America's favorite game and speculation go together like centers and quarterbacks.
Every dropped pass. Every missed field goal. Every interception or botched play or bad call is over-analyzed and recounted on talk radio and message boards, by analysts on ESPN to the curmudgeon in the Men's Warehouse suit on the 11 o'clock news.
In football, the what-ifs flow like Gatorade from a five-gallon cooler.
This is the power of the NFL. It's king among sports, a muscled-up, gritty, big-hitting package that compels your bros and your mother alike. So naturally, we have questions, arguments and theories.
Some of these you'll remember vividly in HD clarity. Others are sepia-toned throwbacks. What they all have in common is that they're the top when it comes to our retrospect-powered examinations into the past.
Football fans know this play, the type of throwback moment that gets replayed over and over again on those SportsCentury-type shows: Montana to Clark, 1981 NFC Championship game, scramble to off-balance-yet-accurate pass to tight end in corner of end zone at Candlestick Park.
Dynasties started and ended thanks to this red zone toss on third down. The accompanying photo graced Sports Illustrated's cover and became an indelible image of the NFL. Without it, the 49ers may never have jump-started their Montana-fueled run. Without it, the Cowboys could have avoided a period of dark years. League history would have been seismically altered if Montana overthrew or if Clark had bad hands.
Everyone in professional sports is superlatively talented, even the worst reserve player on the worst team. They were ultra-studs in high school, rolling off numbers that make everyone else look inferior. They were superstars in college, rinsing and repeating that same dominance in their NCAA-approved jerseys.
Then there's Bo Jackson's level of talent: Heisman winner. Two-time All-American. First overall pick in the 1986 NFL Draft. Pro Bowler. Plus, there was the fact he was good enough to reach The Show in baseball. If he had the time, maybe even surfing and golfing and race car driving.
More than two decades later, as everything becomes more specialized from the youth level up, it gets harder and harder to fathom someone like Jackson's existence. Perhaps that's because it was so ephemeral. All the promise in the universe couldn't prevent a debilitating hip injury from ending what could have been a Hall-of-Fame career in two sports.
Oh, David Tyree and helmet catches and Lawrence Tynes field goals. Without that combination, things would have been much, much different.
T-shirts like the one in pictured here would have deluged every Foot Locker in the Eastern Seaboard.The 1972 Dolphins' lame, desperately-trying-to-feel-important champagne parties would be no more. Nobody would remember Mercury Morris and his lawn.
The Patriots aura of unfettered, ESPN-hyped greatness could have continued in 2008 (see previous slide). But it may never have started without one of the most consternation-filled moments in NFL history. A decade later, this one is still debatable, and is still debated.
But here's the facts not up for dispute: This game was part of what helped launch the Patriots into the league's upper stratosphere. They won the Super Bowl two games later and became elite and respected and vaunted. This play was a seminal moment of Brady's and Belicheck's rise.
It may never would have happened if not for instant replay and an esoteric part—NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2, to be exact—of the League's officiating bible.
We hammer athletes now for their arrogance, slam their "decisions" and deride their touchdown celebrations with Sunday Night Football speeches guaranteed to ignite the blogosphere. But cockiness and athletics have always meshed.
Sometimes it takes a little swagger to motivate oneself. And that's exactly what the 20-something Namath did when he declared prior to Super Bowl III that: "We're gonna win the game. I guarantee it."
Pshaw, said many. Joe shut them all up and became the game's MVP with a decisive victory.
Quarterbacks are the stars of football, and Namath's bravado helped the position transcend being just a leader on the gridiron. Before Brady was with super models and Brett Favre was hawking Wranglers, there was "Broadway Joe" paving the way.
Who knows what his rep would have been if he didn't back up his talk?
Imagine you've been drafted, the first overall pick no less. You're going to the NFL as a quarterback. You're a star. A professional franchise has so much faith in you, they're willing to roll out the red carpet ... in your early 20s.
If you're John Elway, it's not good enough. Courtship from the Baltimore Colts in 1983? Pshaw. The Standford alum showed his haughty side and parlayed his baseball skills when he straight up said "no" to the team who wanted him to be the face of a franchise.
He wanted out, and eventually was granted passage to Denver, where the rest is legend-minted history. But who knows what would have happened if he sucked it up and stayed. The possible impact could have had reverberations to this day.
First off, If you have four minutes, six seconds, watch this. It will help you re-appreciate just how mind-scrambling it was that Sanders walked away at the height of his career, within periscope depth of the NFL's all-time rushing record.
Man, Sanders good. So, so, good. Still, he'd apparently had enough. While you have to respect the man's decision, you can't help but wonder. Really, what is it about history's greatest running backs stepping away in their prime?
Green Bay is an aberration, an anomaly. Population: 104,000. Distance to nearest major city (Milwaukee): 114 miles. Yet, somehow, it's home to one of the most storied and popular professional sports franchises in history.
Logic dictates that sports teams be located in metropolitan areas. From where I'm writing this in San Francisco, I'm less than an hour away from six professional franchises. Similar story in New York, Chicago and Miami. Green Bay, Wis.?
But it has worked brilliantly. "Title Town," everyone calls it, a bastion of NFL history. But what if powers-that-be decided a small town with no skyscrapers didn't deserve a franchise? "Milwaukee Packers" doesn't have the same warm-and-fuzzy feeling to it. Rodgers and Favre aren't folk heroes, they're just QB1s. The completion of the league would be different.
It's arguably the most famous play in NFL History. You don't earn the nickname "immaculate" without being rather darn spectacular and polarizing. This play was both. It is still referenced and replayed ad nauseam. It will be forever.
This crazy, crazy play (it's better to just watch for yourself), helped launched the Steelers' reign of dominance. It helped make Terry Bradshaw a star. If it falls incomplete or is called differently, the league would be different. Who knows if the Steelers would have such a national fanbase? Who knows if Bradshaw would be on Fox every Sunday (Actually, that last one may be a good thing.)?
Here, read up if you're the history-buff type. But it doesn't take an football historian to recognize just how important the 1970 merger of these two leagues was. All you have to do is look around.
Look at your flat screen, see the television network devoted to the league, see the three massive networks on Sundays and another on Monday that are devoted to broadcasting games with billion-dollar contracts.
Look at your computer, check your fantasy football stats and recognize how much that game within the game has consumed you.
Look at your family, see the way they cheer. More than any other league, the NFL has found ways to appeal to those who would not normally be sports fans.
The NFL is king, and it wouldn't have nearly the same power if it were fractured between two leagues. What if this merger didn't happen? Simple, the NFL wouldn't be what it is today.