on to win five AFC Championships and two Super Bowls.
But what if Elway had been a San Diego Charger? He apparently hoped to play in California, and the Chargers came forward and offered a package deal, but it wasn’t enough to entice the Colts. Baltimore apparently wanted the fifth-overall pick that San Diego had, and we can only assume they regret not doing the deal to this day.
Elway took the long-struggling Broncos and turned them into the class of the AFC. The Chargers had a quality quarterback in Dan Fouts, but the team failed to build around him, and never won a championship. We can only imagine what could have happened if they had Elway.
3. Peyton Manning Signs with Kansas City Chiefs
When the Indianapolis Colts made the tough call to release Peyton Manning in 2012, he became the greatest free agent in sports history. Almost half of the league wanted him, and he basically got to pick any team that didn’t have an elite quarterback of their own.
The Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins, Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos were among the teams that went after him. Obviously, he chose Denver and won four division titles, two AFC Championships and Super Bowl 50.
But what if The Sheriff chose the Chiefs? Suddenly, the Broncos aren’t a juggernaut. The Chiefs, with a great defense and running back in Jamaal Charles, would have been a Super Bowl contender with Manning. In his four seasons with Denver, Manning went 7-1 against the Chiefs. But perhaps they would be the ones celebrating a Super Bowl or two with him at the helm. He chose to dominate the rest of the AFC in Denver.
2. New York Jets Draft Tom Brady
Every team passed on taking Tom Brady multiple times in the 2000 NFL Draft. But no team paid the price more than the New York Jets. They hired Bill Belichick to be their coach in 2000, only for him to quit right away and head to the Patriots.
The Jets could have prevented the Belichick dominance by taking Brady with the 18th pick in the 2000 Draft. They chose to take quarterback Chad Pennington instead, and he never materialized into a star, while Brady has become arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time.
He and Belichick win the AFC East every year, and Brady owns most meaningful playoff records and has the most wins ever. The Jets made the playoffs in 2006, 2009 and 2010, but have failed to reach a Super Bowl. They remain one of the NFL’s biggest laughing stocks, while Brady’s Patriots have become the NFL’s model organization.
1. Cincinnati Bengals Draft Joe Montana
It’s amazing to think how Joe Montana was drafted so late. The San Francisco 49ers got him with the 82nd pick in the 1979 NFL Draft. The Cincinnati Bengals were among many teams to pass up on Montana, but they would regret it more than any other NFL team.
The Bengals had plenty of chances to take Montana, and taking him with the third-overall pick would have been better than drafting Jack Thompson, who played just four seasons with Cincinnati. San Francisco and Cincinnati faced off in Super Bowl XVI, with the 49ers winning a close game, 26 to 21. They would face off again in Super Bowl XXIII, with Montana orchestrating the greatest Super Bowl game-winning drive ever.
Cincinnati also struggled for much of the ’90s, while Montana was among the NFL’s top quarterbacks. If they had taken Joe Cool, it’s safe to assume they would have A) won multiple titles and B) prevented a 49ers dynasty.
Instead, the 49ers continue to remember their four Super Bowls under Montana, while the Bengals await their first playoff win since 1991.
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