Alternate History Epilogue: Peyton Manning Declares For The 1997 NFL Draft

Peyton Manning announced his retirement soon after Super Bowl 50.  Over the 19 years that he played in the NFL, there is not much debate among NFL historians that Manning was one of the best to ever play, and certainly he was the best to play during his career. Over this time period, he was the only person to win four Super Bowls, and he is also the only player in NFL history to appear in seven, and the only quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different teams.  His arrival in the 1997 NFL Draft set many franchises on paths of success or failure.  Above all, the reputation of one franchise was irrevocably changed…

New York Jets

No longer the sideshow in the Big Apple, under Bill Belichick the Jets have become one of the best run teams in the NFL, earning a reputation of dominance not unlike their regional neighbors in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium—with all the hate that comes with it.  While the Jets do face future uncertainty with Belichick’s bold decision to go with Jimmy Garoppolo from here on out, most believe the Jets will bounce back quickly, and there is no doubt that Belichick will have a bust awaiting him in Canton someday.

Belichick has amassed a winning record with the Jets against 29 of the other 31 NFL teams.  As impressive as it was, the other two always seemed to confound him when it counted…

Denver Broncos

While the Jets get all the glory, the Broncos, without as much fanfare as you’d expect, won four Super Bowls in 20 years, the most in that time period.  This included inflicting an 0-4 record against Belichick in the playoffs while he has led the Jets.  While Belichick is the consensus as the best head coach of the century so far, Mike Shanahan made his case for the second best with his recent induction into the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2016.  Shanahan joins John Elway and Terrell Davis in Canton, and he will likely be joined by Tony Romo, Champ Bailey and Ed Reed soon, with Brandon Marshall putting up a serious argument in the twilight of his career.  Under Elway’s execution as general manager in succeeding Shanahan, most see the Broncos as perennial contenders even whenever Romo’s career concludes, provided that 2016 draftee Paxton Lynch is a rightful successor at quarterback.

San Francisco 49ers

The other team that got in Belichick’s way also prevented Peyton Manning from winning seven Super Bowls, as all three of the Jets’ losses in the big game were to the 49ers, who have the overwhelming lead in most Lombardis with eight.  Joining Shanahan as a Hall of Fame inductee in 2016 was Steve Mariucci, who is seen as second only to Bill Walsh among great coaches in 49ers history.  Likely to join him someday will be Tom Brady, considered quite possibly the best undrafted free agent in NFL history, and Terrell Owens, whose brash personality was managed quite well by both Mariucci and Brady during his long tenure in San Francisco.  Despite their past fondness for Owens, most 49ers fans are grateful that Brady’s new #1 target is Demaryius Thomas, who is the anti-Owens based on personality, and the feeling is that with Greg Roman now coaching them both, the 49ers should be in good shape for a while.

New England Patriots

If the Jets play the role of the Yankees in the NFL, then the Patriots certainly play the role of their Massachusetts counterparts in the Red Sox: regularly in the shadow of New York, but always striving to be competitive nonetheless.  Compared to the Evil Empire perception of the Jets, the Patriots are often seen as one of the most likeable teams in the NFL.  The contributions to this perception begin with Aaron Rodgers, who many now see as the best active quarterback in the league with Peyton Manning’s retirement and Romo and Brady going past their prime.  It continued with the presence of Tony Dungy to right a ship that Pete Carroll had abandoned, and LaDainian Tomlinson, one of the best running backs of his era.  Many though Dungy would have made it into Canton this year had it not been for Shanahan and Mariucci being first ballot candidates, and many believe that both he and Tomlinson will go in as part of the Class of 2017.  With Rodgers still around and Mike Tomlin as head coach, the future of the Patriots looks bright.

Seattle Seahawks

Carroll may have bailed on the Patriots, but he later proved that he is an outstanding coach in both college and the NFL, thanks to his 2013 Super Bowl victory.  Under his leadership, the Seahawks have continued their tradition of being the primary challenger to the 49ers in their fierce NFC West rivalry.  With a young team in their prime, many expect Seattle to be a strong competitor for quite some time.  But that’s nothing new for the Seahawks, who first climbed the mountain in 2003 under Mike Holmgren, who’ll have his own argument for the Hall of Fame at some point for winning rings with both the Seahawks and the first team he became associated with…

Green Bay Packers

When one thinks of the Packers at the turn of the 21st century, they’ll think Brett Favre and Jon Gruden, who enjoyed 12 seasons together in Green Bay with good success.  They never did reach the Super Bowl together, though, and while Favre was a no-brainer Hall of Fame choice this year on his first ballot, history does not seem to be favoring Gruden, who is earning the perception of being seen more as a product of Favre.  The two dark seasons of 2010 and especially 2011 that led to Gruden’s demise in Green Bay are working against him, especially since the Packers have bounced back quickly with landing the Andrew Luck sweepstakes and have already reached two Super Bowls.  Many expect the Packers to be regular contenders once again for years to come.

Baltimore Ravens

While Belichick may also be considered the best active general manager, the choice for #2 for many will likely be one of his acolytes in Ozzie Newsome.  He has earned two Super Bowl rings since running the Ravens from their inception in 1996, and they are regularly contenders for more.  Finally solving the question at quarterback with Matt Ryan particularly has the Ravens in good shape for the foreseeable future.

Pittsburgh Steelers

But the Ravens’ most hated rival has given them plenty of fuss, something that you would expect from a team first led by Bill Cowher, who got the Steelers the “one for the thumb” ring in 2008, and now Bruce Arians, who many see as one of the most underrated head coaches in the NFL.  Ben Roethlisberger being quarterback during both coaches’ tenures also doesn’t hurt, as he’ll have a dark horse candidacy for Canton in his future.

New York Giants

However, he’s not the only quarterback for 2004 to talk about.  Long the “big brother” in the Big Apple, the Giants have taken on the “little brother” role in New York—almost literally, with Peyton Manning’s younger brother Eli sharing the Meadowlands’ quarterback duties.  But Eli Manning has carved out a good career of his own, with the high point thus far being a Lombardi Trophy in 2009.  With Tom Coughlin still in charge, Big Blue should keep contending in the NFC East.

Philadelphia Eagles

But Coughlin—and everyone else—is outdone in tenure among head coaches by Andy Reid, who is still going strong keeping the Eagles as regular contenders.  First with Donovan McNabb and now with Alex Smith, Reid’s skills as an offensive guru continue to treat Philadelphia well, and while Reid only has one Super Bowl appearance on his plate, owner Jeffrey Lurie has yet to lose any faith in Reid’s ability to eventually break through thanks to regular playoff appearances.

Dallas Cowboys

Jerry Jones has a volatile tenure as being the man at the top of football operations.  But things have mostly turned out well for him.  Steady, if not spectacular quarterback play after Troy Aikman with Vinny Testaverde, Chad Pennington, and Joe Flacco has certainly helped.  Hitting on draft picks like DeMarcus Ware and Dez Bryant have also given the Cowboys a base of solid players that rarely keep the Cowboys from falling too far down, even if they’ve had it tough competing against the Eagles and Giants in their division.

Houston Texans

On the other side of Texas, things at first looked hurtful for Houston.  While they had a good run with Gary Kubiak as head coach and Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator, firing both only to see both get the Broncos another Super Bowl was a real gut punch for a city that had never sniffed the big game.  But now, the decision to move on to Mike Smith is looking better.  They not only got revenge on the Broncos in last season’s AFC Championship Game, but also now are the clear bully of the AFC South after they had been bullied by a rival ever since their inception…

Indianapolis Colts

Right now, it appears that the Colts are entering another period of bottom feeding thanks to the struggles of Robert Griffin III, who is on his last shot in Indianapolis with a new head coach in town.  Still, Griffin has been nowhere near as bad as Ryan Leaf, who will contend with Art Schlichter for not only the biggest draft bust in Colts history, but in NFL history.  Thankfully for Colts fans, they did get one good period of contention thanks to Mike Martz and his brilliant acquisition of a former backup quarterback named Kurt Warner.  With Warner, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, the Colts of the 2000s put together one of the league’s better passing attacks—in essence, relocating the Greatest Show on Turf in the Hoosier Dome from Martz’s former home as offensive coordinator…

St. Louis (now Los Angeles) Rams

The Rams had quite a few strong years with Trent Green as quarterback and Dick Vermeil as head coach, but many in St. Louis wonder what could have been had Warner and Martz been able to stay in town.  Things looked dark after they left during the Scott Linehan era, especially since at one point it looked like they whiffed on a highly drafted quarterback in Jay Cutler.  However, Cutler’s career, and the Rams themselves, were revived with the arrival of Jeff Fisher, who many thought wanted to draft Cutler while he was with the Titans but was overruled by owner Bud Adams.  Under Fisher, the Rams have yet to have a losing record, but unfortunately the 49ers and Seahawks continue to get in their way in the tough NFC West.  As they make the journey to Los Angeles to be geographically closer to their rivals, the pressure will be on Fisher and Cutler to finally break through and win the division.

Arizona Cardinals

It’s been tough being a Cardinals fan, especially these days when they are considerably behind all three of their division rivals in talent.  However, they did have an exciting period during the Michael Vick era, culminating with earning the #1 seed in 2006.  Unfortunately, it all came crashing down when he was convicted of dogfighting charges in 2007 and became arguably the most ostracized former NFL star that hasn’t seen the field since.  Some wonder if the Curse of Michael Vick has taken force in Glendale, with the Cardinals failing to secure a winning record since then, and churning through many mediocre quarterbacks.  Can a former local star from Arizona State in Brock Osweiler as a free agent acquisition this year from Denver break the curse?  Only time will tell.

Detroit Lions

It’s also been difficult for Lions fans, who witnessed Matt Millen become a punchline for poor football management.  But at least they were able to manage a division title in 2010, they now have a solid starting quarterback in Matt Stafford, and had a pair of legit Hall of Fame candidates in Sean Taylor and Calvin Johnson to look up to.  Prying away Wolverine hero Charles Woodson from the hated Packers after joining in free agency via San Diego also helped win over the fan base.  Millen had it nowhere near as bad as his former head coach as a player…

Oakland Raiders

The rapid downward spiral of the Raiders under the once great Al Davis was seen as almost tragic.  The Raiders had a losing season for Davis’s last 15 years (a league worst 67-173 record) and the embarrassment of holding the only 0-16 record in NFL history—and their subsequent #1 overall pick was used on JaMarcus Russell, one of (if not the) biggest busts ever.  There seem to be glimmers of promise in the post-Al Davis era with the recently extended Colin Kaepernick at quarterback bouncing back in 2015 after missing all of 2014 with an ACL tear, but it’s been tough for anyone to put much faith in the Raiders for a long time.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills had their own stretch of Raider-like futility to begin the millennium, but they finally broken through with the arrival of Rex Ryan from Baltimore, who has kept their defense at the top for quite some time—held together by the stalwart in the middle, Patrick Willis.  Securing Ryan Fitzpatrick as a dependable starting quarterback has also helped.  The Bills have had the misfortune of being under the heels of the long dominating Jets and Patriots in the AFC East, but hope is not extinguished in Buffalo that someday soon the Bills can break through.

But Ryan wasn’t the only former Ravens defensive coordinator to find success as a head coach…

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Marvin Lewis also cut out his own successful path after departing Baltimore with the Bucs.  Lewis dueled twice with Tony Dungy in Super Bowls, winning in 2002 and losing in 2006.  While there was some belief that the Super Bowl he won was with Dungy’s defense, he built the offense in his own hold by landing Drew Brees upon arriving in Tampa, arguably the most underrated active quarterback.  Unfortunately, like many other good coaches patience was lost in Lewis—but his firing could prove costly for the Bucs’ standing the NFC South…

New Orleans Saints

…and where Lewis has been revitalized with a second Super Bowl ring, it’s also where Peyton Manning crafted a storybook ending to his career: going out on top, and in the city where he was born and raised and where his father played.  Many raised eyebrows at the Saints trading high picks for Manning for what ended up being just one season, but a Lombardi Trophy later no one is questioning them now.  Even with extreme quarterback questions with Manning retiring and Mark Sanchez walking in free agency, they still have Adrian Peterson at running back and an excellent young defense under Lewis that should prevent the team from reverting to an era of the Aints.