Every game has a what if the other team won; every offseason has a what if some team didn't sign this guy. But here are the ten best what if questions that can be asked (excluding the Giants and Jets) since the Raiders won Super Bowl XVIII.
10. What if the NFL didn't pick Carolina and Jacksonville as expansion cities in 1993?
After the NFL expanded in 1976 and added the Seahawks and Buccaneers, the NFL kept itself at 28 teams throughout the 1980s. In 1992, the NFL decided to expand to 30 teams, with Baltimore, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Memphis, and St. Louis being the leading candidates for expansion. Now, I know what you're thinking, isn't the real what if question have to do with the Colts leaving for Indianapolis in 1984? While certainly a what if, Baltimore had their chance to regain a team for the 1995 season. Meanwhile, for much of the process, Charlotte, St. Louis and Baltimore were the favorites and Jacksonville almost dropped out and only stayed in the hunt at the urging of Paul Tagliabue and other top-NFL officials.
In October 1993, the Carolina Panthers were in business and the second team would come a month later. St. Louis was thought they were going to win and even sold "St. Louis Stallions" t-shirts, before the NFL voted to put a team in Jacksonville and the Jaguars were born. St. Louis was at that time building a domed stadium and became attractive to any teams looking to move. After Bob Kraft bought the Pats and kept them in New England, the Rams would make the move to St. Louis. Baltimore would do to Cleveland what Indy did to them and stole the Browns, while Memphis would be the first stop after the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee. Meanwhile, both the Panthers and the Jaguars have had more or less a mixed history of success both on-and-off the field.
I contend that if the NFL doesn't expand to Jacksonville, one of the teams that moved wouldn't have because I can't see any team going to Jacksonville. There, you compete with the Dolphins, Bucs and Falcons, as well as all the college football in the market. If they stay in Charlotte and expand to St. Louis, I think the Rams move to Nashville/Memphis and Houston perhaps stays. If Baltimore is the pick and not St. Louis, the Browns stay in Cleveland. I do think if Charlotte was the big loser, they would be in more of a position for relocation because it was a faster growing area and not as much to share in terms of football (it's more basketball territory). And finally, we avoid having a Super Bowl played in a city as bad for the Super Bowl as Jacksonville.
9b. What if the Tennessee Titans don't pull off the Music City Miracle against the Bills?
The Bills had just taken a 16-15 lead over the Titans in the first playoff game played in Nashville. What happened next was NFL history as Kevin Dyson took the lateral pass from Frank Wycheck and ran for the touchdown. This led to the Titans lone Super Bowl run and five years of relative success, while the Buffalo Bills haven't returned to the playoffs since. So what if the Bills won (whether the play doesn't work or ruled a forward pass)? Well, the Bills would then face the Colts in the Divisional Round, but other than that, Wade Phillips would of still had Rob Johnson start at QB the following season and actually would of been proven right if they won that game, after the controversy of benching Doug Flutie for Johnson in the playoff game. The Bills had a chance to reach the Super Bowl, since the Titans ended up beating both the Colts and Jaguars and Phillips more than likely is thought of as a much better coach. Of course, the Bills could flame out since Wade Phillips is the coach.
As for the Titans, this game ended a transitional period for this franchise, but if they lose, this team could have regressed to a mediocre team who may or may not make the playoffs. It also would appear to downplay the death of Steve McNair last Saturday as we wouldn't have seen him in that Super Bowl where he was famous.
9a. What if the Houston Oilers hold on to beat the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Wild Card game?
Every football fan is aware that the Houston Oilers blew a 35-3 lead to the Bills in Buffalo in the 1992 Wild Card and was seeming cosmic justice that the Titans beat the Bills in the Music City Miracle seven years later. However, if the Oilers don't blow the lead, I don't think there is a Tennessee Titans today. The Oilers would have moved on to Pittsburgh the following week after beating the Bills and knowing Bill Cowher's postseason record, Houston had a legit chance to win there. Who knows, the Oilers could of faced the Cowboys in an all-Texas Super Bowl showdown. As for after 1993, the Oilers don't hire Buddy Ryan because of a defensive collapse and no punching incident occurs, as well as the dysfunctional nature of that whole season that saw them become pariahs in Houston.
As for Buffalo, they get to avoid the embarrassment of losing four straight Super Bowls since they lose early, but I think history happens to treat the Bills better than one would think. I, for one, am of the mind that the Bills were usually the inferior team in these Super Bowls and rightfully lost. I also think it was a great accomplishment to go to four straight Super Bowls, which is difficult because if you win them all, the league wants to knock you off and the losers get demoralized (look at this decades Super Bowl losers year-afters, except Seattle). One of two things happen to the Bills, either they begin to decline or they avoid stagnation and take advantage of the early loss to improve the team to win.
8. What if Dan Snyder never bought the Redskins?
Jack Kent Cooke's death ended an era of dominance of Washington Redskins football and the Redskins since Snyder bought the team have been at best, inconsistent, and at worst, a joke. This team was never a downright awful, but every year, whenever free agency starts, Dan Snyder signs two or three name guys to huge deals and the Redskins go on and finish 8-8 or 7-9, something like that. He's made many puzzling coaching decisions such as firing Norv Turner after a 7-6 start in 2000, firing Marty Schottenheimer the following season and replacing him with Steve Spurrier. So what if Synder never bought the team?
The Redskins probably use free agency like everyone else, signs one big deal a year, and uses the draft, like you still have to do, to improve. It also leads to a better front office and not the owner or an old Joe Gibbs making all the decisions. And judging by the lack of quality in the NFC for this decade, the Skins perhaps make more than three playoff appearance and they definitely don't go through the Steve Spurrier era, meaning no Danny Wuerffel era or the Shane Matthews Band experiments.
7. What if the "tuck rule" didn't exist?
Here's the first one of these what ifs that effect championships. Going back to the 2001 AFC Divisional Game, the Raiders recovered an apparent fumble to solidify a win against the Patriots, when the play was overturned by review because of a little-known rule now infamously known as the Tuck Rule. The rule means that if the QB brings the ball back to him in a throwing motion and the ball comes out, it's an incomplete pass. Because of the rule, the Patriots kept the ball, tied it in regulation and win in overtime. They would then go on to win Super Bowl XXXVI and begin a dynasty.
As for if the rule didn't exist, the Raiders win after recovering the ball and they head to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game. After that, I believe the Raiders beat the Steelers in the Championship Game and go to the Super Bowl a year early. I don't think they beat the Rams as the Pats defensive gameplan was key, but a Super Bowl appearance keeps Jon Gruden in Oakland for the 2002 season, meaning the Bucs don't win the following Super Bowl, the Raiders do. Also the Raider franchise, as a whole, avoids becoming the train wreck of a franchise they have become though I'm sure Gruden would of been fired by Al Davis by now. I don't think the Pats were as effected as one would think because Tom Brady stays at QB and they probably play the 2002 season more hungry without a title. Adam Vinatieri on the other hand, loses his reputation as a clutch kicker, since his three biggest kicks occured in that playoff run, meaning he goes from possible hall of famer, to just another kicker.
6. What if Trent Green doesn't get injured in the 1999 preseason?
The Rams were due for big things in the 1999 season as they traded for Marshall Faulk, drafted Torry Holt and signed Trent Green. It seemed like the season was over before it started when Green injured his knee and was out for the season. This led to the rise of Kurt Warner, as he took over for Green and led the Rams to the Super Bowl championship. As Warner turned into America's underdog, Green continued an up-and-down career with the Chiefs and Dolphins.
If he didn't get hurt, he would of ended up with the underdog role, not Warner. People forget, Green was an eighth-round draft pick of San Diego, toiled as a backup, bounced around both the NFL and CFL before his breakout season with the Redskins in 1998, leading to his contract with the Rams. He also fit better with Dick Vermeil than Warner did, hence his success with the Chiefs during Vermeil's tenure there. As for Warner, he probably never gets a real chance to play and doesn't get to go to three Super Bowls and become America's favorite QB this side of Brett Favre. Speaking of...
After Don Majkowski got injured during a Week 3 game against Cincinnati, Brett Favre took over for Green Bay and lead them to a comeback victory over the Bengals, punctuated with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Kitrick Taylor. After that, Majkowski became Wally Pipp to Favre's Lou Gehrig, as Favre led the Packers to a winning season in '92, the playoffs in '93, and the Super Bowl in '96; not to mention the countless memories in the league since.
However, if the Packers didn't win that game, they drop to 0-3 and the Brett Favre legend doesn't start as hot as it did, and maybe he remains the failure in Atlanta. If that's the case, the Green Bay franchise never has the great run it had in the 90s. And what no one talks about, the Bengals would have been 3-0 under new coach David Shula and instead of being a poster child of nepotistic coaching hires, the Bengals continue a comeback season in 1992 and avoid the awful play this team has displayed since Mike Brown took over as owner after Paul Brown's death.
4. What if Joe Montana doesn't get hurt in the 1990 NFC Championship Game?
The Niners were winning 13-9 against the Giants when Leonard Marshall crushed Montana in the fourth quarter. The Giants would eventually win after LT recovers a Roger Craig fumble and Matt Bahr made the final of five field goals to win it 15-13, ending the three-peat hopes of San Francisco. Montana ended up spending the next two seasons injured; leading to Steve Young's ascension to the starting job and the unpleasantness of watching Joe Montana in the Chiefs uniform (actually the most successful Schottenheimer Kansas City teams)
However, if Montana stays healthy, you could argue that the 49ers would be more comfortable being a little more aggressive. I think that the gameplan they had would have happened whether it was Montana or Young playing behind center, meaning they'd run with a 13-12 lead. Young's career, however, would start a few years later and if he makes the Hall of Fame, it wouldn't be with San Francisco.
3. What if the Cowboys don't trade Herschel Walker to Minnesota during the 1989 season?
After the Cowboys 3-13 record in 1988, they were worse in 1989 during Jimmy Johnson's first year. Knowing Dallas needed a major makeover, Johnson put Walker on the trade block in 1989. Despite interest from the Giants, Cleveland and Atlanta, the Vikings offered eight draft picks and five players and the Cowboys gladly took it. Walker never played with the Vikings as well as he did with the Dallas, while the Cowboys became a champion in 4 years, using the picks to get Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson and used other picks for trades.
However, this trade doesn't happen if Dallas accepts Cleveland's offer of a player, two first rounders and three second rounders. The Browns were looking for another weapon for Bernie Kosar and maybe a different system would have benefitted Walker as well as setting up an interesting combo of him and Eric Metcalf at both RB and kick returner. As for Dallas, the haul they get for Herschel isn't as significant and might not yield the same windfall as the added players and picks did from Minnesota. Maybe the Dallas dynasty doesn't start until 1993 or 1994 and after that, the salary cap is more of a factor.
The Patriots were about to go to 0-2 when Lewis hit Bledsoe later in their game against the Jets, leading to unproven Tom Brady becoming the starter. The rest is history as the Pats won three of the next four Super Bowls. Now, I kind of discussed the Pats back when talking about the Tuck Rule, but I felt this is a more appropriate what if for the Patriots.
Anyway, if Bledsoe doesn't get hurt, the Patriots don't make the playoffs and have another year like 2000. The year before, the Pats were 5-11 and looked like they were going to continue dropping. Bill Belichick was in his second year there and wasn't ready to bench Bledsoe yet and I'm sure people in Boston wondered if Belichick was going to fail like he did in Cleveland. And he would of; either in 2001 or 2002, the Pats would of fired Belichick and we may not know who Tom Brady is. However, with a fired Belichick by 2002, he certainly could have rejoined Bill Parcells in Dallas and with Belichick as a defensive coordinator, the Cowboys would of had more success and for a bonus, maybe Belichick convinces Parcells to bring Brady to America's Team.
1. What if the 49ers didn't draft Jerry Rice in the 1985 NFL Draft?
The San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl after the 1984 season after going 15-1 during the season. No one thought the Niners needed to improve but Bill Walsh found an unknown receiver at Mississippi Valley State named Jerry Rice that he wanted to draft. Thus he traded his first two picks to the Patriots for the 16th pick to get Rice. The rest is history as the Niners picked up the greatest receiver in NFL history, whose records are Gretzky-like. I also believe it's the singular reason the San Francisco dynasty continued into the 90s.
So what if the Niners failed to draft him? Well there were two receivers drafted ahead of Rice; Al Toon and Eddie Brown. Both had their moments and were Pro Bowls, but neither guy was durable enough to last past 1992. Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys were rumored to be interested in Rice and had the 17th pick (likely the reason the Niners traded up). It's obvious that if the Jets or Bengals drafted Rice earlier in the draft, they're teams would have been altered (each had franchise QB's at the time). If the Cowboys drafted him, Tom Landry would have coached past 1988 and if Jerry Jones still buys the team, he would work with Landry since the 3-13 season in 1988 season doesn't happen and perhaps the 1990's dynasty doesn't happen. If the Patriots hold the pick at 16 and take Rice, they have him and Irving Fryar teamed up and Tony Eason's life would be easier and they have a puncher's chance to beat the Bears in Super Bowl XX, instead of getting throughly whooped.
As for the 49ers, they're dynasty comes to an end in the next three or so years because Jerry Rice was the player that transformed this team and allowed them to go from Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon to Rice and John Taylor. Solomon played his last year in 1985, while Clark retired in 1987. Without Rice, maybe the Niners last until the end of Montana's career, but I can't see Steve Young continue it without his favorite weapon. Looking back, the possibilities of Rice not ending up in San Fran arguably effect six different Super Bowl champs and more that aren't directly related to the Niners, Cowboys, Pats and Bengals. That's what makes this the greatest "what if" of the past 25 years of the NFL.