One of my favorite things to do is to play the ‘what-if’ game when looking at sports history. It is fascinating to me how even the slightest change could alter so much. Take the 2016 NFL draft. Peter King spent the draft weekend of 2016 in the Cowboys’ War room and then wrote about his experience afterwards. During the back half of the first round the Cowboys were in trade talks to move up in the draft in order to take Memphis QB Paxton Lynch. However, Jerry Jones balked at giving up a third round choice, 67th overall, and the Broncos made the move up the draft board for Lynch. Jones later said he regretted not making the trade.
Later in the draft as the fourth round commenced, the Browns held the top two choices of the frame, 99 and 100, with Dallas slotted behind them at 101. The Cowboys “marginally” preferred Connor Cook of Michigan State over Dak Prescott of Mississippi State. The Browns had taken Cody Kessler of USC in the third round, so the Cowboys tried to trade up one spot to the 100th pick in order to draft Cook. The Browns didn’t like what the Cowboys were offering and ended up trading the selection to the Oakland Raiders, who in turn took Connor Cook one selection ahead of Dallas.
Instead of securing Prescott with the next selection, Dallas went with Charles Tapper, a defensive end from Oklahoma, at pick 101. The Cowboys allowed Prescott to stay available for entire NFL to select for another 34 picks before finally drafting him with the 135th selection.
Dak Prescott was the third quarterback the Cowboys targeted to acquire during the 2016 draft. Forget asking if they would trade him straight up for either Lynch or Cook. Is there a quarterback in the entire NFL Dallas would swap Prescott for straight up?
The two failed attempts to get the quarterback they wanted changed the course of the Cowboys franchise for the foreseeable future, and impacted the futures of three other teams: Denver, Oakland and whoever would have ended up with Prescott.
So in today’s ‘what-if’ game, let’s talk about how the Dolphins altered the course of the football universe.
On December 21st, 2006, Nick Saban stood at a podium and told a lie so audacious that the American public is only used to hearing such deception from the sitting President. “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach,” can hold its own with “I am not a crook,” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” I imagine whomever did Saban’s makeup that day received a seven figure bonus for the miracle of concealing his nose growing tremendously while on camera.
Perhaps Saban knew he wasn’t cut out for the NFL. Maybe he just hated the job. Perhaps his immense confidence led him to just know that he would preside over a dynasty at the college level. Maybe he weighed his options and chose to live forever in the history of the college football hierarchy instead of being a footnote on the list of former Dolphins coaches. There is belief it was really Saban’s wife that made the final decision. Maybe Saban left because all of these theories are true. But what if the Dolphins had signed Drew Brees?
Nick Saban and the Dolphins decided to trade for Daunte Culpepper instead of signing Drew Brees in March of 2006. For the record, Nick Saban, in 2012, publicly stated for the first time that the Dolphins wanted Brees and that Brees did not pass the team’s physical. However, Brees passed the Saints physical, and someone in the Dolphins’ organization decided to move in a different direction. The ESPN article referenced suggests the Dolphins also did not want to pay the money Brees was requesting. For the purposes of this article the important take-away is this: The Dolphins aborted their pursuit of Drew Brees, (for one reason or another) and traded for Daunte Culpepper.
Before exploring what could have been in the Saban/Brees hypothetical, it is important to bear in mind that being stuck in the AFC East while Belichick and Brady overlord the division can easily get a coach fired, even if they put up a fight every season. Perhaps at some point the ownership would grow to believe the only viable way to the top of the mountain is to change the commander.
Now for the fun part:
In 2005 Nick Saban guided the Dolphins to a 9-7 record with Gus Frerote at quarterback. The 2006 season saw Culpepper land on IR after four games, while Joey Harrington and Cleo Lemon quarterbacked the remaining games. The 2006 Dolphins went 6-10, which helped total a 15-17 career record as Dolphins coach for Nick Saban. Considering the circumstances of 2006, I don’t think 6-10 is really that bad. My point is, I think it is more probable than not that Nick Saban, especially with Drew Brees, would have been a successful head coach in the NFL. (Although apparently he is a wound-too-tight dictator that would never have jived with NFL players, which could be another explanation for why he went back to college.)
Now imagine an AFC East that would give us Saban/Brees vs. Belichick/Brady twice a year, every year. Both Brady and Brees made it on the top ten list when ESPN did a QB GOAT Index project in the summer of 2017. Belichick and Saban are friends, and Saban is a branch on the Belichick coaching tree.
Imagine an AFC East that had a perennial threat to the Patriots during their unprecedented run of success. No, I don’t think that the 10 division titles the Patriots have won since 2006 (the first year Brees would have been a Dolphin) would be cut in half or anything like that. But, what about in some of the Patriots weaker seasons where they won the division in part due to the fact there was no real threat to steal it from them?
The Dolphins did win the division in 2008 when Brady missed fifteen and a half games due to a torn ACL. But in 2009, the Patriots won the division at 10-6, holding off the Mark Sanchez rookie year Jets, who snuck in at 9-7 because the Colts benched their starters instead of chasing 16-0.
In 2013 the Patriots were second in the NFL to only the Ravens for most players on IR. They also missed a plethora of starts from their starters. They posted “only” the 8th best +/- that season, and were the only team in the AFC East that didn’t have a negative figure.
Could the Saban/Brees Dolphins have stolen the division titles in these seasons? I think it’s at least within the realm of possibility.
Speaking of that 2008 season, the Chad Pennington Dolphins were smoked at home, 27-9, by the rookie season Joe Flacco Ravens in the Wild Card round. This may be assuming a lot, but I am going to say Drew Brees would have won that home playoff game against a rookie quarterback. That same Ravens team went on the next week to beat the Kerry Collins Titans, 13-7, in Tennessee. This is once again assuming a lot, but I think Drew Brees would have had at least the same odds as rookie year Flacco of winning that game and advancing to the AFC Championship.
The Ravens season ended in the AFC Championship game that year where they fell to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. However, Ravens fans had something very powerful after the 2008 season: hope and optimism. Their brand new QB/coach duo just won two road playoff games before falling to the mighty Steelers. The Saban/Brees duo would not have been as new, but it could have been the Dolphins fan base leaving that AFC title game with hope and optimism, win or lose.
Maybe because of the Patriots, Drew Brees never ends up winning a Super Bowl. Or maybe, in that 2009 season, the Dolphins grab 11 or 12 victories and the division, and instead of beating Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl after beating Favre and the Vikings in the NFC Championship, Brees beats Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship before beating Brett Favre in the Super Bowl.
Clearly this is tons of fun speculating what could have been had Drew Brees signed with the Dolphins in 2006. But we are looking at a revised history of football, and the largest alteration of football history would come at the college level since Nick Saban wouldn’t have been around to take everyone’s lunch money the past eleven years. As of this writing, Alabama is currently 11-0 and ranked #1 in the College Football Playoffs. From the time Nick Saban took over at Alabama to the time I wrote this article, his Alabama head-coaching resume includes:
- 130-19 record (.872 winning percentage)4 National Championships5 National Championship Game Appearances5 SEC Titles6 SEC Title Game Appearances
- 8 Bowl Game Victories12 Bowl Game Appearances2 Heisman Trophy WinnersAppearance in College Football Playoffs in Each Year of Existence
In addition, no school has had more players drafted since 2008, 65 in all, and 22 in the first round. In the 2017 draft Alabama set records with seven players selected within the initial 55 picks, and nine within the first 79 picks.
I cannot possible theorize what would have happened in college football every season since 2007 had Saban stayed in the NFL. What I can do, however, is assume there would not have been a singular dominant university on the level of what Saban has accomplished at Alabama.
It’s the butterfly effect. It isn’t only who would have won the national title all the years Alabama did, or won the SEC. But how do all those individual Alabama games play out differently? How many coaches don’t get fired because Nick Saban is a cheat code? How many elite athletes take their talents to other universities if there is no Nick Saban? Would Landon Collins’ mom have gotten her wish if Nick Saban never left the Dolphins? Who would Alabama have hired? Would that guy still be the Alabama coach? Is it possible Les Miles still has a job at LSU with two rings and a collection of SEC titles? Would Urban Meyer had won a second national title at Florida in 2009 had Saban not been there to foil him in the SEC title game?
The list goes on and on, these are just the question my simple mind can come up with while writing this article.
We will never know any of these answers, history played out differently. But we can look to the Dolphins as the catalyst for where the universe got tilted onto a different axis.