Drew Brees is an institution. He's in the middle of his 13th season as the starting quarterback for the New Orleans Saints after spending the first five years of his career with the San Diego Chargers. He is quite literally without peers in that there is nobody else in the league left from the 2001 NFL draft. The last player who was still around from the second round of that draft besides Brees, who was taken with the 32nd selection, was Dominic Raiola, and the longtime Lions center retired after 2014. Brees' only predecessors left on active rosters are Adam Vinatieri, Phil Dawson, Tom Brady and Sebastian Janikowski.
As Brees prepares to likely set the record for most passing yards in a career on Monday Night Football against Washington, the time he spent before arriving in New Orleans feels like ancient history. The Purdue product struggled early in his career with the Chargers, and after losing his job to Doug Flutie for a stretch of the 2003 season, San Diego used the first pick in the 2004 draft on Eli Manning before trading him to the Giants for Philip Rivers.
Brees then broke out with a Pro Bowl season in 2004 and kept up things with a solid campaign in 2005, only to suffer a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder during Week 17. The Chargers chose to let Brees leave in free agency and turn the job over to Rivers. Brees seemed close to a deal with the Miami Dolphins, only for Miami's doctors to suggest that Brees had only a 25 percent chance of continuing his career. The Dolphins instead chose to trade for Daunte Culpepper, the Saints signed Brees, and the rest is history.
Except for today, that is. We know how Brees' career turned out, but let's explore three scenarios in which we slightly change something about the future Hall of Famer's NFL tenure and see how football might have shifted dramatically on its axis in the process. I've used reports from the time to estimate what organizations might have done if things had broken differently with Brees. Each of the scenarios exist in their own universe, and they all present a radically different NFL from the one we've seen over the past 15 years.
Scenario 1: Brees breaks out in 2003, not 2004
The 6-foot Brees threw only 27 passes as a rookie in 2001 before delivering a slightly below-average full season as a starter in 2002. The real star of that offense was running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who racked up 2,172 yards from scrimmage and scored 14 touchdowns. It seemed likely that Brees would take a step forward in 2003 after the Chargers added star wideout David Boston in free agency, but while Tomlinson continued to play at a high level, Brees' interception rate spiked to 4.2 percent. He posted a passer rating of just 67.5.
While the Chargers expected Rivers to take over at some point during the 2004 campaign, Brees turned his career around. With the help of second-year tight end Antonio Gates, Brees' interception rate fell, his completion percentage and yards per attempt rose dramatically, and he finished with a passer rating of 104.8, making the Pro Bowl in the process. Brees has posted an above-average passer rating in each of the ensuing 14 seasons.
What we're going to suppose here, then, is that Brees doesn't have that down 2003 season and instead posts that 104.8 passer rating in 2003. The Chargers naturally don't finish 4-12 in that scenario, but given that they also had the league's 31st-ranked scoring defense, let's say they finish somewhere around 8-8. What happens next might scare fans of a few teams ...
1. The Chargers don't have the first overall pick and never draft Manning
Naturally, with an improved record, the Chargers don't draft first; they move down to the middle of the first round. Let's say they pick 16th and use their selection on Ohio State defensive end Will Smith, who would rack up 67.5 sacks over a nine-year career in New Orleans.
2. With the first pick, the Raiders draft Manning and trade him to the Giants
The Manning family famously insisted that the Ole Miss product would refuse to play for the Chargers if San Diego drafted him and noted Eli "preferred" to play for the Giants. Eli has never given a full explanation of why he refused to play in San Diego, with most explanations suggesting his father, former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, was involved in the decision. Archie, the story goes, was concerned that his youngest son would be stuck playing for a dysfunctional organization like the one he struggled with in New Orleans all those years prior.
The Raiders were only two years removed from a Super Bowl at that point, but they already had veteran Rich Gannon on the roster and were making a coaching change in replacing Bill Callahan with Norv Turner. They passed on the other promising young quarterbacks in the 2004 class, so it doesn't seem likely that Al Davis was looking for a passer. In reality, the Raiders used the second overall pick on left tackle Robert Gallery.
So, let's keep things as similar to the real world as possible. The Raiders draft Manning with the first overall pick and trade him to the Giants for the draft rights to Gallery (whom the Giants take third), the 64th selection, and first- and fifth-round picks in 2005. The most notable player from that '05 group is edge rusher Shawne Merriman, who racked up 39.5 sacks over his first three seasons before falling to injuries and suspensions. In this scenario, the Giants get Eli and the Raiders get Gallery, Merriman, and third- and fifth-round picks. The Chargers use their pick on Smith, who replaces Merriman in their lineup from 2004 on.
3. The Steelers trade up from No. 11 to No. 5 to draft Rivers
Mind blown? Reports at the time suggested that the Steelers held a significant interest in Rivers, who had just finished a glowing career at NC State. Pittsburgh didn't invite the eventual fourth overall pick to its pre-draft camp, even though another league GM swore they wanted Rivers, because Kevin Colbert knew Rivers wasn't going to make it to the Steelers at 11.
Here, with a slightly different scenario, they get their man. Manning and Gallery come off the board at picks 1 and 3, and the Cardinals, who passed on Rivers in real life, take Larry Fitzgerald at No. 2. Washington, which had a first-round pick quarterback on the roster in Patrick Ramsey, still goes for Sean Taylor. That leaves the Browns at No. 5, and while they might have taken Rivers, the fact that they passed on Ben Roethlisberger in the real draft suggests that they weren't desperately interested in adding a quarterback.
Pittsburgh doesn't trade up often, but having traded up the year before for Troy Polamalu, we know Colbert would have made a move for a player he saw as a difference-maker. In this universe, the Steelers send the Browns the 10th overall pick and their 2005 first-round pick, which ended up netting tight end Heath Miller. The Browns used their 2004 first-rounder on Kellen Winslow Jr., so it's more likely that they would have drafted a player at a different position. You can probably guess how I suspect it would have turned out for Cleveland.
The Steelers get Rivers, and given that he played at a high level from the moment he took over in San Diego, it's safe to assume that they would have been just fine at quarterback for the ensuing 14 seasons. As for the quarterback who ended up filling that role ...
4. The Bills draft Roethlisberger at 12
Buffalo wanted to bring in a quarterback to serve as a long-term replacement for Drew Bledsoe, who struggled in 2003. The organization restructured Bledsoe's deal to take away most of a $7 million bonus that April and then moved on from the former Patriots star after the 2004 season. In the real world, they drafted Lee Evans at 13 and then traded into the bottom of the first round to add Tulane product J.P. Losman, who finished his NFL career with more interceptions (34) than touchdowns (33).
Evans turned into an effective wideout despite subpar quarterback play, but Bills fans would have preferred to end up with Roethlisberger, who will eventually make his way to Canton. Drafting the Miami of Ohio product titanically shifts the Bills' past 14 years. For one, they probably don't lose to the Steelers' backups in Week 17 of the 2004 season and make the playoffs in the process.
The Bills don't trade away their 2005 first-round pick, which the Cowboys used to draft defensive end Marcus Spears. They don't move up to draft EJ Manuel in the first round of 2013 and use their pick on someone like Eric Reid or Justin Pugh. It's not impossible to imagine them drafting Josh Allen in 2018 as Roethlisberger's replacement, but the past 14 years likely include multiple trips to the postseason.
5. The Chargers beat the Patriots in the 2007 playoffs and end their undefeated season before the Super Bowl
Fast-forward to the 2007 season, with Brees already established as one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Rivers didn't skip a beat in taking over for Brees in real life, but the Chargers' deepest playoff run came to an end in 2007 with Rivers (partly) to blame. The brutally tough Rivers tore his ACL during the divisional-round upset win over the Colts, and while nobody on earth expected him to play in the AFC title game, Rivers underwent arthroscopic surgery on Monday and then played on Sunday against New England.
Rivers struggled, throwing two interceptions and posting a passer rating of just 47.1. What's forgotten, though, is that Tom Brady also struggled. After throwing eight interceptions during that legendary 2007 season, Brady threw three against San Diego. Randy Moss failed to make an impact, and while Brady made what the AP recap characterized as "several stunningly poor throws," the Patriots pulled out a 21-12 victory.
It's true that the Chargers were banged up even beyond Rivers' injury. Tomlinson got only two carries because of a knee injury. Gates played through a dislocated toe. At the same time, Brady's interceptions gifted the Chargers a series of short fields. Two drives began on the Patriots' side of the field, and while the Chargers got into the red zone three times, they could kick only three field goals.
It's hardly out of the question to imagine a scenario in which a healthy Brees makes enough of a difference to win the game. Beating the Patriots in Foxborough in January can be awfully tough, but in a world in which Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez can pull off the upset, I wouldn't put it past Brees to do the same thing.
6. The Chargers beat the Giants in Super Bowl XLII
Tomlinson had a sprained MCL and likely would have been able to recover to play some role. Gates would have been able to play through the pain of the toe injury. They would have presented a brutally difficult matchup for New York. While the Giants were relatively effective against wideouts that season, Michael Strahan & Co. ranked 26th in DVOA against throws to running backs and 30th against tight ends. The Patriots had Kevin Faulk and threw seven passes to him for 52 yards, but their top tight end was blocker Kyle Brady.
The Giants' pass rush bothered Brady, but Brees famously has one of the fastest releases in football and now holds the fifth-lowest sack rate in NFL history. He would have been a nightmare matchup for the Giants. The Chargers were also a better defense than that year's Giants, ranking sixth in DVOA to 13th for the Giants. The Giants got hot on defense that postseason, but you could say the same thing for the Chargers, who held the Titans to six points and the high-powered Colts to 21 points before forcing three Brady picks. San Diego would not have been 12.5-point favorites, as the Patriots were in Super Bowl XLII, but the Giants probably would have gone into a matchup with the Chargers as no better than seven-point underdogs.
7. The entire narrative around the Tom Coughlin era changes
The principals of the Giants organization over the past 15 years -- notably Coughlin and Manning -- have built their careers around beating the Patriots twice in the Super Bowl. If the Giants lose to the Chargers in 2007, the entire story changes.
Remember that Eli lost his first two postseason games in 2005 and 2006 and was terrible during the second half of 2007 before getting hot during the 2007 playoffs. After the Super Bowl win, Manning played poorly in a 2008 home playoff loss. The Giants then missed the playoffs in 2009 and 2010, despite going 18-14 over that time frame. I don't think the Giants' conservative ownership would have fired Coughlin or found a new starting quarterback to replace Manning before they won the Super Bowl in the 2011 season, but skeptical Giants fans would have seen the Coughlin/Manning era as seven years of frustration before finally breaking through.
Likewise, we view the Chargers differently. General manager A.J. Smith fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season in 2006 and hired Norv Turner as coach. That move doesn't look especially smart with hindsight, but if Turner immediately wins a Super Bowl, Smith suddenly seems like a genius.
8. The Saints draft Matt Leinart in 2006
ESPN reporter Mike Triplett, who has been covering the Saints since 2005, told me that the Saints were leaning toward drafting Leinart as they pursued a quarterback solution during this era. Leinart eventually fell to No. 10 overall to Arizona, but without that knowledge in advance, we have to assume that the Saints would have drafted Leinart with the second overall pick.
Reggie Bush was the top prospect in many circles heading into that draft, and it was a surprise when the Texans opted to sign a deal with edge rusher Mario Williams at No. 1. In this scenario, the Jets would have found an instant replacement for the retiring Curtis Martin and surely made the draft crowd in New York City go wild by taking Bush with the fourth overall pick. D'Brickashaw Ferguson probably ended up having a better career, but in this universe, the Virginia tackle falls to the Cardinals at 10.
Scenario 2: Brees doesn't tear his labrum at the end of 2005
There's some hindsight in here, but the Chargers probably shouldn't even have played Brees (or Tomlinson, who had cracked ribs) in what was a meaningless game at the end of the 2005 regular season. The 9-6 Chargers already were eliminated from the playoffs. They were on the road against a 12-3 Broncos team that had nothing to play for to the point that they inserted quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt for the second half. Rivers had spent virtually all of his first two seasons on the bench; it's bizarre that the Chargers didn't give him a start in what should have been an obvious situation to get some reps. Instead, Brees went out there and tore his labrum on a hit from John Lynch.
Even before the injury, Smith had a difficult decision looming with Brees, who had emerged as a useful passer after the Chargers acquired Rivers. (Remember, we're ignoring Scenario 1 and treating everything up until the end of 2005 as gospel.) The Chargers had given Brees the non-exclusive franchise tag after a Pro Bowl season in 2004, and while he played well in 2005, it was closer to good than great. There were arguments to be made that Brees was a product of his weapons, as he could hand the ball to Tomlinson and throw to Gates or Keenan McCardell.
After the injury, the Chargers thought about slapping Brees with a transition tag to try to keep him around, but the nature of the labrum repair and the CBA rules prevented them from doing so. The Chargers offered Brees an incentive-laden long-term deal with one year of guaranteed money, which Brees turned down to enter unrestricted free agency.
If the injury never happened, though, the Chargers would have gone into the offseason with Brees as a possible franchise tag candidate and Rivers looking for a chance to start. What would have happened? Here's the most likely scenario:
1. The Chargers franchise Brees before signing him to a long-term extension
While Smith loved Rivers enough to go after him in the 2004 draft, it's just too difficult to believe that any team would let a healthy Pro Bowl quarterback leave at the age of 26 to play a guy who had eight career pass attempts. The Chargers had the cap space to retain Brees, and while using the franchise tag on him could have led the organization down a Kirk Cousins-esque path, Brees' relationship with the organization didn't seem damaged enough for that to occur. The fact the Chargers were even talking about offering Brees a long-term deal after his labrum injury suggests that they would have leaned that way if both were healthy.
2. The Chargers trade Rivers ...
While Rivers hadn't played, there were enough teams who were interested in him before the 2004 draft to suggest that he would have retained meaningful trade value. He still had four years left to go on his rookie deal at a cost of less than $4 million per season, which would have made him a relative bargain at a time when rookie contracts were a lot more expensive than they are now.
There would have been no shortage of suitors. My first instinct would have been to send Rivers to the Raiders, given how Al Davis would have had no lack of fondness for a trash-talking quarterback who threw downfield as frequently as Rivers. At the same time, though, Davis passed on Rivers during the 2004 draft, and I doubt the Chargers would have traded Rivers within the AFC West.
Other teams would have been in the running. The Saints, obviously, were looking for a new quarterback, but I don't think they would have given up the second overall pick for Rivers. The Jets had just signed Chad Pennington to a huge extension, but concerns about Pennington's future after shoulder surgery would have put Gang Green in the market for Rivers. (To their infinite wisdom, the article I linked suggests that the Jets were interested in Brees but concerned about his height.) The Broncos, Cardinals and Titans all took quarterbacks in the first round of the 2006 draft, suggesting they might have been interested in Rivers.
3. ... to the Lions
Detroit makes the most sense. The Lions gave up on the Steve Mariucci and Joey Harrington era after the 2005 season, replacing Mariucci with the combination of Rod Marinelli as coach and former Rams offensive wizard Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. Harrington was eventually traded to the Dolphins, as the Lions signed 34-year-old Jon Kitna to a four-year, $11 million deal to take over as starter. You can imagine they would have preferred Rivers.
This changes the course of Lions history in ways both good and bad. Let's say the Lions send the ninth overall pick in the 2006 draft to the Chargers for Rivers and San Diego's fifth-round selection. This doesn't go well for the Chargers, who now inherit disappointing Ernie Sims, an athletic linebacker who never found his way in Detroit. They send Rivers and quietly effective inside linebacker Tim Dobbins to the Midwest.
As a comfortable upgrade on Kitna, Rivers leads the Lions to a 7-9 season in 2006 and keeps them competent in the seasons before Jim Schwartz arrives to town. The 0-16 season never happens with Rivers under center as opposed to the trio of Kitna, Daunte Culpepper and Dan Orlovsky. Because Rivers prevents the Lions from going 3-13 in 2006, though, the Lions don't have the second overall pick in the 2007 draft. As a result, they aren't in a position to draft Calvin Johnson. Instead, they settle in at 14 and take the highest-drafted wideout left in the pool, LSU's Dwayne Bowe.
4. The core of that Lions team -- and most of the NFL -- ends up elsewhere
OK, let's breathe here. I already mentioned what happens with the 2006 draft. In 2007, the Raiders still take JaMarcus Russell with the first overall pick, and let's do the Browns a solid and trust them to take Joe Thomas with what would now be the second overall pick.
The Buccaneers drafted edge rusher Gaines Adams with the third overall pick, but in our universe, they're the ones who end up with Calvin Johnson. Jon Gruden comes away with a franchise wideout, and Megatron's 2008 season (1,331 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns) is enough of an upgrade on Michael Clayton to slow Tampa's late-season losing streak after a 9-5 start and push the Bucs into the postseason. The trip to the playoffs saves Gruden's job. Adams goes to the Jets at No. 6, Vernon Gholston falls further into the first round, and the rest of the 2008 draft stays relatively flat.
The Lions no longer have the first pick in the 2009 draft, though, and they don't take Matthew Stafford. The Rams instead have the first selection, and while the real-life Rams took never-was tackle Jason Smith with the No. 2 pick, our alternate-universe Rams find their quarterback of the future by drafting Stafford. Smith moves further down the tackle carousel in the first round, but we're more concerned with the quarterback implications to come.
Obviously, if the Rams draft Stafford in 2009, they don't draft Sam Bradford with the top pick in 2010. Stafford was 2-8 and threw 20 interceptions across 10 starts as a rookie, so it's entirely possible that the Rams would have been just as bad with Stafford as they were with Marc Bulger, Kyle Boller and the unforgettable Keith Null in real life. Instead of making the RG III trade in 2012, the Rams' big trade down comes in 2010, when they trade the rights to Bradford to Washington for the fourth overall selection and Washington's 2011 first-round pick. Those picks turn into left tackle Trent Williams and edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan. Not a bad haul! (In this universe, Washington also doesn't trade for Donovan McNabb, who sticks around in Philadelphia for one more season before being released.)
This seems like a net positive for the Rams, who avoid the Bradford era and presumably never hire Jeff Fisher. The downside is that they don't need to trade up in the draft to grab Jared Goff, so the Rams team we see in 2018 looks totally different from the roster we currently see in real life, even if the timing still works to make Sean McVay the coach. Would McVay help take Stafford to the next level?
The Lions, who need a wide receiver without Megatron, instead use the 10th pick of the 2009 draft on Michael Crabtree. In 2009, Rivers' Lions are good enough to avoid the top of the draft, a move that costs them Ndamukong Suh the following season. The Seahawks keep the Oregon product in the Pacific Northwest by drafting Suh sixth, with Russell Okung falling to the 49ers at 11. The Lions, drafting 13th, find some help for their defensive line by drafting Michigan product Brandon Graham. The Eagles draft Derrick Morgan. This goes on.
Remember Gruden? Time finally runs out on Gruden after the 2011 season, when the Buccaneers fall to 4-12 and Chucky heads to the broadcasting booth. The Bucs make a splash hire by convincing Oregon's Chip Kelly to leave and become Tampa's coach.
Part of that decision involves a promise that the Buccaneers will move up to the second overall pick and draft Robert Griffin III, with Tampa sending three first-round picks to the Vikings to make the trade happen. With the services of Buccaneers starter Josh Freeman no longer required, Tampa sends its 24-year-old passer to the Saints -- remember them? -- for a second-round pick.
5. The Chargers win Super Bowl XLII
That thing you saw in Scenario 1 still happens.
Scenario 3: Brees signs with the Dolphins
This is the most plausible scenario of the three, of course, because it nearly happened. Brees hit free agency and met with the Dolphins and coach Nick Saban. Miami, coming off a 9-7 season in Saban's debut campaign, had 34-year-old Gus Frerotte as the starting quarterback. The Dolphins already had a pair of stud running backs in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, and Saban was on his way to figuring out the defense, as the Dolphins would finish fifth in scoring defense the following season.
Instead, the Dolphins turned down Brees after he took a physical and opted to solve their problems via trade, sending a second-round pick to the Vikings for Daunte Culpepper and a sixth-round pick to the Lions for Joey Harrington. The Minnesota star had racked up 4,717 passing yards in a Pro Bowl campaign for the Vikings in 2004, but his 2005 season included a multi-ligament knee injury and an infamous boat trip on Lake Minnetonka.
Things went poorly. The trio of Culpepper, Harrington and Cleo Lemon combined to post a passer rating of 71.2, the fifth-worst mark in the league. Brees posted a 96.2 rating in New Orleans. The Dolphins finished with the fourth-fewest points in football. Saban swore he wouldn't leave ... and then bailed for Alabama after the season anyway. Saban helped rescue a Bama program that had gone 26-24 under Mike Shula over the previous four seasons. Let's see what might have happened if the Dolphins had ignored their doctors and signed Brees to a six-year deal.
1. Saban stays in Miami and the college football landscape changes immeasurably
We don't have time to get into all the possibilities. Let's start with the obvious one. Alabama needs a head coach. When Sports Illustrated explored this what-if possibility in 2017, they suggested that Bobby Petrino would have taken over. That's one possibility, but at the time, Alabama's top candidate for the job was West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, with South Carolina's Steve Spurrier as the backup option.
Reportedly, Rodriguez verbally accepted the job in December before seemingly changing his mind, so it would have been remarkably difficult for him to end up taking the job in January. Spurrier also says he turned down the job. The second-choice candidates: Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, Navy's Paul Johnson and Cal coach Jeff Tedford.
None of those hires would have hit Saban's heights. Grobe, coming off of an 11-win season at Wake Forest, never posted a 10-win season again and is out of football. Tedford had just finished a 10-win season at California and didn't get there again until 2017 at Fresno State. Johnson went on to enjoy steady success at Georgia Tech, although his lone ACC title from 2009 was vacated after the NCAA found that Tech improperly let Demaryius Thomas play when he should have been ineligible.
Let's say they hire Tedford. He probably lasts four or five years with the program. Alabama's undefeated 14-0 season in 2009 never happens. Bama probably doesn't recruit Trent Richardson or Mark Ingram to come to Tuscaloosa. Maybe the Crimson Tide lose Julio Jones to someone out of state. The entire complexion of their program changes, and their top players spread out throughout college football in ways that extend even beyond the purview of this hypothetical.
2. The Patriots never get Wes Welker
While Welker coincidentally started his career with the Chargers, by the end of the 2005 season, he had grown into a role as a slot receiver and return man for the Dolphins. He racked up 67 catches for 687 yards with Miami in 2006, but the Dolphins were more concerned with getting the ball to big-play artist Chris Chambers, who caught a truly awful 38.3 percent of his targets, the lowest catch rate in modern history for a player with 150 targets or more.
The Patriots subsequently pounced, threatening to sign Welker as a restricted free agent before eventually trading second- and seventh-round picks for the Texas Tech product. You know what happened next. It's easy to imagine how Welker might have blossomed earlier with Brees at the helm in 2006 instead of the motley crew of quarterbacks throwing him the football. It's simultaneously difficult to imagine Saban letting a core special-teamer and valuable wideout leave to go play for Saban's good friend and former boss up north.
3. The Saints trade for Tony Romo
I haven't talked a lot about alternate outcomes for the Saints in the other scenarios, but here's one that makes sense. In this universe, we know the Saints have hired Cowboys assistant Sean Payton and don't have a viable option at quarterback. After Brees turns them down to sign with the Dolphins, their QB depth chart consists of Aaron Brooks, Todd Bouman and Jamie Martin.
Payton had a backup plan, though. Once the Eastern Illinois starting quarterback, Payton encouraged the Cowboys to go after one of his successors at the school in the 2003 draft. Dallas eventually snatched up Romo as an undrafted free agent and let him develop for three years without throwing a pass behind the likes of Bledsoe, Vinny Testaverde and Quincy Carter.
By the 2006 offseason, the Cowboys knew that they might have a starting quarterback prospect. More importantly, they knew that Payton was interested in giving Romo a shot to start in New Orleans. In his book, former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells suggests that the Saints offered a third-round pick for Romo, which would have been a remarkable price for an undrafted quarterback with zero NFL regular-season attempts. The Cowboys responded by asking for a second-round pick, to which the Saints demurred.
Without Brees, the Saints pay Parcells his price. They send their second-round pick to the Cowboys, a pick that was eventually dealt to the Browns and used to acquire future Pro Bowl linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. The Saints traded down and used the second-round pick they acquired in the Browns trade to take Roman Harper, who also developed into a Pro Bowler. In either scenario, the Cowboys end up with a Pro Bowl defender.
They also rue the trade from the moment Romo steps onto the field in New Orleans. The next decade mostly goes as you saw, just with Romo taking the place of Brees in the Superdome. He naturally suffers a few more injuries, leading to wider variance for the Saints, but it's Romo who stands underneath a confetti shower after upsetting the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
In the real world, the Cowboys benched Bledsoe after six games of the 2006 season for Romo, who went 6-4 as a starter and led the Cowboys into the playoffs, where he famously fumbled a snap that cost Dallas the game against the Seahawks. While Romo never delivered a long playoff run in a Cowboys uniform, the alternate reality is even more distressing for Cowboys fans. ...
4. Dallas spends the next decade on Miami's trip through the QB wilderness
After turning down Brees, the Dolphins spent the next six years sorting through various short-term (Chad Pennington and Trent Green) and long-term (John Beck and Chad Henne) options under center. The only one who delivered a successful season was Pennington, who went 11-5 in a 2008 season in which the Dolphins brought the Wildcat to the NFL. They traded up in 2012 to draft Ryan Tannehill, who has delivered competent play when healthy without ever threatening to turn into a superstar.
In this scenario, the Saints have Romo, the Dolphins have Brees, and the Cowboys are the ones left out in our game of musical chairs. So let's see what they would have done. In 2006, they would have been stuck riding things out with Bledsoe, who would retire after the season. They started 3-3, but let's pencil them in for a 6-10 season and the seventh overall pick in the 2007 draft.
The top quarterback in that year's class was Brady Quinn, whom the Cowboys didn't take with Romo on board. (The Browns actually traded up to Dallas' pick to grab the Notre Dame product.) In our universe, the Cowboys could grab Quinn at 7, but let's take them in a different direction. With Julius Jones struggling and Marion Barber yet to break out in a featured role, let's fulfill a long-rumored possibility and have the Cowboys pip the Vikings to Palestine, Texas, product Adrian Peterson. He might not have been as productive without a passing game, but AD is going to put up some massive numbers wherever he goes, Dallas included.
Peterson can't play quarterback, so with Bledsoe retiring, the Cowboys need a short-term replacement. In 2006, they opt for free agent Kerry Collins, who would eventually sign with the Titans in August. Collins spends the 2006 and 2007 seasons with the team and delivering solid, unspectacular quarterback play. Dallas drafts Beck out of BYU in the second round of the 2007 draft, but he fails to impress in three starts as an injury fill-in for Collins. The Cowboys go 7-9 and 8-8 over Collins' two seasons at the helm.
In 2008, the Cowboys plan on heading into the season with Beck and new acquisition Brad Johnson at quarterback before another oft-rumored tryst occurs. Jerry Jones once tried to trade for Brett Favre, who grew up dreaming of playing for the Cowboys. After un-retiring and reporting to Packers camp, Favre gets his chance, as the Cowboys send a conditional pick to the Packers for the future Hall of Famer.
Things go well! An offense with Favre, Peterson, Terrell Owens and Jason Witten has no problem moving the football, and the Cowboys make it to the playoffs under Wade Phillips during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. They run all the way to the NFC title game in 2009, only for Favre to throw a critical interception to set up a game-winning Saints field goal. Cowboys fans rue the day they traded New Orleans their starting quarterback, as Romo celebrates his first career victory in AT&T Stadium.
In 2010, Father Time finally comes for Favre, who is replaced in the starting lineup in December by Longhorns legend Colt McCoy, Dallas' third-round pick in that year's draft. Peterson runs into a wall 300 times. Phillips gets fired and replaced by Jason Garrett. The Cowboys turn over things to McCoy for the 2011 season, and he produces underwhelming numbers in 13 starts, posting a passer rating of 74.6. With Peterson missing four games due to injury and failing to hit 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career, the Cowboys go 6-10, leaving them with the sixth pick in the draft.
In the real world, the Cowboys used that selection on Morris Claiborne. In our universe, they head in a different direction. After failing to trade up to grab RG III, Jerry Jones instructs Garrett to find a young quarterback to build around over the next five years. Garrett doesn't have to look far to find his new quarterback: The Cowboys use the pick on Texas A&M prospect Ryan Tannehill.
5. Saban and Belichick engage in mild nuclear war
What, you think Belichick is going to get along with one of his old friends when they play each other twice a year? Two years wasn't really a long enough time to launch a feud, but once the Dolphins start threatening to compete with Brees and Saban's defense in the AFC East, things get juicy. By the time 2009 rolls around, Belichick and Saban are at each other's throats like the classic days of Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.
Eventually, it seems likely that Saban would have grown weary of the NFL and found the right college job. Let's say Tedford gets fired after the 2010 season and Alabama comes calling. Stuck in a division with Brady and Belichick and in a conference with Peyton Manning, Saban sees an opportunity and takes it. The timing works out just right for Michigan alum Stephen Ross to pursue the coach he nearly hired in real life around that time, Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh goes to the Dolphins, with the 49ers eventually hiring their second choice behind Harbaugh: fired Titans coach Jeff Fisher.
The real thing
Of course, the reality we ended up getting was pretty fun, too. Brees went to the Saints and helped save football in New Orleans, winning a Super Bowl along the way. Saban rebuilt Alabama into a powerhouse and was responsible for one of the most memorable plays in sports history with the "kick-six." (Alabama residents with red cars might not find that one to be quite as fun.) The Patriots made it to the Super Bowl undefeated in 2007, only to be felled by another one of the greatest plays in sports history. It's an enjoyable exercise, but I suspect Brees -- and Saints fans -- are quite happy with how things turned out.