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How an obscure game in 2007 changed Jets history

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NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

December 30, 2007; 7:34 p.m. Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ

Jets kicker Mike Nugent connects on a 43 yard field goal with 9:52 remaining in overtime. The field goal ends a forgettable Jets season on a winning note. The Jets defeat the Kansas City Chiefs and former head coach Herman Edwards 13-10.

Before the season, it seemed like the Week 17 game could be a meaningful and exciting way to finish the regular season. The Jets and the Chiefs had both been Playoff teams from the year before. At the start of the year, the game was scheduled for NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Both teams had tremendously disappointing seasons, however. It was an easy decision for the league to flex the game out of primetime.

Instead, fans saw a sloppy game in cold and rainy conditions between two bad teams. Fittingly, Nugent’s 43 yarder was his second attempt. On the previous play, his first game-winning field goal was called back because of a holding penalty on the Jets.

The Jets’ victory finished both teams’ seasons with 4-12 records.

It didn’t seem like it at the time, but the outcome of this game might have had dramatic repercussions for the Jets and a number of other teams in the NFL.

This is “What If?” week on SB Nation, where our team sites look at a number of “What If?” scenarios from recent NFL history.

In the decade between that game against the Chiefs and the drafting of Sam Darnold, the Jets have been looking for a franchise quarterback and fielded many bad teams. The concept of tanking has been hotly debated within the fanbase. Is it better for the team to lose meaningless late season games to improve its draft position and its chances at landing a top quarterback?

With that in mind, it is amazing this 2007 game has received so little attention from the fanbase. With that Week 17 win, the Jets ended their season with a 4-12 record and the sixth overall pick.

Had they lost the game, they would have gone 3-13 and owned a top three selection in the 2008 NFL Draft, picking ahead of the 4-12 Atlanta Falcons.

Why is this meaningful? The Falcons drafted Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan third overall.

The Jets entered that 2008 Draft in no man’s land at the position. Former franchise quarterback Chad Pennington had been benched during that dismal 2007 season, his arm strength severely diminished after multiple serious injuries. 2006 second round pick Kellen Clemens had done little to distinguish himself replacing Pennington, completing only 52% of his passes and throwing 5 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.

We will never know for sure whether the Jets would have drafted Ryan, but it was a plausible scenario at the time. For his part, then Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum recalled Ryan as the best player he ever scouted but didn’t have a chance to Draft in a Reddit thread five years later and said the Jets would have strongly considered Ryan had he been on the board when they picked.

Just consider what that would have meant in Jets history.

Brett Favre never would have been a Jet.

In the aftermath of that disappointing 2007 season, the Jets went on a spending spree in free agency, bringing in Alan Faneca, Damien Woody, Calvin Pace, and Tony Richardson. They also traded for Kris Jenkins.

The team still had a hole at quarterback, however. In August, the team completed a stunning trade for Packers quarterback Brett Favre. Favre had retired months earlier and then reversed his decision. Green Bay had decided to move forward with 2005 first round pick Aaron Rodgers, however, meaning Favre had to be traded.

The Jets were the team that landed Favre for a conditional Draft pick. Needless to say, Favre’s one year tenure would not have happened had the Jets just used a high first round pick on a quarterback.

Eric Mangini would have coached the Jets at least through 2009.

Favre’s presence increased expectations, and the early returns were good. The Jets got off to an 8-3 start with back to back road wins against the Patriots and the then undefeated Titans. The team collapsed down the stretch, however, losing four of its final five to finish 9-7 to miss the Playoffs. Mangini paid with his job. With a rookie quarterback in place instead of Favre, expectations probably would have been much lower, and Mangini probably would have been able to survive a disappointing year.

In the years that have followed, a perception has emerged that Mangini was an innocent victim whose career Favre destroyed. It isn’t totally fair because people forget how much Mangini stunk. They forget about the bad coordinator hires, terrible gameplans and shaky in-game decisions. The fact the Jets couldn’t record a sack in a must win game against a Seahawks team with zero starting offensive linemen playing slips the mind. The Jets leaning on an banged up Favre down the stretch instead of committing to the run with the best offensive line in the league is forgotten. The theory also conveniently ignores how Mangini has done zero in the decade that has followed to show he is a quality NFL coach.

Still, it is tough to dispute he would have gotten at least 2009 with Ryan in the fold instead of Favre.

With a legitimate quarterback, though, who knows? Perhaps Mangini could have figured things out.

Rex Ryan (probably) never coaches the Jets.

With Mangini around, we probably never get the Rex Ryan Era. There were some very good moments. There were some very bad moments. It was an extremely consequential period in Jets history.

This would have been bad for 2009 and 2010 and probably better for the long-term as the early Rex years led the Jets on a path of cutting corners and looking for quick fixes that spelled long-term doom.

The only reason I have to qualify this with “probably” is there is always the possibility Mangini would have been fired after 2009, and the Jets become enamored with Rex then. Rex might not have gotten another head coaching job in 2009 without the Jets and still been available one year later.

With that said, the odds are against it.

Mark Sanchez never plays for the Jets.

Having Ryan in the mix instead of Sanchez is a pretty clear win. The additions of Faneca and Woody to a line that already had D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, and Brandon Moore gave the team an elite offensive line. The Jets were able to build the league’s best rushing attack with Sanchez providing little in the way of a passing threat.

Building this kind of fortress provides an ideal way to break in a rookie. Ryan would have taken full advantage.

The team’s early success in Sanchez’s year led the team to overcommit to the USC product and set the Jets on a bad course they still in many ways are trying to get out from.

Instead, the Jets would have had one of the top ten quarterbacks in the league for the last decade.

Mike Tannenbaum’s tenure might have been more successful.

For all of the mistakes Tannebaum made with signings, trades, and cap management, he probably could have recovered from them had there been more hope at the quarterback position. Sanchez’s failure to launch and the ill-advised extension the Jets gave him in 2012 left the team in ruins.

And it is worth repeating that the early success of the Rex years might have led Tannenbaum to take his eye off the ball and disregard thinking for the long-term. Maybe takes a different approach if he has a young Matt Ryan.

At the very least, it would have been much easier for the team to bounce back from Tannenbaum’s mistakes with Ryan in the fold.

Tim Tebow is never a Jet.

With a more stable quarterback situation, the Jets never would have had to turn to such a gimmick like Tebow and the Wildcat in 2012.

Darrelle Revis ends up underrated and underappreciated.

Revis was already a Pro Bowler and a shutdown corner under Mangini, but there is a perception that he only became a star level performer in 2009. The attention Rex Ryan’s defense brought him raised his profile. Without Rex, he might have toiled in obscure excellence for his career.

This pick would have big implications across the league both for teams and television as well.

Favre ends up somewhere else.

At the time the Jets traded for Favre, the other big rumor involved him going to Tampa Bay. Without the Jets’ involvement, my guess if the legend goes to Tampa Bay. That means he probably doesn’t end up in Minnesota in 2009. Remember, Favre only ended up on the Vikings because he retired, and the Jets drafted Sanchez.

Jon Gruden doesn’t end up announcing Monday Night Football.

The Bucs fired Gruden after narrowly missing the Playoffs in 2008. With Favre in the mix, let’s say they win that extra game they needed. Gruden keeps his job and doesn’t end up on TV in 2009. That means the Tony Kornheiser Era would have lasted longer. Say what you will about Gruden as an announcer. That one is a loss.

Falcons history changes dramatically.

The last decade of Atlanta Falcons football has been far and away the franchise’s most successful. That is due in no small part to the selection of Ryan. Without Ryan, this era takes on a completely different look.

At that point, Michael Vick was a year from getting out of prison from his dogfighting conviction. Do they wait and give Vick a second chance? Do they end up being so bad in 2008 that they end up with Sanchez? Or....

Ravens history might change dramtically.

...the Falcons might have simply drafted the second best quarterback from that class, Joe Flacco from Delaware.

The Ravens took Flacco in 2008, finally landing a franchise quarterback after years of squandering iconic defensive performances with the lack of a credible signal caller. The Ravens became a Playoff staple early in Flacco’s career and won a Super Bowl in 2012. That all could come off the board in this scenario. We might remember John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome differently.

Sanchez ends up somewhere else.

My two most likely places are Washington or Atlanta in the scenario where the Falcons wait for a year to take a quarterback.

In Washington, things don’t change that much. He is just another failed splashy acquisition by the Redskins. Without the team success he had in New York, the Redskins probably give up on him by 2012 and still make the Robert Griffin III trade.

In Atlanta, however, you probably trade a decade of success for failure.

There is one outcome, however, that stands above all others.

The Jets would be better off.

We can debate the merits of tanking. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

In this case, it is pretty obvious the Jets would have been better off losing to the Chiefs and getting Ryan. They lost out on a quarterback who is in the top eight among active passers in every major stat and has an MVP to his name.

How effectively would the Jets have built around him? We’ll never know. Changing something this important would have set off hundreds of other chain reactions across the league beyond those we discussed. Who knows how those would have impacted things?

One thing I think we can all agree on is that this last Jets decade would have been more prosperous if the team could have built around Matt Ryan.