Starting on February 14, 2014, Sam Quinn and The Sports Post have decided to run down the 52 Greatest What Ifs in NFL History, one per week, for the next year. For a list of published What Ifs, as well as the introductory piece, click here.
I don't think Carolina is really complaining about Cam Newton, but in 2011 the Panthers desperately wanted Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck to enter the draft and be their savior. He stayed in school, ended up in Indianapolis a year later, and the rest is history.
But what if Luck had decided to enter the 2011 draft from the start?
Luck informs college coach Jim Harbaugh of his intentions immediately after the Orange Bowl, and the pair declare to the Panthers that they are a package deal. Not that Carolina is complaining, they'd certainly rather have Harbaugh—the hottest coaching commodity on the market—than Ron Rivera.
Luck's entrance in the draft changes the entire board. With him available, teams don't have to talk themselves into the other quarterbacks on the board as much as they did in reality.
That sends Cam Newton all the way down to Tennessee at No. 8, which allows Minnesota to grab Jake Locker at No. 12 and the Bengals to take Christian Ponder in the second at No. 35. Dalton ends up going one pick later the San Francisco at No. 36 and their new coach Ron Rivera, and finally Colin Kaepernick tumbles all the way down to No. 75, when he is mercifully taken by Seattle.
In other words, we haven't played a single game and six teams have new quarterbacks.
Things get even more interesting from there. With Ponder in Cincinnati instead of Minnesota, the Bengals flounder so badly that they can't afford to trade Carson Palmer to Oakland out of hope that he'll come back and play for them. More importantly, Cincinnati's struggles make them bad enough to be beaten by Indianapolis in Week 6, dropping the Colts down to the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft, but more on that later.
Harbaugh and Luck make it to the playoffs in their first season, but lose to Eli Manning's New York Giants as they begin their Super Bowl run. Newton has a strong rookie year in Tennessee, but neither he nor Luck win the Rookie of the Year award. That honor is bestowed onto Seattle's Colin Kaepernick, who leads the Seahawks to the NFC West title and a No. 3 seed in the playoffs. They lose to New Orleans in the divisional round, but appear to have locked down the future of the franchise with Kaepernick.
In the offseason, the Colts face a major dilemma. They have the No. 2 pick in the draft, but St. Louis wants a king's ransom to move up to No. 1. Robert Griffin III is the only quarterback worth taking, so if they stay put they won't be able to draft one. Knowing how little depth they possess, the Colts decide to keep Peyton Manning and use the draft to build around him for a few more shots at championships.
The Redskins move up to No. 1 and grab Griffin, the Colts take USC's Matt Kalil second, and the rest of the draft works itself out from there.
Manning becomes the team's de-facto player-coach after Chuck Pagano is diagnosed with leukemia, the Colts go 13–3 in the regular season and Manning wins his fifth MVP award. They lose to Ray Lewis's BaltimoreRavens in the second round of the playoffs, but Indy at least appears to have a few more years of contention left.
The Ravens go on to beat Kaepernick's Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Harbaugh and Luck lead a very promising new era in Carolina, while Russell Wilson looms in Philadelphia as the next big thing.