One of the all-time great "what ifs" in NFL draft lore has to be the missed opportunity of pairing Peyton Manning and Bill Parcells.
When Manning was a junior at Tennessee, he faced a tough call: stay in school or declare for the 1997 draft. That sounds odd in the era of underclassmen quarterbacks, but it wasn't an absurd debate at the time.
Still, many thought Manning would declare. Instead, he stayed. Volunteer Nation rejoiced. The New York Jets and Parcells, one would assume, were nonplussed.
The Jets were coming off a 1-15 season, led by Rich Kotite. He was fired, and Parcells was brought in as the head coach and general manager.
Neil O'Donnell was a well-paid quarterback, but Parcells moved on from him after 14 starts. So was it a given that Parcells and the Jets would have picked Manning first overall had he come out early?
It's been debated for years, and Parcells has always been a bit ... cagey on the matter. Naturally, it was stirred up Monday night when Parcells joined Peyton and Eli Manning on ESPN's Manningcast for the New York Giants-Tampa Bay Buccaneers game.
And Eli — ever the instigator — wasted no time bringing up the subject, asking Parcells what he would have done.
"We definitely would've drafted him," Parcells said.
Eli then followed up by asking how Parcells would have handled the 28 interceptions Manning would throw the following season as a Week 1 rookie starter for the Indianapolis Colts. Parcells joked that he probably. would have benched Peyton after "about 15" INTs.
Everyone shared an awkward laugh. The broadcast clearly suffered from a few technical difficulties.
But was Parcells telling the truth? That's debatable.
Now it's easy to say that the Hall of Fame coach would have drafted the HOF quarterback. They've since become quite close confidants, too. Manning called Parcells during his neck surgery rehab as he was debating his football future near the close of his Colts chapter. There's clearly an eye-to-eye respect there, so it could have worked with the Jets, knowing what we know now.
Back then, however, it's clear that the Mannings did not know Parcells' true intentions. He kept them close to the vest when Archie Manning called Parcells on Peyton's behalf twice before Peyton made his final draft decision. Former New York Daily News columnist Gary Myers has written on the subject often.
The message from the Mannings was clear: Give us your word you'll take Manning first overall, and he'll come out.
Technically, their overtures were unrequited. Parcells never made that iron-clad guarantee. Perhaps it was his fears of the NFL hearing about those calls; the league tended to discourage that kind of collusion with underclassmen.
Or maybe Parcells wasn't as sold on Manning as others were. Certainly, the Mannings' fear that Parcells wanted to trade down and accumulate more draft picks wasn't unfounded because that's what ended up happening. The Jets shipped the first pick to the Rams, then traded down again in Round 1.
Maybe if Manning stayed in, Parcells stays put. But Olivia, Peyton's mother, told The New York Times that she never got any overtures from the Jets and never felt like they knew their intentions.
Before Monday night, there haven't been a lot of firm confirmations from Parcells on the matter. The closest we've gotten might have been his comments to ESPN.com years ago: "I’m certain [Peyton] would’ve been very, very strongly in the mix.”
The Jets never found their franchise quarterback under Parcells, but they did have success, reaching the AFC title game. Manning's career with the Colts will go down as one of the all-time best. And they did face each other twice on the field, once in Manning's rookie season and once in Parcells' final coaching season, with the Dallas Cowboys.
Manning got him the first time. Parcells got Peyton on the rematch.
So maybe it was never meant to be. And besides, Archie has always maintained that Peyton wanted one more year in school. Parcells said similar things. Many others, including his college coach and mentor, David Cutcliffe, have backed up that, too.
What we missed out on though? The Tom Brady-Manning division rivalry. Imagine that: Parcells vs. Bill Belichick. Manning vs. Brady. At least twice a season. It's a moot point, and Parcells stayed with the Jets as coach for only two seasons, citing health concerns.
But maybe Manning being in town could have had some effect on that. Parcells seemed to suggest Monday that it could have happened.