Drew Brees and Nick Saban have each enjoyed careers that will ensure their place at the forefront of the rich history of American sports.
However, it is fascinating to ponder how the landscape of the NFL and college football might have been different had they worked together.
They came close to doing so in 2006, when Saban was head coach of the Miami Dolphins and Brees a free agent after contract negotiations with the then-San Diego Chargers broke down.
Brees had torn his labrum in the final game of the 2005 season and with Miami’s doctors unsure whether his shoulder was fully healed from that injury, Saban and the Dolphins decided to trade for Daunte Culpepper instead.
It would prove to be one of the great missteps in Dolphins history, but what if Miami had instead decided to bet on the powers of recovery of a now 13-time Pro Bowler who has written his name all over the NFL record books?
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) March 14, 2020
The Saints go marching out
Brees instead signed a six-year deal with a Saints team coming off a 2005 season that saw them unable to play in the Superdome due to the damage it sustained during Hurricane Katrina.
It had been rumoured Saints owner Tom Benson was planning to void his lease agreement with the Superdome and declare it unusable, with San Antonio – where he had business interests – a potential destination.
The Superdome was repaired and renovated, however, and Brees led New Orleans to the playoffs in his first season with the team. The Saints uplifted the city as it recovered from Katrina and won their first Super Bowl title at the end of the 2009 season, with Brees named MVP of their win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Without Brees to turn them from perennial also-rans to Super Bowl contenders, Benson perhaps eventually decides to press ahead with plans for a move to Texas and New Orleans loses a team that became a beacon of hope for the city in the wake of its darkest hour.
Saban stays in the pros
At the time of the Dolphins’ pursuit of Brees, they were coming off an encouraging 9-7 season in Saban’s first year at the helm.
Miami won six successive games to end the campaign, finishing one game behind the New England Patriots in the AFC East.
They were unable to build on that promise, however, as the trade of a second-round pick for Culpepper proved an error. He played only four games and ended the season on injured reserve after knee surgery.
A 6-10 season was marked by continuous speculation connecting Saban to the vacant head coach position at the University of Alabama, before he accepted an offer from the Crimson Tide in January 2007.
Saban has since won five National Championships and six SEC titles at Alabama. Had he and Miami gone for Brees over Culpepper, the Dolphins may well have become consistent contenders in the AFC under Saban, with one of the most dominant dynasties in college football history never coming to pass.
Scenes from an instant classic
— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) January 12, 2018
Patriots lose superpower status
Saban’s last win as an NFL head coach was in the Dolphins’ 21-0 defeat of the New England Patriots in December 2006, handing former colleague Bill Belichick a shutout loss.
A defensive coordinator for Belichick’s Cleveland Browns in the 1990s, Saban is one of few Belichick disciples to have excelled as a head coach, even if his glories have come away from the NFL.
With the team building and coaching acumen Saban has displayed since his departure, it is reasonable to believe the Dolphins would have been well-positioned to regularly challenge the Patriots’ supremacy in the AFC East.
The New York Jets rose to prominence under Rex Ryan in 2009. Had Saban stuck around, the Patriots could have had two rivals capable of preventing their well-documented dominance of the division from stretching into a second decade.