What If? (NFL Edition)

By Mike Fink
Jul. 09, 2020

Football is a game of inches, a game of decisions. One wrong move or being off by just inches can result in numerous consequences. The NFL is filled with plays, decisions or the like that have shaped the game as we know it today. In the past decade alone, we have seen fate or other oddities that have to have us as fans wonder, what if the opposite happened. Let’s look back at what could have happened if a play, a game plan, a trade, an injury and a draft pick had all gone differently. I’m only going with events that have happened in the previous decade, so sorry for anyone who want the Scott Norwood kick on this list (which quite possibly could have launched the Bills dynasty, that’s for another time)

Game plan: What if the Atlanta Falcons ran the ball the rest of the half once leading 28-3?

It has become recognized as the greatest blown lead in all of sports. The Falcons scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half against the Patriots in Super Bowl 51 to go up 28-3. The Patriots offense was struggling the entire game but finally got rolling late in the third quarter. This is where the falcons panicked. Instead of running out the clock with zone runs (which they were most effective with all season) they decided to continue to be aggressive and throw downfield, the rest is history.

What if the Falcons ran out the clock? The Patriots would still get a few possessions but not nearly as much time as they had in reality. Plus, Matt Ryan never gets stripped by Dont'a Hightower because he would have just handed the ball off to Devante Freeman or Tevin Colman (both were gashing the Patriots defense the entire game). The final result would probably have the Patriots score one more touchdown but not be able to score again since there wouldn’t be enough time on the clock for another drive to matriculate. The Falcons would have won their first Super Bowl in franchise history 28-20 (or 28-12, if the run game was efficient enough). The Patriots wouldn’t have continued the dynasty that they were in the middle of (3 Super Bowls in 5 years) and it would have been harder to convince key players like Dont’a Hightower to stick around. The Falcons wouldn’t have become the new dynasty but they would have won their Super Bowl and wouldn’t have to forever live with blowing the worst lead in sports history (something that might psychologically affect their play to this day).

Honorable Mention: What if Bill O'Brien doesn’t blow the lead to the Chiefs in one quarter?

So many terrible decisions that had the Texans blow a 24-0 lead in one quarter. The Texans could have been in Super Bowl 54 if O’Brien didn’t fake a punt in his own territory (just to name one thing).

Play(s): What if Marcus Williams made that tackle/the Ref called pass interference?

The Saints have seen some tough breaks in recent years, possibly the most heart-breaking losses of all time. The first one was situational for rookie safety Marcus Williams. With the Minnesota Vikings needing a miracle, Case Keenum hit Stephon Diggs on a corner route with the intention of Diggs falling out of bounds to allow the Vikings to have one more play. Marcus Williams wanted to tackle Diggs in bounds so the clock would expire except there was one clear problem, he completely missed Diggs. If Williams made that tackle, the game would have either ended on that play (if the tackle would have been completed in bounds) or would have given the Viking a still very difficult path to victory.

If Marcus Williams makes the tackle, we can assume that the Saints would have won the game. They would then travel to Philadelphia for the NFC title game. Nick Foles and the Eagles carved up the Vikings defense the entire game and it’s hard to say what would have happened if they played the Saints. Even with the Eagles boasting the best record in the NFC that season, the Saints were one of the best, if not the best team in the second half of the 2017 season (after starting out 0-2, they finished the season 11-5). The Saints would also have likely taken a page out of the Atlanta Falcons playbook from a week earlier and would have found weak spots in the Eagles defense. The Saints would have been very likely to win the NFC Championship and would face the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

A year later the Saints had a tough loss but this time at the hands of the refs. The Saints had a key third down that if converted would have allowed the Saints to run out the clock and hit a game-winning field goal. A missed pass interference call derailed all of that. This wasn’t even the Saints fault, while they didn’t need to throw a pass on that down and they could have run the ball to take more time off the clock, the Saints did deserve that call, and the refs blew the game for them.

Just like the previous season, the Saints would likely have played the Patriots in the Super Bowl and if they were given two matchups against New England, it’s likely they would have won one. This would have given Drew Brees his second Super Bowl and would have put Brees in all-time great quarterback discussions. The Saints also would have displayed how one great draft class can turn a 5 win team into a Super Bowl Champion with the 2017 class being one of the best in modern times. Regardless, the Saints were robbed of a chance to play in two Super Bowls and likely winning one of them if not both.

Honorable Mention: What if the Seahawks handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch on the one yard line?

The Seahawks would have won the Super Bowl, become the dynasty of the decade and nobody would know who Malcom Butler was. The Patriots would probably have won the Super Bowl a few years later but they wouldn’t have been the dynasty that they are now.

Trade: What if the Raiders never traded Khalil Mack?

Khalil Mack was holding out and negotiations went nowhere. He wanted to be paid as the best defensive player in the NFL (which happened in Chicago). The Raiders dealt Mack to Chicago for two first round picks and three second round picks. The trade gave the Bears one of the best defensive players and sent the Raiders to the cellar in the AFC West that season.

If the Raiders never traded Mack and gave him the deal he was asking for, the NFL season would look completely different. To start, the Raiders would have been better in 2018, not much better but good enough where they would be around the .500 mark and would be competitive throughout the season. They wouldn’t have traded Amari Cooper which means the Cowboys wouldn’t have been the best team in the NFC East (the Cowboys wouldn’t have the offense that had a number one wideout). The Bears wouldn’t have had the great defense that was incredibly difficult to prepare for with Mack on the edge and they would have finished in the middle of even bottom of the division.

The big picture wouldn’t have changed much with the Patriots likely still beating the Rams in the Super Bowl but the Raiders wouldn’t have had the three first round picks and the Bears would have likely had a top ten draft pick. The player most affected by this is probably Mitch Trubisky, with the defense not keeping the Bears in many games, it’s hard to tell if Matt Nagy would have been able to run the same game plan and thus Trubisky would have looked worse. If the Bears had a high enough draft pick, it’s very likely they would have drafted a quarterback last year or at least signed someone to compete with Trubisky the following year. The Bears might have moved on from him this year since he would have his third poor season in a row. The Raiders defense would be significantly better this past year with the addition of Maxx Crosby (fourth round pick and not part of the Mack trade). It’s hard to tell if the Raiders would be contenders in the near future if they still had Mack but they would still have a better roster with one of the best defenders in the NFL.

Injury: Peyton didn’t miss 2011 with a neck injury

This injury shaped the decade of Football as we know it. So much unraveled when one of the best players in the game was forced to sit out the 2011 season with a neck injury. To simplify this scenario and not think about how all 32 teams were affected, let’s look at what could have happened to that season, two primary teams involved with Peyton and one player that would have been affected by Peyton Manning.

For starters the Colts would have been good if not a Super Bowl contender with Peyton Manning running the offense. They likely would have won the division and forced the Texans to be a wild card team or miss the playoffs. We can assume that the Colts would have been the third best team in the AFC as they would be as good as the Ravens and would clearly be better than the 8-8 Broncos. The Colts would have played and beaten the Bengals or the Texans on wild card weekend and then would have given the Ravens a close game that for the sake of this article, they would have won. The Colts would then play the Patriots on Championship Sunday they likely would have lost but without Billy Cundiff whiffing on the kick against the Patriots, the Ravens don’t necessarily replace him (where would Justin Tucker be making all those great kicks?). At the end of the season the Colts don’t release Peyton Manning as they no longer have the number one overall pick.

The Colts can continue to build around Peyton as they are only a few players away from being a Super Bowl team (keep in mind they went 11-5 in the following year with Andrew Luck). Peyton would give the Colts a shot to win a Super Bowl every season for at least the next four. Peyton would be clipped with injury towards the end of 2015 season and probably retire afterwards but he would likely lead the Colts to two Super Bowls in that time and lead them to one in the process, something the Colts failed to do since they let go of Manning. The roster was starting to deteriorate by the 2015 season and by the time Peyton would retire the Colts would need to overhaul the roster. It’s likely that they draft or sign a quarterback in the 2016 off-season to replace Peyton but with a depleted roster and not many good quarterbacks available that year, the Colts would likely end up in the cellar in the future years and finally would part ways with Jim Caldwell (yeah, they won’t fire him if they keep winning, Bill Polian also would likely have stayed during these years).

The Broncos wouldn’t have gotten Peyton Manning and as a result wouldn’t have been competitive for the next few years. They would be forced to stick with Tim Tebow. For lack of energy to devote to Tebow, let’s just say that the Broncos would be bad for years and maybe in 2014 or 2015 they would move on from him (Imagine if the Broncos ended up with Marcus Mariota, the alternate universe is making this blog too long).

Andrew Luck wouldn’t have been drafted by the Colts in 2012 and would have likely gone to the Washington football team or even the Cleveland Browns (the Rams had the number two pick initially but traded it to a desperate Washington team, they may keep the pick to draft Luck but likely still trade the pick). Luck on either team would have a few good years but if the Colts forced him to retire early, just imagine what would have happened in Cleveland or DC. Robert Griffin III would still have a great rookie season and likely decline afterward but it could have been for a Browns, Vikings or even Cardinals (if he continued to slide, very unlikely) team.

Draft pick: What if Instead of taking O’Dell, the Giants took Aaron Donald?

I think about this draft pick often. Initially the Giants looked to have nailed the pick, landing one of the most talented receivers at the time who was a human highlight reel. In the long run, O’Dell Beckham ended his tenure with Giants in 2019 after some injury plagued years and character concerns. The pick right after Beckham was the Rams at 13 and they took the best defender in the NFL in Aaron Donald. Donald has been one of the best defenders in the game from the moment he has arrived in the league and has been the anchor that the Rams have built their defense around.

If the Giants would have drafted Aaron Donald instead of O’Dell Beckham, they would have had someone they could build their defense around. Moreover, Donald is a more valuable player and can contribute more wins as he affects more plays than O’Dell does per game. The Giants would have been better overall with Donald in their defense and would have won two, maybe three more games a year with the game-wrecking D-Lineman in their lineup. The Rams wouldn’t have had the same player to build around and while they might have drafted Beckham, it’s unlikely as they drafted Tavon Austin in the first round the year before. Even after firing Jeff Fisher in the latter part of the 2016 season, it’s hard to say if the Rams would be as good with Sean Mcvay without the piece on defense to build around in Aaron Donald.