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If Peyton Manning Was a Jet: 1997

Once again the Jets are considering taking a quarterback of the future in the NFL Draft. Over the past decade, this has been a recurring theme. It did not have to be, however. Twelve years ago the team owned the top pick in the Draft and appeared to be in prime position to land a potential franchise quarterback. Then Peyton Manning shockingly decided to return to Tennessee for his senior year. The following is a look at how history may have panned out had Manning not made that fateful decison. Today's focus will be 1997.

At the end of the 1996 season, the Jets were the laughingstock of pro football. After an active offseason of spending trying to put a dismal 3-13 1995 behind them, the team actually got worse, finishing an embarassing 1-15. Rich Kotite was out of a job after going 4-28 in these two seasons. However, the team instantly became credible when it was able to poach Patriots head coach Bill Parcells. Parcells had turned the Giants and Patriots from also rans into conference champions and had become disenchanted with the Patriots because of his lack of influence in personnel decisions. The Jets were charged with unethical behavior seeking a coach under contract with a division rival and had to surrender a boat load of Draft picks to New England for compensation. However, for a franchise in disarray, bold steps were needed.

Parcells knew he needed to change the culture of losing. Doing so required multiple steps. For starters, he signed veterans who had played for his winning teams such as Jumbo Elliott and Pepper Johnson. However, nothing signals a franchise turning the page like selecting a franchise quarterback in the first round of the NFL Draft. Just four years earlier, the Big Tuna turned around the similarly pathetic Patriots by taking Drew Bledsoe first overall. Fortunately for Parcells and the Jets, one was there for the taking, Peyton Manning, the prolific passer from Tennessee who had all of the tools and intangibles necessary to have a stellar career. Even though highly rated prospects Orlando Pace and James Farrior were on the board, there was no doubt the Jets were taking Peyton Manning first overall. Parcells decided Manning would turn the Jets around just as Drew Bledsoe had helped the Patriots do so while he was there. Many speculate the big linebacker, Farrior, would have been the pick had Manning not been there, but we will never know.

Although the team had veteran Neil O'Donnell still on the roster, Manning won the starting job for Week 1 in Seattle. Parcells never trusted O'Donnell. The season began with a 41-3 rout of the Seahawks. Playing much more disciplined football than the year before and leaning on Bill Belichick's defense, the Jets made a stunning 9 game improvement, finishing 10-6. For his part, Manning played stunningly well for a rookie, throwing for 26 touchdowns and over 3,700 yards. His finest effort came in a must-win at Detroit on Week 17, when he hit Keyshawn Johnson for a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter and led a drive with 2:00 left to set up a John Hall chip shot for the win as time expired. The Jets won even as Barry Sanders went over 2,000 rushing yards per the season. Parcells later admitted he toyed with the idea of a halfback pass on goal line during the game-tying touchdown, but he had too much faith in the rookie to take the ball out of his hands. Keyshawn capped a 90 catch, 1,300 yard, 12 touchdown season with the critical grab. While fellow 1996 first round receiver Marvin Harrison struggled in Indianapolis, Johnson was emerging into one of the league's most prolific receivers.

The season ended a week later in a grudge match in Foxborough. The AFC East Champion Patriots handled the Jets 17-10 as Manning threw a pair of interceptions. Pete Carroll was still riding Parcells' talent. However, the Jets had laid the foundation for a special run. Manning's struggles in Foxborough would not become a recurring problem. Of course, part of that has to do with how bad the Patriots became, but that is the subject for later.