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The question of “What If” has always been part of the world of sports. “What If” a player made a free throw to win a game or “What If” player X played in this era of this sport: would he dominate?
Those questions have always been asked but in this series of articles we are taking a bit of a different approach. So instead of asking those one-off questions, we are looking at how one change in a situation could cause a serious domino effect on the history of a sport.
If you missed the article wondering “what If LeBron James was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies?”, click here to take a read.
For this edition, I am going go back in time to 2001 and the draft day trade between the San Diego Chargers and the Atlanta Falcons.
The 2000 San Diego Chargers had one of the worst seasons in the history of the NFL. Head Coach Mike Riley’s team used four quarterbacks (including Ryan Leaf) and finished with an abysmal 1-15 record. Charger quarterbacks threw for a combined 30 interceptions and only one of the starters finished the season with a quarterback rating over a 70 (Jim Harbaugh had a 74.6).
On top of having one the worst passing attacks in the league, their rushing attack was not much better. The team’s 66.4 rushing yards per game as a team 31st in the entire league.
With the number one overall pick in the draft, the Chargers had the opportunity to take Virginia Tech Quarterback Michael Vick. The electrifying signal caller was not only dangerous with his arm but his ability to move and make plays with his feet elevated him a different level.
Drafting him would have filled not only the quarterback hole but given San Diego the ability to have a quarterback that can attack the defense with his feet. Also, learning from a similar quarterback (Doug Flutie) on the roster would have helped in his transition.
Vick was a combination of Randall Cunningham and Steve Young: an athletic left-handed signal caller with a rocket arm and lighting quick feet. He was the type of player that made defensive coordinators have nightmares and would make them think twice about using certain personnel.
But would the Chargers take the talented quarterback or trade down to another team needing a quarterback and acquiring more draft picks to help fill out the roster?
History showed that the Chargers decided to add on more picks as they traded down four spots with the Atlanta Falcons. San Diego drafted LaDanian Tomlinson in the first round, added two future starters (Tay Cody and Reche Caldwell), a dangerous return man (Tim Dwight) and drafted a young quarterback in the second round from Purdue named Drew Brees.
The Falcons drafted Vick with the number one overall pick and future four-time pro bowler Tight End Alge Crumpler later on.
But what would have happened if Atlanta decided not to move up in that draft?
The Immediate Impact:
The Chargers would have gotten their future franchise quarterback and would not have drafted one in the second round. But the Falcons would not have drafted Tomlinson with the fifth pick. Atlanta still had Jamal Anderson on the roster and in 2000 and he rushed for 1,024 yards and six touchdowns. Even though starting quarterback Chris Chandler was 35 years old, there was not a quarterback in the class that was viewed as worthy of being taken with the fifth pick.
In hindsight, Drew Brees was more than worthy. However, we have to remember he was not considered a top draft pick at the time.
The Falcons could have gone with the best defensive player on the board in Georgia Defensive End Richard Seymour or one of the talented pass catchers in Michigan’s David Terrell or North Carolina State’s Koren Robinson. Either way, Tomlinson would have either slid down to the New England Patriots or Chicago Bears who were picking sixth and eighth in the draft.
The San Francisco 49ers were picking seventh that year but they had Garrison Hearst as their starter. Even with coming off an injury that kept him out for two seasons in a row, he was a Pro Bowl runningback in his previous full season and had three 1,000 seasons in the previous four that he played.
Michigan running back Anthony Thomas (Bears) or LaMont Jordan (Jets) were on the board when the Chargers picked in the second round and would have provided a much-needed running back help out Vick in his rookie year. Thomas who would become a future 1,000 rusher for the Bears, would have been a perfect power back to complement Vick.
With those pieces in place and a veteran in Flutie in place to allow Vick to develop, the Chargers were ready to start their climb back up the AFC West standings. If Vick ends up developing the same way in San Diego as he did in Atlanta, the Chargers would have been set at quarterback for at least the next five to six seasons.
The Ripple Effect:
The Falcons could have drafted Brees with their second round pick, taken a signal caller later in the draft or waited until the 2002 first round and potentially looked at David Carr, Joey Harrington or Patrick Ramsey. If they passed on a quarterback in the second round, they still could have drafted Crumpler or addressed another hole on the roster at that spot.
They would have kept their 2001 third round pick as well as their second-round pick 2002 and would have been able to draft players at the needs they would have had at that point. But the bigger effect would happen years later.
If Atlanta passes on Brees in the draft, the team who took the next quarterback in the draft was the Dallas Cowboys. They selected Quincy Carter later in the second round and even though Carter was a starter for a few seasons, he was not Drew Brees. With the Cowboys having Brees on the roster, would they have signed Tony Romo as an undrafted free agent in 2004?
What happens if the Patriots to decided to pass on a potential hall of famer in Seymour and paired Tom Brady with the dynamic pass catching runner in Tomlinson? Nothing against Antowain Smith and his 1,157 yards on the Patriots way to the Super Bowl in 2002 but giving Tom Brady another target in the passing game could made the team even more dangerous down the road.
Would Tomlinson have been just as good on a team like the Bears? After Thomas’s rookie season of 1,183 yards, he would only rush for 2,708 over the rest of his career. The Bears could have had a chance to have potentially the best runningback the franchise has had since Walter Payton.
With Vick being the Chargers signal caller, the 2004 NFL Draft would have gone in a direction that changed the history of multiple franchises forever. If Vick is anywhere close to the player he was in Atlanta, the Chargers are not picking first in that years draft. In 2004, Eli Manning was the first overall pick by the Chargers and might be been drafted by one of three different teams that year:
The Oakland Raiders had 38-year-old Rich Gannon at quarterback and might not have signed Kerry Collins knowing that they had the chance to take a signal caller with the top overall pick. With Eli Manning on board, the Raiders might have passed on taking JaMarcus Russell in 2007 NFL Draft because they might not have had the worst record in the league in 2006.
The Arizona Cardinals had Jeff Blake and Josh McCown at quarterback in 2003 but could have taken a chance on Peyton’s little brother to jump-start a down franchise. Furthermore, the Cardinals with Manning would not have drafted Larry Fitzgerald. Which also would have not allowed Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner to have a career resurgence with the Cardinals leading them to the Super Bowl five years later.
The Giants could have ended up with Phillip Rivers but according to Ernie Accorsi (the Giants’ General Manager at the time) they were extremely high on a different quarterback in that same draft class. His name was Ben Roethlisberger, from the University of Miami of Ohio.
Also, with the Giants not getting Manning, they do not win two Super Bowls. Players such as Michael Strahan never win a championship and players like Plaxico Burress, David Tyree and Mario Manningham never become legends in the history of the franchise.
Not to mention that Manning loses two Super Bowl Most Valuable Player awards, so that might take away his case at the hall of fame as well. That also theoretically makes Tom Brady 8-1 in Super Bowls as the quarterback of the New England Patriots.
What about the Pittsburgh Steelers? With no Big Ben, Pittsburgh also does not win their two Super Bowls with Roethlisberger at quarterback. That means hall of famers Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu never get their championship moments.
Would Rivers have lasted to the 11th overall pick and the Pittsburgh Steelers? Well, the Atlanta Falcons had the eighth overall pick and could have grabbed taken him or even the Jacksonville Jaguars who were picking at the ninth spot as well. Even though both Atlanta and Jacksonville had talent, Rivers might not have had the same success in both offenses as he would have in San Diego with Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates.
The Final Assessment:
The draft day trade between San Diego and Atlanta is still impacting the NFL to this day. This trade has changed the legacies of so many Super Bowls, teams and rosters over the last 20 years. Michael Vick and LaDanian Tomlinson have retired but Drew Brees is still throwing touchdowns for the New Orleans Saints.
With Brees still the only active player that was drafted by either team in that year, most of the impact has subsided. But what still could have been changed is Brees signing with the New Orleans Saints after he left San Diego.
If Brees is passing in Dallas, he does not get hurt as a Charger in that final game against Miami in 2003, which led to the drafting of Manning and the trade for Rivers on draft day of 2004.
The trade altered potentially five Super Bowl champions, two super bowl MVP awards, countless hall of famers winning and losing Superbowls and the legacies of players who are considered some of the all-time greats with the teams they played with.
Even though neither San Diego nor Atlanta, made a Superbowl based on the actual trade, it was a trade that neither team can say they lost. It is always fun to think about how different the history of the NFL would be if San Diego just would have kept the chance to draft Michael Vick with the first pick of the 2001 NFL Draft.