The year is 2020. A worldwide pandemic halted the sports world, but after four months, some have slowly crept back. The Nationals opened the 2020 MLB season and their title defense against the New York Yankees on July 23. The Capitals and Wizards are starting their respective playoff pushes this week. The threat of another shutdown continues to linger, and the plug could be pulled on any of these sports at any time.
As society tries to re-enter normalcy, constant changes and restrictions remind us just how far from normalcy we are. We have gone one-third of a year under these conditions and there’s no clear end in sight. In a perfect world, this would all be behind us.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. So many things have gone wrong this year, it’s hard not to think “what if,” about a lot of things. All that fixation on the hypothetical led me to think about even crazier “what if” scenarios. And thus the most recent series for The Wildcard was born.
“In an alternate universe…” will take a look at a world in which each Washington team got a major player they missed out on. We started with the most recent (and most realistic) scenario with the Wizards, and will continue to move back in time (and even further out of the realm of possibility) as we look into how a single player would alter life as we know it.
Peyton Manning signs with the Burgundy & Gold in 2012
In 2012, after 14 seasons with the franchise that drafted him first overall in 1998, four-time MVP Peyton Manning was released from the Indianapolis Colts. He sat out the entire 2011 season recovering from an offseason neck surgery, and with no guarantee that he would return to form, the Colts didn’t want to pay the $28 million owed to him in 2012.
With the top pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Colts had their sights set on Stanford signal caller Andrew Luck, who according to some was the most “sure thing” quarterback prospect since Manning himself. Indy felt secure in its future, but Manning had decisions to make.
A dozen teams reached out for his services, and he wound up going to Denver, where he won his record-fifth league MVP award and went to two Super Bowls, winning the latter in his final pro season. However, there was a chance Manning would never end up in Denver.
According to a recent story by NBC Sports Washington, which cites an oral history of Manning’s 2012 free agency in The Athletic, Manning seriously considered coming to Washington. He was intrigued by Mike and Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system, and Washington was in desperate need of quarterback talent.
With Manning’s brother, Eli, leading the division rival New York Giants, it would have meant the Manning brothers played twice a year, but the day before Peyton met with the Shanahans, Washington sealed its quarterback fate. A handful of picks were sent to the St. Louis Rams to trade up from the sixth overall pick to No. 2, where the team planned to take Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III as the quarterback of the future, right after Luck would go to Indianapolis.
So what if the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins held off on the trade, kept their draft picks and instead signed Manning as a win-now quarterback? Would he achieve the same success that he did in Denver? Would the team had won its fourth Super Bowl? Let’s look into it:
Well, first let’s look at the ramifications of the RG3 trade that wasn’t. The Burgundy & Gold stay at the sixth pick, but perhaps more importantly, keep their 2013 and 2014 first-round picks. The Cleveland Browns were also in the running to trade into the second overall pick, so in this situation they do so. In real life, St. Louis traded the sixth pick to Dallas, so we’ll just assume Dallas trades with St. Louis in this scenario and now sit at third overall.
The Colts take Luck, the Browns take Griffin III, the Cowboys get their man in Morris Claiborne, the defensive back out of LSU who turned in an underwhelming career. Matt Khalil goes to Minnesota at four, Justin Blackmon goes to Jacksonville at five, which means star Alabama running back Trent Richardson falls right into Washington’s lap at six.
The thought of pairing Manning with a do-it-all young running back is making fans salivate over the new-look backfield. However, maybe the Cowboys would have taken Richardson in that scenario, and the Burgundy & Gold would have been left to take Claiborne. I’m not gonna fixate on that; neither really panned out, so it’s not all that important, but to keep Alfred Morris in the equation, we’ll have Claiborne going sixth to Washington.
Manning brings the first strong quarterback play to Washington in a long time. With Pierre Garçon, a target of Manning’s in Indianapolis, joining him in Washington, they reestablish their connection. Morris emerges as the top running back and goes for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns, second only to league MVP Adrian Peterson’s 2,097 yards.
Santana Moss has a career-year at age 33 with Manning throwing him passes, and Washington wins the division for the first time since 1999, going 11-5. They keep the fourth seed in the NFC playoff picture, but Manning does NOT tear his ACL against the fifth-seed Seattle Seahawks, and so he leads Washington to the divisional round.
The team falls in the next round against the No. 1 Atlanta Falcons, but there is optimism surrounding the future of the team with a revitalized Manning at the helm.
The team originally finished with the 22nd pick, which belonged to St. Louis and was traded to Atlanta, but after making it further, they wind up with the 25th overall pick in the Manning universe, and actually get to keep it.
With the 25th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Washington selects Xavier Rhodes, the perfect player to make up for Claiborne. This offseason would be crucial in stacking the team with win-now talent to help Manning back to the Super Bowl. However, with the cap penalty the team faced from 2010, Washington was docked $18 million in 2012 and 2013, shrinking the pool of available free agent talent.
They don’t add enough to markedly improve, and while the offensive core of Manning, Morris and Garçon remains intact (plus the addition of third-round pick Jordan Reed, who I still have going to Washington, which would have picked 87th overall in this scenario instead of 85th). If Manning can make Julius Thomas play like a Pro Bowler, he can make Reed look like an All-Pro… whenever he’s actually on the field.
Either way, in his second year in Shanahan’s system with a strong offensive supporting cast, Manning still wins MVP in 2013, passing for over 5,200 yards, 45 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Garçon leads the league in receptions and yards, and Reed has a breakout rookie campaign. The offense remains top five in the league, but the defense is the downfall.
Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan shined at the outside linebacker positions, but the defensive line and secondary left something to be desired. The team made the playoffs, going 11-5 again instead of 3-13, but it’s still not enough to get to the Super Bowl, and the team falls in the divisional round again.
With their 2014 first-rounder, the team trades back to 28th to take Kelvin Benjamin as a high-upside target to replace the aging Moss in the receiving core. With a full salary cap, Manning is willing to run it back in Washington but is getting impatient. He knows the team is close to contending, but the clock is ticking on his career.
In free agency, the team makes a splash on a starter or two on defense, maybe safety TJ Ward to join Claiborne and Rhodes in the secondary, or defensive tackle Linval Joseph to bolster the defensive line. Either way, Manning makes Washington an attractive option in free agency, and the team improves.
Shanahan is still head coach, while the younger Shanahan left to take a head coaching job elsewhere, meaning the little-known tight ends coach Sean McVay is elevated to offensive coordinator. With a better defensive core and the offense remaining as strong as ever, Washington is finally ready to contend.
The team goes 13-3, winning the division for the third year in a row and earning the top seed in the NFC playoff picture. They make it to the NFC Championship, where they face the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks defense overwhelms Washington immediately; the center snaps the ball way over Manning’s head on the first play, resulting in a safety, and there was no looking back. Washington gets stomped 43-8. (Since Manning never played the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, I figured that had to manifest itself in some way).
Even worse, Manning discovers a concerning spot on his scalp after the game. Team doctors assure him it’s benign, much to Manning’s relief. Disheartened about the tough loss, but confident in the team’s ability to get to the mountaintop, Manning locks in for 2015. Until it all comes crashing down.
2015 Season and beyond
After getting the spot on his head looked at by a personal doctor, Manning found out it was actually not benign and required immediate removal. The procedure went perfectly and did not affect his status for the 2015 season, but had he waited longer it could have been much worse.
Already bothered at the organization for the misdiagnosis, team president Bruce Allen and owner Dan Snyder stepped in to do what they do best: make things worse.
Manning originally signed a five-year/$96 million deal to join the Burgundy & Gold back in 2012 (I’m just replicating what he actually signed for in Denver), and despite the team’s salary cap issues being behind them, Allen believes if Manning were to restructure his deal, the team could get that one missing piece to win the Super Bowl, especially after that medical scare.
Manning does not take that request well.
Insulted by Allen and Snyder pinning the blame of not winning the Super Bowl on him having too large a contract, despite the fact that he made Washington a championship contender to begin with, Manning realizes he no longer wants to play for this organization. The medical staff failed him, and the front office is ungrateful for what he turned the team into, so he demands a trade, knowing he won’t be able to fully succeed under the inept leadership of the organization.
John Elway and the Denver Broncos swoop in to finally get the quarterback they always desired, while Washington scrambles and is forced to start three-year backup Kirk Cousins, the kid from Michigan State they selected in the fourth round of 2012 as insurance for Manning.
Denver, who already had a terrific defense in place and was one good quarterback away from contending, goes on to win Super Bowl 50 with an ultra-motivated Manning leading the way. His play starts to decline, but he sticks around for another year or two, the fiasco in Washington ultimately adding life to his career out of pure spite.
Washington, meanwhile, gets a solid year out of Cousins, but finish second in the division and miss the playoffs. With Manning gone, most of the big-name players who signed because of him depart once their contracts are up, and Washington slowly sinks back down to the basement over the next few years.
They trade for Alex Smith prior to the 2018 season, but we all know how that played out, and Dwayne Haskins was drafted in 2019. Manning, meanwhile, wrote a book upon retirement chronicling his tumultuous exit in Washington and how it gave him the internal strength to go out and win his second Super Bowl in Denver. He constantly makes jokes about his time there, whether it’s while hosting the ESPYs or on his show Peyton’s Places.
This is the best-case scenario. Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and while I’m positive the team would get close to hoisting the Lombardi with him at the helm, especially in his 2013 form, there is no way the organization wouldn’t mess it up at some point. Manning would give fans genuine excitement for a few good years, but it wouldn’t last long.
He made the right move going to Denver. He landed in a great situation, and ended his career on a high note. We’ll never know for sure how things would have actually turned out had he gone to Washington, and that’s probably for the best.