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Ranking the Biggest ‘What Ifs’ in NFL History

What are the biggest "What if?" moments in NFL history? We're ranking the top 10, from Bill Belichick turning down the Jets to Miami passing on Drew Brees.

Football is truly a game of inches. Myriad missed opportunities and unforeseen scenarios litter the NFL’s record books, leading fans to wonder, “What if?”

What if my team had drafted a different quarterback or hired a different head coach? What if the field goal was good? What if devastating injuries hadn’t cut any number of careers short?

These hypotheticals are beyond enticing. It’s as if an alternate NFL universe exists just beyond our grasp.

What are the biggest “What ifs?” in NFL history? Pro Football Network is counting down the top 10.

Top 10 ‘What If’ Scenarios in NFL History

10) Nickell Robey-Coleman Gets Called for PI in the NFC Title Game

Let’s kick off with our most recent what-if moment. The New Orleans Saints went 13-3 in 2017, finishing tied for the NFL’s best record while earning the NFC’s No. 1 postseason seed. After dispatching the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round, Drew Brees and Co. met up with the Los Angeles Rams — who’d also gone 13-3 — in the NFC Championship Game.

With the game tied at 20 and 1:49 remaining in the fourth quarter, Rams CB Nickell Robey-Coleman committed clear pass interference on Saints WR Tommylee Lewis on a 3rd-and-10 pass attempt from L.A.’s 13-yard line.

Had the PI been correctly called, New Orleans could’ve burned the clock before scoring a touchdown or kicking a field goal. Even in a best-case scenario, the Rams would’ve gotten the ball back with roughly 10-15 seconds remaining, down by three points and holding no timeouts.

Instead, Los Angeles tied the game and won in overtime before losing to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 53. Would Bill Belichick have stifled Sean Payton’s offense like he did Sean McVay’s? Could Brees have won another Super Bowl ring?

“Oh, hell yeah,” Robey-Coleman said after the game when asked if he committed a penalty. “That was PI. … I just know I got there before the ball got there, and I whacked his a–.”

9) Drew Brees Signs With the Miami Dolphins in 2006

The non-call on Robey-Coleman’s pass interference probably keeps Saints fans up at night, but it’s not as if New Orleans hasn’t had its fair share of luck.

Brees reached the free agent market in 2006 after failing to negotiate an extension with the San Diego Chargers. Although the Saints had competition for Brees, the Miami Dolphins were wary of Brees’ recovery after he’d undergone surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder in Jan. 2006.

Miami’s medical staff recommended against signing Brees. Then-Dolphins head coach Nick Saban later said the club’s decision to fail Brees’ physical was the primary reason he left Miami and returned to the college ranks after the 2006 NFL season.

Brees, of course, went on to win one Super Bowl, two Offensive Player of the Year awards, and secure 13 Pro Bowl nods over 15 years with the Saints. He’ll be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins instead traded a second-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for QB Daunte Culpepper, who started just four games in Miami. Eighteen quarterbacks have made at least one start for the Dolphins since 2006.

8) Scott Norwood Makes the Game-Winning Field Goal in SB 25

Jim Kelly is one of the NFL’s best all-time quarterbacks without a Super Bowl ring on his résumé, but it’s not as if the Buffalo Bills didn’t have plenty of chances.

Kelly and the Bills lost four straight Super Bowls from 1990 through 1993. The first defeat was the narrowest, as the Bills went down 20-19 to the New York Giants after kicker Scott Norwood infamously missed a game-winning 47-yard field goal wide right.

None of Buffalo’s other defeats were particularly close. The Bills lost their next three Super Bowls by an average of 21.6 points; their 52-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl 27 is tied for the third-largest in the game’s history.

Buffalo still doesn’t have a Vince Lombardi Trophy. Who knows what could’ve happened had Norwood converted that attempt? Would the Bills have eclipsed the Cowboys as the NFL’s early 1990s dynasty?

7) Eli Manning Agrees To Play for the San Diego Chargers

Eli Manning didn’t want to play for the Chargers, who held the No. 1 overall selection in the 2004 NFL Draft. So, the Bolts worked out a deal with the Giants, agreeing to draft Manning and then trade him to New York in exchange for fellow QB Philip Rivers and a package of additional picks.

Manning went on to become the best quarterback in Giants history, leading Big Blue to two Super Bowl titles, including an unforgettable upset against the undefeated Patriots in 2008. Clearly, New York was pleased with its side of this trade.

Rivers, meanwhile, never won a Lombardi with the Chargers, but he was inarguably a better player than Manning. Rivers eclipsed Manning in every imaginable passing metric and won games at a higher clip than the Giants starter.

What if Manning was willing to play for San Diego? Would he still have won a pair of Super Bowls with the Chargers, which made him a Hall of Fame lock? How esteemed would Rivers be if he could add multiple Lombardis to his list of accomplishments?

6) Seattle Seahawks Run the Ball in Super Bowl 49

Do you remember how this Super Bowl ended? With the Seattle Seahawks one yard away from taking a three-point lead with 20 or so seconds left on the clock, Pete Carroll and the club’s coaching staff put the ball in QB Russell Wilson’s — not RB Marshawn Lynch’s — hands.

Patriots CB Malcolm Butler picked off Wilson, sealing the win and kicking off the second half of New England’s dynastic reign. The Seahawks, who’d won the Lombardi over the Denver Broncos the previous February, haven’t been back to a Super Bowl or NFC Championship Game since.

Seattle only had one timeout left when Wilson was intercepted, which always complicates the discussion about whether a pass play was warranted. However, it seems apparent that Lynch — who’d already rumbled for more than 100 yards against the Pats — could’ve gotten the singular yard the Seahawks needed, even if it took him multiple attempts.

5) San Francisco 49ers Choose Aaron Rodgers in 2005

Alex Smith turned into a workable quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers after they hired Jim Harbaugh as head coach. He made three Pro Bowls and went 50-26 for the Kansas City Chiefs after the 49ers traded him to the AFC West before the 2013 season.

Smith was a good player, but the 49ers could have had a great one.

Aaron Rodgers, a Chico, Calif., native who finished his college career at the University of California, thought San Francisco would take him No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL Draft. Instead, the 49ers went with Smith, while 22 other teams decided positional needs were more important than selecting a QB like Rodgers.

The Green Bay Packers pounced at pick No. 24, securing their line of eventual Hall of Fame signal-callers. Rodgers had to wait for Brett Favre to leave but ultimately won a Super Bowl in Green Bay while capturing four league MVP awards and 10 Pro Bowl nods.

4) Jimmy Johnson, Jerry Jones Work Things Out for the Cowboys

The Cowboys won three Super Bowls in four years from 1992 to 1995 and are already considered one of the NFL’s greatest dynasties.

But would we hold the Cowboys in even higher regard if head coach Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones could have stuck together instead of letting personal conflicts dissolve their working relationship?

Johnson quickly turned around a Dallas club that went 1-15 in his 1989 debut campaign. From 1991 through 1993, Johnson and the Cowboys went 36-12 during the regular season and won two Super Bowls.

However, in December 1993, Johnson expressed interest in coaching the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. In February 1994, Jones — who wanted to take a more active role in Dallas’ football operations — dismissed Johnson’s stature, saying, “There are 500 coaches who could have won the Super Bowl with our team.”

Eight days later, Johnson was gone, leaving the Cowboys along with a $2 million severance. Jones was at least partially proven right when Dallas won another Lombardi in 1995 with Johnson’s successor, Barry Switzer, at the helm. However, the Cowboys haven’t returned to the Super Bowl — or even an NFC title game — since.

3) Bill Belichick Stays With the New York Jets in 2000

“I resign as HC of the NYJ.”

That’s what Belichick had written on a piece of paper as he walked to the podium to announce that he would not be succeeding his friend and mentor Bill Parcells as the New York Jets’ head coach in Jan. 2000.

The Patriots soon hired Belichick, leading Parcells to demand and extract compensation in return. New England traded a 2000 first-round pick to New York for the right to hire Belichick, who just happened to become the NFL’s greatest all-time head coach upon joining the Patriots.

It was a devastating misstep for Gang Green, who was forced to watch Belichick dominate the AFC East and the NFL for the next two decades.

There was no love lost between Belichick and his former employers. He finished 38-12 against the Jets. In the 2023 NFL Draft, Belichick accepted a discounted return in a trade-back with the Pittsburgh Steelers that prevented New York from landing offensive tackle prospect Broderick Jones.

After losing Belichick, the Jets hired Al Groh, who went 9-7 in his lone season in charge. None of New York’s six subsequent head coaching hires posted a cumulative winning record.

2) Chicago Bears Draft Patrick Mahomes in 2017

While the Chicago Bears hoped they solved their quarterback carousel by selecting Caleb Williams at No. 1 overall in this year’s draft, it’s hard to forget that Patrick Mahomes could be starting in the Windy City right now.

The Kansas City Chiefs had no issues identifying Mahomes as an appealing prospect leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft. Now-Chiefs GM Brett Veach reportedly fell “in love” with the Texas Tech QB after his freshman year, calling Mahomes’ agent for 94 consecutive days during the pre-draft process to check on the prospect’s wrist injury and mental state.

Kansas City leaped 17 spots in the draft order, sacrificing a third and a future first to land Mahomes, who’s already in the discussion among the NFL’s best players of all time. A two-time league MVP and three-time Super Bowl winner, Mahomes will target his third straight Lombardi in 2024.

The Bears, of course, went in a different direction in 2017. General manager Ryan Pace gave up four picks to move up one place and swap draft slots with the 49ers, who picked at No. 2. Then, Chicago used its newly acquired pick not on Mahomes or Deshaun Watson but on North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky.

At one point, the Bears reportedly told Mahomes he was the No. 1 quarterback on their board, but Pace didn’t even tell head coach John Fox who he planned to select until the day of the draft and seemingly sent out multiple smokescreens before selecting Trubisky; it’s tough to separate fact from fiction.

Would Mahomes have still become a league-altering force with the Bears? Would the Chiefs have selected Watson, Trubisky, or stuck with Alex Smith? It’s impossible to know the answers or for Bears fans to stop pondering what Mahomes would’ve looked like at Soldier Field.

1) Drew Bledsoe Stays Healthy for the New England Patriots

Could the NFL’s all-time greatest quarterback have spent much of his early career on the bench? Tom Brady’s emergence with the Patriots might’ve taken much longer — or perhaps never happened at all — had Jets linebacker Mo Lewis not delivered a hard hit to New England QB Drew Bledsoe in the second game of the 2001 season.

Bledsoe, who’d inked a 10-year extension worth $103 million that March, was hospitalized with internal organ damage. Brady entered the game, guided the Pats to the playoffs, won Super Bowl 36 over the Rams, and never ceded New England’s starting job.

How different would the present-day NFL look if Bledsoe hadn’t gotten injured and, eventually, traded to the Bills?

Bledsoe wasn’t a world-beater, but he made four Pro Bowls, including during his first season with Buffalo in 2002. There’s a chance he could’ve won a Super Bowl in New England, especially with Belichick pulling the strings. Bledsoe’s best chances would’ve been in 2003 and 2004 when the Patriots’ defense ranked in the top two in points allowed.

Meanwhile, would Belichick have traded Brady to the division-rival Bills instead? Or would another team have acquired the future GOAT? It seems almost unfathomable to imagine that Brady’s talents wouldn’t have shined through at some point; it’s difficult to imagine him spending his career as an unrecognized backup.

Belichick had already seen glimpses of Brady’s acumen in 2001 and reportedly wanted to name the second-year QB New England’s starter over Bledsoe. Maybe Brady would have forced his way onto the field for the Pats even if Bledsoe hadn’t gone down.

Seven Super Bowl rings and three MVP awards later, it’s still worth wondering what would’ve happened to Brady, Bledsoe, Belichick, the Patriots, and the NFL at large had Week 2 of the 2001 campaign gone just a bit differently.