Monsters Present: What If…Peyton Manning Never Sat Out 2011 NFL Season With His Neck Injury (Part One)

Andrew Fultz

There are events in sports that have a long lasting effect on the teams and players involved. The change can be so drastic for so many that it often leaves you wondering, “What if situation X had never happened?”

For example, the eternal question of every child born in the 80’s is, “What if Michael Jordan had never retired from basketball to try baseball?” Would he have won eight straight? If he had won eight straight, would he have stayed in Chicago to play for a ninth straight? If he got to nine, could he have beaten Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers in the 2000 season to get to ten?

Photo: NBA
Photo: NBA

The wondering stops there, as not even an MJ past his prime could have handled the 2001 Lakers that went 15-1 in the playoffs, but you see how this works. “What If” is unanswerable, impossible to predict, but endlessly debatable and tons of fun.

What else can we ask?

What if the New York Yankees had never purchased Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox between the 1919 and 1920 baseball seasons? Would the Sox have suffered a near century-long drought between World Series championships?

More recently, if Drew Bledsoe had never gotten hurt in 2001, would we even know who Tom Brady is? Brady fans don’t like it, but that is a legitimate question.

Less significantly, if San Francisco’s Alex Smith hadn’t suffered a concussion in the 2012 season would he still play for the 49ers? Would Colin Kaepernick still be with the team? Would Smith have lead the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship game appearances and one Super Bowl loss as Kap has?

Or (pardon my fan-service) if Erik Ainge hadn’t thrown a pick-six against LSU in the 2007 SEC Championship game, would the Vols have fired Phil Fulmer in 2008? The answer is yes, but Gary Danielson (CBS national broadcaster) would have us believe that interception was the tipping of the iceberg that started the worst ever 6-year stretch of Tennessee football (a decline that, thank heavens, appears to be coming to a screeching halt). #AingesFault

Few personnel decisions, injuries, or some combination of the two have affected as many teams, players, and coaches as Peyton Manning’s inability to recover from neck surgery in the offseason leading up to the 2011 NFL season.

Photo: Gcobb.com
Photo: Gcobb.com

Which prompts me to ask: What if the injury never happened? What if the Colts had (stupidly) passed on Andrew Luck and kept Peyton? Or what if the 2011 Colts had been even a marginally respectable team without Peyton, thereby spoiling the Colts’ chance of drafting Andrew Luck in the 2012 draft? Do the Colts stick with Peyton? Where does
Luck end up? Is Jim Caldwell still the coach in Indy, rather than in Detroit? Does Arizona head coach Bruce Arians – on his way out of major pro-football after being fired as the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh following 2011 –get the chance to be interim head coach for Chuck Pagano during his bout with leukemia, have wild success with Luck at QB, land the Cardinals’ head coaching job, and hold the league’s best record in 2014?

I’m guessing the answer to that last one is a resounding no, but let’s take a step across the multiverse to a world where Peyton Manning never misses a start and see where we end up.

2011-2012 Season
Let’s start with the basics, and let’s start basic. Let’s assume that everything that happened in real 2011 happens in imaginary 2011, except that the Colts don’t suck. So, replace the 10-6 Texans with the newly 10-6 Colts, and give the Texans’ two new losses to the Colts, thus finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs. Questions concerning Matt Schaub’s ability to be a franchise quarterback begin to surface.

Photo: Predominantly Orange
Photo: Predominantly Orange

Meanwhile, Tebow-mania is in full force as the Broncos, ahem, roar to an 8-8 record and into the playoffs, beating the Steelers in the Wild Card round. Indianapolis takes care of business against Cincinnati in Round 1 and again in the Divisional Round against Baltimore. This sets up Manning vs. Brady in the AFC Championship (Pats having destroyed the fighting Tebows in the previous round, because some things don’t change).

Miraculously, Peyton gets the best of Brady in Foxboro, setting up a Manning vs. Manning Super Bowl. Eli and the Giants’ pass rush still win and all football talk in the 2012 offseason is centered on trying to figure out if Eli is better than Peyton. Years later, we will all laugh at that sentiment.

2012 Offseason
The Colts don’t go 2-14 with Peyton playing in 2011, so they don’t get the first pick of the 2012 draft. That honor goes to the St. Louis Rams. The Rams – are still convinced Sam Bradford is the quarterback of the future – make the same trade to the Washington Redskins they made for the second overall pick (Ironically, the Rams may still be convinced Bradford is their guy).

“With the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Washington Redskins select Robert Griffin III! Wait, no, I read that wrong. Andrew Luck!” (Because only the Raiders would’ve gone RGIII over Luck. Speed kills, man!)

Photo: Cleveland Locker Report
Photo: Cleveland Locker Report

With Washington taking Luck, RGIII falls to Minnesota’s second overall pick. Having just drafted Christian Ponder, the Vikes trade the pick to Cleveland, who happily takes Griffin at #2, narrowly avoiding the Trent Richardson/Brandon Weeden fiasco.

Jacksonville drafts Trent Richardson at #5, and gets about the same production from him that they got from real life #5 pick, Justin Blackmon.

In Denver, no Luck to the Colts means no Peyton to the Broncos, so Tim Tebow finally gets a full offseason and training camp as the starting QB. Journalists from the nation’s most successful pro football magazines – People and Entertainment Weekly – rave over Tebow’s ability to throw the ball in such a way that his receivers make unbelievable leaping catches. “It’s almost as if he is inaccurate, but the receivers catch it anyway so that can’t be it,” they say.

They also note his ability to put the ball where his receiver can grab it off his shoelaces. “Impressive, how he puts the ball in a place that allows the receiver to catch it with his hands AND his feet,” they marvel. These writers promise he will revolutionize the NFL in 2012. Moms everywhere agree. Soon, you will too.

Meanwhile, Chuck Pagano isn’t hired to be the head coach of the Colts because the Colts didn’t fire Jim Caldwell after reaching a Super Bowl. So, Tampa Bay comes calling. Pagano hires Bruce Arians as his offensive coordinator, and they spend the entire offseason wondering if Josh Freeman can be their guy.

2012 Season
In real life, Luck and Griffin had similar success in their rookie campaigns, going 11-5 and 10-6 respectively. So we’ll let Washington have that same 10-6, division title, and playoff berth. More on the NFC in a moment.

Griffin, playing in a defensively menacing AFC North, takes some serious body blows over the course of the season. With lesser supporting talent and head coaching, he manages to lead the Browns to a nice 8-8 season, barely misses the playoffs as a Wild Card, and does not blow out his knee in the first round of postseason play. Browns fans rejoice.

Photo: CBS Boston
Photo: CBS Boston

Elsewhere in the AFC, the Patriots are still the Patriots and roll to the #1 seed. The Colts – devoid of talent everywhere but QB – struggle to a 9-7 season, and make the playoffs as the sixth seed, narrowly holding off the Steelers and RGIII’s Browns.

Tebow’s Broncos lay waste to a putrid AFC West and finish 11-5, granting them the third overall seed over Baltimore, who also finishes 11-5. The AFC Wild Card round then features two intriguing matchups: The greatest QB of all time vs. Tebow, and a divisional matchup between Cincinnati and Baltimore. Cincy “pulls a Dalton” and loses, while all eyes turn to Denver.

Peyton struggles in the cold and the playoffs – as he is wont to do – with Von Miller setting up camp in the Colts pocket. Tebow pulls another improbable playoff victory.
Sometimes his passes even hit his target in the chest, each time being deemed the greatest throw of all time.

The Divisional Round then features Tebow vs. Houston and New England vs. Baltimore. History shows us that Baltimore is the winner here – they actually did win at New England in the 2012 playoffs.

Playing at Houston proves much easier for Tebow than his 2011 trip to New England, and the Broncos roll to a 41-28 victory. Questions surrounding Matt Schaub’s franchise QB potential continue to abound.

One week later, Tebow faces Flacco in Denver with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Trailing 35-28 with under a minute remaining, the Ravens take the ball at their own 30. Flacco drops back and hits a bomb to Jacoby Jones! It’s unbelievable! Jones is racing down the sideline! AND TIM TEBOW CATCHES HIM FROM BEHIND! WHO KNEW HE EVEN PLAYED DEFENSE?! Stricken with disbelief, Flacco throws four straight incompletions and the Broncos advance to the Super Bowl to face…

Photo: Sportsblog.com
Photo: Sportsblog.com

The NFC playoffs feature a red-hot Atlanta Falcons team, a San Francisco team looking to make consecutive NFC Championship appearances, Green Bay, and Washington as division winners. The Wild Card winners are the Seattle Seahawks – who are a year away from ascension to elite – and the Minnesota Vikings, who are not.

Luck, less prone to run at the first sign of duress than RGIII, handles the muddy pocket delivered by Seattle’s blooming pass rush in the Wild Card round, does not blow out his knee, and pulls out the victory. Green Bay rolls Minnesota.

The next week, Luck and Washington falter at the hands of red-hot Atlanta and Matty Ice in a wild, back and forth affair. Green Bay gets Kaepernick-ed, and Atlanta loses to San Francisco in the NFC Championship, and the NFC side of history isn’t significantly rewritten.

Missing the playoffs are Chuck Pagano’s Buccaneers. They looked good early, but when health calls for Pagano to take a leave of absence, Arians’ pass happy approach doesn’t work as well with QB mystery Josh Freeman at the helm. Still, inspired by the emotion of their coach going through cancer treatment, Tampa Bay fights their way to a 9-7 record and finishes second in the NFC South. Arians is not considered for a head coaching position following the 2012 season.

The two weeks between conference championship games and the Super Bowl are spent discussing the future of unorthodox quarterback play in the NFL, as Tebow vs. Kaepernick is dissected in a million different, meaningless ways. When the game finally begins, all questions will be answered.

The Broncos jump out to a 21-6 first half lead, thanks in no small part to the two-headed monster that is Tim Tebow. Running and passing with ease, he slices and dices the vaunted San Francisco defense. Von Miller stifles Colin Kaepernick.

Photo: Gaston Gazette
Photo: Gaston Gazette

To begin the second half, Trendon Holliday returns the opening kickoff 106 yards for a 28-6 lead, and fans everywhere look to the eastern sky, watching for a split. Instead, near tragedy comes knocking. Kaepernick drops back to pass and sees a wide open Michael Crabtree down the sideline. Just as he releases, a blackout strikes the Superdome. Fans still looking toward the eastern sky are stymied, while fans watching the game see the improbable. It’s Tebow with a miraculous interception! With all other players confused by the blackout, Tebow tip-toes into the endzone for a pick-six. Completely humiliated, Kaepernick hangs up his helmet and refuses to go back into the game. Alex Smith returns to finish the game, makes it a respectable 35-27 loss, and wins his starting job back.

Oh, and Tebow is the Super Bowl MVP, throwing 3 TDs, rushing for another, and the aforementioned pick-six. Moms and Florida fans everywhere swear they knew it from the beginning. Sports analysts’ heads explode because they don’t understand.

This ends part of one Andrew’s What If…Peyton Manning Never Sat Out the 2011 NFL Season With His Neck Injury! What else does Peyton’s participation alter in this new look NFL? I don’t know, but I bet it involves Tim Tebow, a falling child, and a cape. Just saying.

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