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Alternate Jersey: Manning '97
By Grant Evan Posted in NFL on October 28, 2016 0 Comments
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Have you heard of a guy named Peyton Manning?

5x MVP, 2x Super Bowl Champion, ’06-’07 Super Bowl MVP, and the only quarterback to ever start for two different teams that won that Super Bowl. He’s also got an impressive amount of records under his belt. Most touchdown passes over a career, most touchdown passes in a season, and most career passing yards. Manning is heralded as one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game. He was smart, accurate, and changed the way the game is played today. Many of today’s modern quarterbacks have credited Manning as who they grew up watching in order to learn how to play as a quarterback.

Manning entered the NFL Draft in 1998 where was pretty widely considered to be the quarterback of the draft after an insane career as a Tennessee Volunteer. His biggest competition was one Ryan Leaf, a big armed Cougar from Washington State. It was a classic battle of brain vs brawn with two teams, the Colts and the Chargers, looking to obtain their quarterbacks of the future. With the 1st pick, the Colts took Manning who went on to rewrite NFL History and break all those aforementioned records. With the Chargers, Leaf played three miserable years with an overall record of 4-12 before being shipped off to Tampa and finally Dallas where he went on to lose three more games before calling it a career. 

But that draft almost went entirely differently a year before it even started.

In 1997, when Manning was finishing up his junior year and just banked his third straight Heisman Award nomination, he was being pitched as a top tier draft pick. It was highly speculated that he’d be submitting for that draft but the reality never happened. There are two prevailing theories as to why. One, Manning wanted to finish his education. Two, Manning wanted a guarantee from the New York Jets that he would be the 1st overall pick of the ’97 draft. The coach of the Jets at the time was now Hall of Famer Bill Parcells. The owner of the 1st overall pick would reveal in a later interview that he “knew” Manning was going to stay in school, so he never made the phone call to ensure his team’s future.

But what if Peyton Manning submitted for the 1997 draft?

We’ll start with the obvious, Peyton is coming to New York. In the real world, the Jets traded that first round pick to the Rams who ended up taking Hall of Fame tackle Orlando Pace. You want to know why they did that? Even though the Jets needed a QB in this draft, their best bets sans Manning were Jim Druckenmiller and Jake Plummer. So yeah. If you get a shot at Manning, you take Manning. Without that trade, Pace never winds up in St. Louis. Instead, he’d be taken 2nd overall by the Oakland Raiders! With Pace off the board, the Rams in turn don’t decide to keep themselves at the 6th pick and take the other Hall of Fame tackle in this draft Walter Jones before Seattle can get a hold of him, leaving the Seahawks devoid of any future Hall of Famers in this draft. 

But we’re not here to talk about tackles! This about Peyton Manning! The Sheriff’s time in East Rutherford is passing bliss at just the right moment. You might remember that the ’97 Jets weren’t the worst. They just had the misfortune of not having a stellar quarterback and being caught up in a division that also had Drew Bledsoe and Dan Marino. Even without a great QB, the team still went 9-7 and were one game removed from making the playoffs. So let’s plug Peyton Manning into the formula. 

The argument could be made that the Jets would do worse with Manning that season given that Peyton’s first year with the Colts led to 28 interceptions (a rookie record!) and a 3-13 record. That’s true! But let us not forget what caliber of team the ’98 Colts were. A miserable O-Line, a receiver corps who let their running back get the most receiving yards, a defense that resembled something closer to a middle school flag football team than an NFL squad. Marshall Faulk was all that team had going for them. Not a single receiver hit over 1,000 yards that season and Manning STILL found a way to get 26 touchdowns this year.

Compare that to the ’97 Jets team who had two great receivers that Peyton now gets the pleasure to work. Namely Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet. Johnson, the outspoken bully of the AFC East, got more receiving yards than ANY Colt WR did in ’98 with this guy as his quarterback (that’s Neil O’Donnell, the Pittsburgh QB who was never the same after his poor play in the Super Bowl). O’Donnell threw a mere 17 TDs that year. Now he gets young, hot gunslinger Peyton Manning to throw it to him. It’s a perfect storm. 

Now, remember when I said the Jets were one game removed from making the playoffs in ’97? I can tell you exactly which game kept them out. Week 3. Against the New England Patriots. In overtime. Jets win that game, they go from 3rd to 1st in the division and keep the Dolphins of the playoffs. How does a game winner from Manning to Johnson sound to win this one? 

WIth the Jets now at 10-6, here’s what your AFC Playoff picture looks like

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers
  3. New York Jets
  4. Denver Broncos
  5. Jacksonville Jaguars
  6. New England Patriots

New England loses home field advantage and the ball game as the Jets narrowly escape them yet again while Denver still smokes Jacksonville. The Broncos also return to Kansas City where we have to assume they win again. This time the now rookie of the year Peyton Manning goes toe to toe against Kordell Stewart’s Steelers! It’s a tough defensive showdown like it was in our real world with just the slightest advantage going to Manning’s Jets who are now steamrolling towards the AFC Championship against John Elway and the Broncos of destiny. And now the conference game is being held in Jersey not Denver! Okay, I’m not so naive to suggest that the ’97 Jets, home field or not, could beat that Denver squad. Denver advances of course and still takes Super Bowl XXXII away from the defending champion Packers. 

Things are looking up for the Jets though. Now they have a quarterback they can build around and they’re seeing more and more that Keyshawn Johnson is going to stay a star. And it’s some great timing for that all to happen. The real ’98 Jets went 12-4 with 10 year journeyman Vinny Testaverde steering the ship. I can’t stress this enough: THAT dominant Jets team now has second year Peyton Manning at QB. You wanna know what second year Manning did on that cruddy Colts team? 26 TDs against 15 INTs and an obscene 4,135 yards during an era where if your QB threw more than 3,000 it was amazing. The dude turned into a freak. And now he has a full team backing him up.

But let’s move away from that for a minute and take a look at the ’98 draft. The Colts, of course, still have the #1 pick and now there’s only one clear quarterback this team can take: Ryan Leaf. This also means that Arizona and San Diego have no reason to swap picks because the Chargers aren’t looking for a QB in this draft. No! The Chargers have no option but to turn to the free agency pool to address their QB concern and wouldn’t you know it, Vinny Testaverde is available! Now, in hindsight, the Chargers could have grabbed future Seahawks great Matt Hasselbeck. But he was taken in the 6th round. By Green Bay. So I won’t waste your time making that argument.

Manning on the Jets are the new scourge of the AFC East. They’ll go 13-3 in this reality from yet another overtime success against the 49ers in week 1. Meanwhile in San Diego, something interesting is starting to brew in the AFC West as the Chargers start to look a bit more competitive. Testaverde quickly takes the reins away from Craig Whelihan and leads San Diego, not to a 5-11 record, but a respectable 9-7 as he’s able to pull some use out of Charlie Jones and Michael Ricks at receiver. He’ll win games against Leaf’s Colts in week 5, the Raiders in week 6, the Raiders AGAIN in week 16, and a dramatic finish against the Cardinals in week 17. San Diego takes 2nd in the division but it’s just barely not enough to knock New England out of the playoffs. 

The playoff picture stays the same as it did historically:

  1. Denver Broncos
  2. New York Jets
  3. Jacksonville Jaguars
  4. Miami Dolphins
  5. Buffalo Bills
  6. New England Patriots

…on the AFC side anyway. Remember, the Jets gave the 49ers one extra loss to start off their season in this scenario. And also remember that the Cardinals were given one extra loss at the end of the Chargers’ season. San Fran still makes the playoffs, but now as a lower wild card. Arizona falls to 8-8, putting them in a 3-way tie against the Giants and Buccaneers. So, we’ve got to follow the tiebreaker rules for 3 or more teams. Starting with

1. Head to head record

Luckily for us, the Giants and Cardinals are in the same division, the NFC East (don’t ask). In ’98 the Giants routed the Cardinals so we can already narrow this down to Giants V Buccaneers for a playoff spot. And luckier still, the Giants and Buccaneers also faced off this season. Thus, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to the NFC Playoffs!

SO! Your FULL Playoff picture looks like this:

  1. Denver Broncos
  2. New York Jets
  3. Jacksonville Jaguars
  4. Miami Dolphins
  5. Buffalo Bills
  6. New England Patriots
  1. Minnesota Vikings
  2. Atlanta Falcons
  3. Dallas Cowboys
  4. Green Bay Packers
  5. San Francisco 49ers
  6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

The Cowboys have the fortune of taking on the Bucs at home, but let’s not forget that Dallas found a way to lose to the Cardinals in our real world. The Bucs snag the upset while Green Bay gets to face San Fran in Wisconsin, where they have a considerable advantage. Favre and his gang move on to face Atlanta while Tampa get demolished by the Vikings. The Packers on the other hand, do what the 49ers couldn’t do and beat the Falcons in order to go face their hated division rivals in the NFC Conference Championship. THIS time the game doesn’t go into overtime and Randy Moss does what he did all season: smoke the Packers. The Vikings are going to the Super Bowl!

In the AFC, I’ll just save everyone’s time: the Jets and Broncos once again face off for the conference championship with Elway coming out the victor AGAIN and going on to defend his crown against another NFC Central squad. After crunching numbers and running a series of simulations, I can say with utmost confidence that 1998 would have been the year that the Minnesota Vikings won their first Super Bowl.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Bill Parcells has just called it quits as a coach of the Jets and the team is looking to make a blockbuster hire by snagging Bill Belichick as his head coach. In our world, famously, Belichick joined the team for exactly one day before jumping into bed with the Patriots. This time, however, the Patriots offer isn’t so tempting. The Jets are a force to be reckoned with already and have been on the cusp of Super Bowl glory a number of times with Manning. Bill knows he can push this team to new heights, so he remains the Jets coach this time around!

With the hoodie now residing in New York, there’s an entirely new era of terror (terrah?) happening in the AFC East. But let’s break down a few more key things that do and don’t happen.

For one: you’re never gonna hear about Tom Brady the same way. Following Bledsoe’s injury, not fired head coach Pete Carroll turns to his backup quarterback, Brady, who doesn’t play so hot without the Belichick tutelage. He looks promising, sure, but Carroll isn’t quite the Carroll you know him as today. He was defense guy, not a QB whisperer. The team doesn’t go on a surprise winning streak and Bledsoe gets to live out his contract in New England. You’ll be talking about the Patriots in much the same way we talk about the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets today. How unfortunate they have to be in the same division as Bill Belichick. Bledsoe’s 6 year contract ends in 2006 where he decides to retire. The Patriots jump into the draft to pick up Jay Cutler as their QB of their future. He is not that thing. But hey. No Tuck Rule game. No SpyGate. And certainly no Deflategate. 

Manning’s neck also doesn’t get blasted to infinity because Belichick and Parcells knew how to build an OL and a DL. Manning enjoys a full career as a Jet and even starts to develop a hint of a New York accent that kind of mingles with that Tennessee drawl he has going on, making the Nationwide commercials he’s in that much more interesting. Since Manning is living it up in New York, the Broncos never secure the quarterback in 2012. Instead, they just decide to keep rolling with Tim Tebow because hey, at least he got them a playoff win. That leaves the door wide open for a new king of the AFC West: Alex Smith’s Chiefs. 

The biggest thing, as we alluded to earlier, is Peyton getting to face Eli for a championship title…when he’s the quarterback of the Chargers. YEAH! You wanna know why Eli wanted nothing to do with San Diego? It has a lot to do with Ryan Leaf. He watched Leaf tank hard due to a lack of coaching and lack of real ownership from the Chargers squad and since Peyton was good friends with Ryan and had at least a third row seat to that dumpster fire, the family strongly encouraged Eli to not sign with San Diego. But without that happening, Eli can proudly become a Charger! Which also means that Big Ben is gonna be a Giant and Phillip Rivers is heading to Pittsburgh. That mythical 14-2 season the Chargers had where they got unfairly bruised up heading into the playoffs? Not this time! Eli “Never Injured” Manning leads that squad right to the AFC Championship where he has the high honor of being Belichick’s playoff kryptonite AND beating his older brother for a shot to send the Chargers into the Super Bowl to face off against Ben Roethlisberger and the Giants. Where the Chargers win! San Diego has a championship!

Vikings, Chargers, and Jets fans, as you stare at your trophy cases and dream of the Lombardis that could be in them, remember to shake your fist at Bill Parcells, the man who could have changed all your fates with one phone call to a junior at Tennessee. 

Alternate Jersey


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