The date is Jan. 15, 1997. Peyton Manning is about to take the podium in Knoxville, Tenn., to announce his plan for the upcoming season. Will he stay with Tennessee? Or will he go to the NFL?
Earlier this morning, the Knoxville News-Sentinel published the headline “Insiders expect him to go pro” on its sports page. Volunteers fans aren’t sure what to believe, but all signs point toward the end of the Manning era on Rocky Top.
(Ed. note: This is an alternate reality timeline. We wondered what would’ve changed in the football world had Manning decided to go pro two weeks after the final game of his junior year. As Tennessee fans are well aware, he dragged out his decision until March, then surprised the country by electing to stay in Knoxville for another season.)
The college junior — who destroyed Northwestern in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day — steps up to the microphone and receives a small round of applause from those in attendance.
After a lengthy preamble, he drops the bomb: “I made up my mind, and I don’t expect to ever look back. I’ve decided to enter the 1997 NFL Draft.”
The room falls silent. Manning thanks those who have supported him through a three-year college career, and immediately begins draft preparations. Soon, all eyes shift to the New York Jets, who own the No. 1 pick. The Jets don’t particularly need a quarterback (starter Neil O’Donnell led Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl just 14 months prior), but Manning is too good to pass up, right?
There’s a red flag: New coach Bill Parcells never reaches out to Manning’s father, Archie, to inquire about Manning’s interest. Hired after a 1-15 season, Parcells is focused on several areas of need, and the No. 1 pick is more of a trade asset than a cure-all. After Manning’s announcement, the coach is unwilling to publicly commit to the Tennessee quarterback.
Behind the scenes, Parcells develops several trade opportunities. New Orleans (No. 2) and Atlanta (No. 3) are more interested in trading down than up, and they do so with Oakland and Seattle, respectively. Baltimore stays put at No. 4; the Ravens are interested in Manning, but unwilling to pay a steep price, especially after a stellar season from Vinny Testaverde (4,177 yards and 33 touchdowns).
Parcells finally finds a taker: Detroit. The Lions put together an impressive package: The No. 5 overall pick, the No. 54 overall pick (second round), the No. 135 overall pick (fifth round), back-to-back 1,000-yard receiver Brett Perriman and promising cornerback Ryan McNeil.
Manning is headed to Motor City.
In East Lansing, Mich., 90 miles away from Detroit, January 1997: Michigan State coach Nick Saban has been informed that backup quarterback — and former highly-touted transfer from Notre Dame — Gus Ornstein is moving on after losing the starting job to Todd Schultz.
Ornstein is scheduled to finish his undergraduate studies by the end of the spring semester and wishes to utilize a newly adopted NCAA rule that allows him to transfer without penalty. He is headed to the University of Tennessee as a graduate student … and as a potential replacement for Manning on the football field.
This forces Saban to re-evaluate his recruiting class, and an assistant coach mentions an undervalued Texas passer who only has two notable offers, including one from Big Ten rival Purdue. Saban gives the film a look and makes a couple calls.
Three weeks later, Drew Brees signs with the Spartans.
- The Indianapolis Colts select Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf with the No. 1 overall pick.
- After splitting time with Scott Mitchell as a rookie in Detroit, Manning is awarded the full-time starting job in training camp. He tosses 25 touchdowns (and 25 interceptions) as the Lions miss the playoffs with a 7-9 record. Representatives for future Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders inform the team that Sanders will retire if head coach Bobby Ross returns for another season.
- Due to a late-season Detroit win over San Francisco, the 49ers are forced to play their NFC wild-card game at Green Bay, where they’ve lost on three consecutive occasions. The Packers escape in the final seconds and move on to upset Atlanta in the divisional round. Brett Favre and Co. fall short of a third consecutive Super Bowl title, however, when the Minnesota Vikings whip them in the NFC Championship Game. Two weeks later, the Vikings lose to the Denver Broncos when Gary Anderson clunks a chip-shot field goal off the left goalpost.
- With help from future NFL studs Plaxico Burress, Flozell Adams and Julian Peterson, Brees leads Michigan State to its first Rose Bowl appearance in a decade.
- In an effort to appease its star running back, Detroit forces coach Bobby Ross into retirement. The Lions’ No. 1 choice for a replacement is ex-Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick, who agrees to take the reins of a Lions team overflowing with offensive potential.
- The Cleveland Browns are set to become the NFL’s 31st franchise. Former star quarterback Bernie Kosar, serving as a consultant, recommends the Browns re-hire former coach Bill Belichick, who went 36-44 between 1991-1995. The organization laughs off Kosar’s recommendation, but eventually gives serious consideration to Belichick’s former defensive coordinator, Saban, who just led Michigan State to a shocking Rose Bowl run. When a few of the franchise’s first choices fall through, Cleveland offers the job to Saban, and he accepts.
- The St. Louis Rams leave backup quarterback Kurt Warner exposed in the expansion draft, and Saban drafts him with the Browns’ final selection. The defensive-minded coach eschews drafting Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch with the No. 1 overall pick, instead selecting Georgia cornerback Champ Bailey.
- The Philadelphia Eagles select Couch with the No. 2 overall pick, and the Cincinnati Bengals select Syracuse star Donovan McNabb at No. 3.
- Having lost disgruntled coach Mike Holmgren to Seattle, Green Bay hires Philadelphia offensive coordinator Ray Rhodes. The Packers under perform, but sneak into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season before losing at Detroit in the wild-card round.
- Speaking of the Lions: Manning has a Pro Bowl season under Billick’s tutelage, freeing up Sanders to win his fifth NFL rushing title. In Week 16, Sanders passes Walter Payton to become the league’s all-time leading rusher. Detroit finishes 10-6 and blows out division rival Green Bay in the wild-card round before falling to Tampa Bay.
- Tony Dungy leads the Buccaneers to an NFC Championship Game win over Washington, but Tampa Bay falls short vs. the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl 34.
- Belichick signs a contract to become head coach of the Jets, then changes his mind one day later, citing uncertainty about the direction of the franchise. New England opens up discussions with New York general manager — and recently retired coach — Parcells to acquire Belichick, but negotiations break down and Belichick is legally forced to sit out the season.
- With no one else to give them to, Belichick offers his 2000 NFL Draft notes to Parcells. The Jets select Michigan quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round.
- Sensing a fast-approaching goodbye from Barry Sanders, Detroit selects Alabama running back Shaun Alexander with the No. 19 pick.
- Green Bay fires Rhodes midseason and then fires the rest of Rhodes’ staff — including interim coach Sherman Lewis — at the conclusion of a doomed 4-12 campaign.
- Behind a second straight Pro Bowl season from Manning, the Lions go 11-5 and advance to the NFC Championship Game before losing to the Giants. New York falls to Tennessee in Super Bowl 35, giving Steve McNair and the Titans back-to-back world championships.
- Sanders announces his retirement from professional football. He leaves the game with an NFL-record 18,429 career rushing yards. The Lions have a parade, retire his uniform number and announce plans to rename the Pontiac Silverdome to the Pontiac Sandersdome for the venue’s final season. The local media showers praise upon the Motor City legend.
- Bill Parcells leaves his post as Jets general manager, citing an inability to make a long-term commitment to the franchise. He insists he will not coach again.
- Two weeks later, Green Bay hires Parcells as head coach and general manager. He brings on Bill Belichick — finally freed from a tangled legal web — to run the Packers defense.
- New England starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffers a scary chest injury in Week 2 and is forced to miss most of the regular season. The Patriots replace him with Michael Bishop, who leads the team to an uninspiring 8-8 finish.
- Kurt Warner, Cleveland’s quarterback, wins a thrilling three-way MVP race over Green Bay’s Brett Favre and Detroit’s Peyton Manning. Led by Nick Saban, the Browns defeat the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. But Favre gets his revenge over Warner in Super Bowl 36, winning game MVP honors while the Belichick-led Packers defense snuffs out the high-powered Browns “O.”
- Oakland owner Al Davis knows coach Jon Gruden will leave the team when his contract is up, so Davis takes the unusual step of soliciting potential trade partners for his head coach. Across the bay, San Francisco does the same thing with Steve Mariucci’s contract. The 49ers beat the Raiders to the first deal, sending “Mooch” to Tampa Bay, where the Bucs recently parted ways with Dungy.
- Beaten to the punch, the Raiders luck into a better deal. They send Gruden to the lowly Indianapolis Colts in exchange for cash and the No. 2 overall pick. Gruden signs a contract extension that makes him the highest-paid coach of all-time.
- San Francisco hires Belichick away from Parcells’ staff in Green Bay. Oakland hires Dungy, who selects North Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers with the Raiders’ newly acquired pick.
- Tom Brady, the New York Jets backup, rides the bench behind Testaverde and Chad Pennington for the third consecutive season. He gets an opportunity to play in Week 17 vs. Green Bay, throwing a pair of touchdowns against Parcells, the man who drafted him.
- Detroit makes its first Super Bowl appearance behind another strong season from Manning. The Lions earn a first-round bye and defeat the Packers and 49ers before running into Dungy’s suffocating Raiders in the big game. League MVP Rich Gannon throws 4 touchdowns in Oakland’s blowout win.
- In need of a backup quarterback, Belichick and San Francisco reach out to the New York Jets about Brady. The deal appears done until the Jets get a better offer from Indianapolis. The Colts see Brady as a potential starter, with coach Gruden telling fans, “I think there’s something special about this guy, man.”
- Parcells announces his retirement and leaves Green Bay. Two weeks later, he becomes head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. The Packers promote offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to take over the team.
- Saban fields another talented team in Cleveland, but ineffective play by former MVP Warner derails the Browns. The team loses several close games and limps to a 5-11 record.
- The Lions sign Manning to a record $99 million contract with a $35 million signing bonus. In return, they finally get their breakthrough. Manning runs away with his first MVP award as Detroit races through the NFC playoffs (beating Dallas and Carolina) and then gets revenge on Oakland in Super Bowl 38.
- Following a stellar career at Ole Miss, Eli Manning leads a promising crop of young quarterbacks in the 2004 NFL Draft. His father, Archie, informs San Diego — owner of the No. 1 pick — that his son will not play for the Chargers, so the team drafts Eli and promptly trades him to Cleveland for the No. 4 pick (North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers). The Giants trade back from No. 5 to No. 10 and select Miami (Ohio) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
- Manning is part of an excellent draft class put together by Saban, who also lands defensive studs Bob Sanders (second round), Nathan Vasher (third) and Jared Allen (fourth).
- Peyton Manning and the Lions have another huge year. The quarterback wins MVP again as Detroit blows through the playoffs and tops Donovan McNabb and the Cincinnati Bengals for a second straight world championship.
- Miami selects Utah quarterback Alex Smith with the No. 1 pick, while California quarterback Aaron Rodgers slips to the middle of the round before his hometown San Francisco 49ers take him. Belichick tells reporters Rodgers will have a chance to start immediately.
- Green Bay, a preseason playoff contender, implodes as Brett Favre tosses an NFL-record 32 interceptions while running Charlie Weis’ offense. The Packers fire Weis at the conclusion of a 3-13 season.
- New York Giants running back Tiki Barber edges out Detroit duo Peyton Manning and Shaun Alexander for MVP after a 1,900-yard season. Barber and Roethlisberger help the Giants slip past Detroit in the NFC title game — costing the Lions a chance to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium — and New York coach Tom Coughlin gets his revenge on former employer Jacksonville in Super Bowl 40.
- In an attempt to harken back to the Parcells era, Green Bay hires Sean Payton as head coach. New Orleans hires longtime NFL assistant Mike Sherman, and Minnesota hires unproven offensive-minded coach Mike McCarthy.
- The Vikings — racked by an infamous “Love Boat” scandal the previous season — part ways with former MVP candidate Daunte Culpepper. Minnesota sends the burly passer to New Orleans, filling a major need for Sherman and the Saints. Meanwhile, Brees, the former San Diego starter, fails a physical in Miami and winds up joining McCarthy in Minnesota.
- Detroit’s Shaun Alexander tears his knee early in the season, and the injury keeps the Lions from making a serious Super Bowl run. Peyton Manning posts his worst numbers since 1998 while Chicago takes control of the NFC. The Bears fall to Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl 41.
- The University of Alabama hires California coach and celebrated quarterback guru Jeff Tedford after ex-West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez spurns the Crimson Tide for Michigan.
- Jon Gruden’s Colts are a potential playoff contender. Brady threw for more than 3,500 yards the previous year, and the defense is strong. He’s missing a stud receiver, though, as former Indianapolis stars Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne left via free agency during the franchise’s more turbulent years. Gruden makes an offer to Oakland — his former employer — to bring embattled wideout Randy Moss to Indy. Instead, the Raiders send Moss to Green Bay after Brett Favre petitions coach Sean Payton to make the move.
- Indianapolis stumbles to a 6-10 record as Brady loses playing time to second-year quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. Owner Jim Irsay tells the Indianapolis Star he’s tired of fighting the city on a new stadium deal. The Colts get league approval to move to Los Angeles before the 2009 season.
- Detroit, still out of sync after Shaun Alexander’s return, goes 9-7 and misses the playoffs. The Lions fire coach Billick.
- Bill Belichick’s San Francisco 49ers remind fans of the Bill Walsh era as third-year starter Aaron Rodgers breezes to his first MVP award. The Niners fall short of their biggest goal, however, when they lose to the Packers at Lambeau Field in the NFC title game. Favre (339 yards and 4 touchdowns) outguns Rodgers (392 yards and 3 touchdowns) with the help of Moss, whose resurgent season breaks several NFL records.
- In Cleveland, Nick Saban’s master plan is complete. Quarterback Eli Manning and an above-average Browns offense don’t need to do much heavy lifting thanks to one of the best defenses in league history. The Browns mop up the AFC and then force Favre into 5 interceptions to win their first Lombardi Trophy. His emotions high, a teary-eyed Favre announces his retirement in a postgame press conference.
- Following a short retirement, Favre returns to Green Bay and is welcomed with open arms. Packers fans are thankful they don’t have to watch Mark Brunell’s left-handed corpse throw the football for 16 games.
- Denver convinces former Detroit coach Brian Billick to put off retirement to coach the Broncos. He throws his full support behind promising young quarterback Jay Cutler.
- Detroit hires John Harbaugh to replace Billick, and the Lions make several key on-field additions in the offseason: Moss (free agency), California wide receiver DeSean Jackson (second round of NFL draft) and Texas running back Jamaal Charles (third round).
- New England selects Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan with the No. 1 overall pick, while Oakland selects Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco at No. 18.
- Indianapolis quarterback Tom Brady tears his ACL in the first quarter of the first game, and the Colts slump to a 1-15 finish. Gruden announces his retirement before Week 17, saying, “It’s been a tough few years, man.” Fans boycott the finale, instead choosing to picket outside the stadium in protest of the team’s impending move to Los Angeles.
- Peyton Manning wins his third MVP award and John Harbaugh wins Coach of the Year after the Lions go 12-4. It doesn’t end perfectly, though; Ben Roethlisberger and the Giants beat the Lions, 27-24, in the NFC title game, and then defeat Cleveland in Super Bowl 43.
- The Los Angeles Colts select Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick. New coach Rex Ryan announces Stafford will sit behind Brady “for the time being.” Stafford takes over for Brady in Week 6 as the Colts plummet to another abysmal finish.
- Brett Favre and Sean Payton butt heads in Green Bay, leading Favre to demand a trade. The organization eventually relents and sends him to the New Orleans Saints, where Mike Sherman is desperate for quarterback help. The 40-year-old has one of the best seasons of his career and helps the Saints defeat Detroit and San Francisco (featuring MVP Aaron Rodgers) before a fateful encounter with Drew Brees and the Minnesota Vikings.
- Sherman, Favre and the Saints appear to be headed for the Super Bowl when they force the Vikings into a fourth-and-26 with time running out. But Brees hits the first-down completion and forces overtime, where Favre tosses an ugly interception. Minnesota wins on a Mason Crosby field goal.
- Down, 24-22, to Cleveland in Super Bowl 44, Minnesota lines up for a game-winning 38-yard field goal. Crosby pushes it too far to the right, and Saban’s Browns win their second title in three seasons.
- Jacksonville offers a mega-contract to USC coach Pete Carroll, who accepts. The Jaguars select three-time national champion and two-time Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow with the No. 10 overall pick. He splits snaps with 32-year-old holdover David Garrard as the Jags make a surprise playoff run and defeat Rex Ryan’s Los Angeles Colts in the wild-card round.
- With Matthew Stafford entrenched at the starting spot, Indianapolis trades Tom Brady to the Buffalo Bills.
- Brett Favre informs New Orleans he’s retiring, and then un-retires to sign with the Chicago Bears. The NFC North becomes a powerhouse. Favre, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning wreak havoc on the rest of the league, and Green Bay — the outcast — finishes a league-worst 3-13.
- Bill Belichick and Aaron Rodgers make the 49ers a popular preseason Super Bowl pick, but the star quarterback’s year is doomed by concussion symptoms and a tough NFC playoff race.
- Detroit develops into an offensive juggernaut, with Manning handing the ball to Jamaal Charles and throwing it to Randy Moss and DeSean Jackson. He wins his fourth career MVP award and outplays Favre — who suffers a career-ending shoulder injury — in the NFC title game vs. Chicago.
- On Super Bowl Sunday, the country is in a frenzy over Detroit-Cleveland, a.k.a. “Peyton vs. Eli.” The younger brother wins MVP honors after the Browns defense shuts down the Lions offense for the majority of the game. Nick Saban collects his third Lombardi Trophy in four seasons, and strongly hints at retirement in his postgame press conference.
- Ohio State coach Jim Tressel resigns amid a tattoo-related scandal. The Buckeyes get a surprise call from Saban’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, who informs the university that Saban would like to interview for the position. Saban, of course, gets the job, and tells shocked fans, “It was nice to win all those games in Cleveland, and I wish that city nothing but the best, but it’s time for us — Terry and I — to come home to the college game. Aight?“
- Cleveland hires former Florida coach Urban Meyer to fill Saban’s shoes.
- Tony Dungy announces his retirement, and the Raiders immediately induct him into their Ring of Honor. The team hires Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh to replace Dungy.
- Green Bay selects Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick.
- Aaron Rodgers wins his third MVP award as the Belichick-coached 49ers go 15-1. However, San Francisco falls victim to a divisional-round upset at the hands of Roethlisberger and the New York Giants. Minnesota defeats Detroit (missing Randy Moss after a strange off-field incident) in the other divisional game, and then the Giants smash the Vikings, 41-0, for the NFC title.
- On the other side of the playoff bracket, Brian Billick and Jay Cutler lead Denver through a relatively weak field. The Broncos lose big to the Giants in Super Bowl 46.
- New Orleans selects Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick. New coach Mike Mularkey promises fans Luck will be a Day 1 starter.
- Pete Carroll, Jacksonville’s general manager/coach, selects Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson in the third round to back up Tim Tebow and David Garrard.
- Detroit signs Tom Brady to back up Peyton Manning. John Harbaugh’s Lions start 12-0 before Manning suffers a neck injury. Brady struggles in his stead, but Manning returns to help defeat Rodgers, Belichick and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game. The Detroit legend aggravates his neck during the win, leading doctors to rule him out for the Super Bowl.
- In the AFC, Jim Harbaugh’s Raiders go 12-4 and earn a spot in the Super Bowl behind an excellent postseason from Joe Flacco. Super Bowl 47 features Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh, and the Raiders come away with a 31-28 win despite an excellent performance by Brady, the Lions backup.
- Detroit doctors tell ownership they aren’t comfortable with Peyton Manning playing another down for the Lions. This frustrates the future Hall of Fame quarterback and severely affects his relationship with the front office. Detroit decides to promote Tom Brady to starter “until our medical staff clears Peyton.”
- Pete Carroll has built a defensive powerhouse in Jacksonville. The Jaguars feature former draftees Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Bobby Wagner. The Jags have a major problem, though; their two primary quarterbacks — Tebow and Garrard — disappointed in 2012.
- In a deal that shocks the league, Detroit sends Manning to Jacksonville in exchange for a future first-round draft pick. Manning shows no ill effects from his neck injury, Tebow contributes in special red-zone packages, and the Jags blow through the AFC with a 13-3 record.
- In Detroit, Brady and the Lions can’t get past Green Bay and Minnesota in a tough division race. Cam Newton and the Packers slip by the 49ers to win the NFC.
- Super Bowl 48 pits Jacksonville against Green Bay. The teams provide a defensive clinic, keeping the score low (13-10, Packers) late in the fourth quarter. A trick play by Carroll makes the difference, as Tebow takes a shotgun snap, fakes a sneak, then leaps in the air to deliver the winning touchdown pass.
- Detroit cuts Tom Brady and reaches for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel at No. 18. Brady signs with San Francisco as a backup to Aaron Rodgers, the three-time MVP.
- Sports Illustrated puts Rodgers (The Next Marino?) on its cover. Despite his Hall of Fame résumé, Rodgers has never played in a Super Bowl. The magazine also includes coach Belichick in its hot seat section. San Francisco responds with a 14-2 record and a fourth MVP for its all-star quarterback. The Niners defeat the Vikings and Packers en route to their first Super Bowl appearance in 20 years.
- Meanwhile, defending champ Jacksonville loses the AFC title game to Urban Meyer and Cleveland, giving Eli Manning his fifth career Super Bowl appearance. The Browns’ defense isn’t the same as it was in the Saban Era, though, and Rodgers puts up an all-time great day (412 yards, 5 touchdowns) as the 49ers win, 42-17.
- Ohio State’s Nick Saban wins his third national title in five years with the Buckeyes. The victory comes in a rematch against Les Miles and Michigan in the College Football Playoff title game.
- Oakland forces Super Bowl-winning coach Jim Harbaugh out of town following a long-running battle with the front office. Harbaugh takes over in New Orleans, where his former college quarterback — Stanford’s Andrew Luck — is now in his fourth season. The Saints advance to the NFC title game before falling to the 49ers in a shootout.
- Jacksonville’s Peyton Manning sets NFL records for career passing yards and touchdowns, but the star quarterback has lost a step. The Jags defense helps make up for an offensive slump as Manning cedes more situational playing time to Tebow. In what’s billed as the final Peyton vs. Eli bout, the older brother squeaks out a win in the AFC Championship Game.
- Super Bowl 50 is an all-time classic. Belichick and Rodgers lead the 49ers (winners of Super Bowl 49) against Carroll, Manning and the Jaguars (winners of Super Bowl 48).
- With the Jags up, 28-24, and the clock winding down, Rodgers takes the field to lead a potential game-winning drive from San Francisco’s 37-yard line. First down: Incomplete. Second down: Incomplete. Third down: Incomplete, and a massive hit from safety Chancellor knocks Rodgers out of the game. On comes Brady, who announcers note “has somehow been in the league for 16 seasons.”
- As Rodgers and Manning watch from the sideline, Brady converts a fourth-and-10 pass attempt and efficiently moves the 49ers offense down the field. With 3 seconds remaining and the ball at Jacksonville’s 13-yard line, Belichick calls his final timeout and calls Brady over. “What’ll it be, Tom?”
- On the final play, Brady takes a shotgun snap and rolls to his right. Wagner breaks from coverage and sprints toward Brady, but the wily veteran jukes around the blitz and begins running toward the end zone. Just as a swarm of defenders converge upon him, Brady leaps into the air — his body horizontal to the ground — and soars over the goal line for the winning score. It is, by all accounts, the greatest play in Super Bowl history.
- A stunned Manning walks around the field postgame and shakes hands with Brady, Rodgers and Belichick. In the postgame media scrum, the 39-year-old announces his retirement from professional football. As cameras flash, one reporter asks about Brady’s performance. “That was incredible,” Manning said. “Where has he been all this time?”