Ozzie Newsome joined the Baltimore Ravens' front office in 1996, the team's inaugural season, two years before the Colts drafted Peyton Manning and four seasons ahead of Tom Brady's arrival in New England. Newsome helped guide the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory after the 2000 season, then Brady took the Patriots to three titles in four years. As the general manager of the presiding Super Bowl champions, Newsome has only two more weeks to savor last year's win over the 49ers before another team -- quite possibly led by Manning or Brady -- ends the Ravens' reign.
Late last week, after a series of grinding personnel meetings, Newsome pondered this deliciously hypothetical question: How would NFL history have been different if Manning had gone to the Patriots and Brady had worn a Colts jersey before a rebirth in Denver?
"Oh, man," said Newsome, laughing in his Maryland office. "Let me think about that."
He paused, then started running through the scenarios: Manning paired with Bill Belichick's defense; Brady teamed with executive Bill Polian and coach Tony Dungy. Manning to Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski; Brady to Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Wes Welker, of course, accepting passes from both, just in a different order.
"Having watched both of them over the years, it's tough," Newsome continued. "There are so many variables. I'm going to say ..."
Hold that thought, Ozzie.
We took this intriguing premise to more than a dozen NFL aficionados, including a two-time Super Bowl coach, a Heisman Trophy winner, a pair of Hall of Famers plus former teammates and league officials and analysts. They spoke on and off the record, not wishing to offend either quarterback with purely theoretical conjecture. Most of them were unabashed Manning or Brady guys, and it's a slippery slope: If you praise one, you might inadvertently bury the other.
We're the first to admit it's a far-fetched concept, latching onto this week's big headline with an eye toward generating page views. We wrote thousands of words when they met in Week 12. What possibly could be left to say?
This is what we came up with. Cheesy, you say? Fair enough. It's a free country. Stop reading.
Let's mull these mind-melting possibilities:
If Manning had spent his career with the Patriots, would Bill Belichick be considered the towering genius he is today? Or might he have five Super Bowl rings as a head coach? Some among our experts insist the answers are no -- and yes.
If Polian and the Colts had gotten Brady with the 199th pick of the 2000 draft, would Brady be destined to finish as the most prolific quarterback of all time, somewhere well past Brett Favre? Yes, a number of our experts believe.
Most important, what would the bottom-line championship count be? Would Manning have locked down those three Super Bowls for New England? Would he have achieved a different result against younger brother Eli in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI? Would Brady's tenure in Indianapolis have produced more than one title? There is a sharp division in this category.
NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, who has three Super Bowl rings from his 23 years working in Washington's front office, thinks that Manning -- who has a famously spotty 10-11 playoff record -- has sometimes been a victim of his own spectacular ability.
"Peyton's unique," Casserly said. "He's usually flawless at executing, OK? But the Achilles' heel he faces comes in playoffs. My feeling is that too many times it comes down to Peyton to make the right read and the receiver to make the right cut. It's tough when you're in the playoffs and you are slicing it that fine.
"There's been too much on Peyton's plate, too much responsibility. Brady never had that kind of pressure in New England. He always had a defense and a running game to support him."
In other words, Manning would have done just fine in New England.
Polian, who ran the Colts from 1997-2011 and is now an ESPN analyst, made the ultimate decision to draft Manning.
"Teams win football games, not individuals," Polian said. "The Brady teams that won the Super Bowl were the preeminent teams of the era. Hard as it is for me to admit it, they were just better than we were.
"The Patriots are decimated on defense, but week in and week out they have the best game-specific plan of attack. Under Belichick, they are the best-prepared team in the league. That might have more to do with the final outcome than who the quarterbacks are."
How would it have gone if Peyton was a Bay Area kid, weaned on Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers? If he'd scuffled and strained at every level to develop a football IQ? Been drafted after such legendary players as Hofstra's Giovanni Carmazzi and Southwest Texas State's Spergon Wynn? Would he have developed the fierce fury to prove everyone in the NFL wrong?
Cornerback Ty Law was a Brady teammate for five years and finished his career with nine interceptions of Manning, the most by any player.
"In the beginning, we weren't expecting Tom to play well," Law explained. "The defense just told him, 'We got this. Just don't turn the damn ball over.' I think if Tom's on the other side, we would have shown him what defense was.
"Peyton would have more support on our team, and that would have leveled the playing field. We had so many leaders, particularly on defense. Tom didn't have that pressure to lead. On our team, Peyton would have relaxed a little bit more.
"What drove Tom was being the forgotten guy, and that's why he approaches the game the way he does. When we need one play and you ask me, 'Who do you want to have the ball?' for me, Tom has the edge."
Through the miracle of cinematic license, imagine that the Patriots hooked up with Manning in 1998 and the Colts took Brady two years later.
"Well, I do know they would be facing each other in this championship game," said Herm Edwards, an ESPN analyst and former Jets and Chiefs head coach. "Both of these guys have the ability to elevate their teams, get them to the playoffs time after time.
"It's who you got around you. I say Peyton wins those three Super Bowls in New England."
Some of our experts, at the very least, agree.
Manning has always been a passer first. As a rookie, he threw for 3,739 yards and set a rookie record (since tied by Russell Wilson) with 26 touchdowns. It is worth noting that for the seasons the Patriots won their second and third Super Bowls, 2003 and 2004, Manning was the league MVP. This year, Manning reclaimed the touchdown record with 55 and likely will wind up with all the important career passing marks; Brady, by a wide margin, should finish with the best winning percentage ever by a quarterback.
In the comfort of the Belichick cocoon, Brady won each of his first 10 playoff games, but he is 8-7 since. Manning started 3-6 and has gone 7-5 since. If Manning had been a Patriot, would early success have created a different postseason mindset? Would he have thrown those four interceptions if he had been playing against the Colts instead of for them in the 2003 AFC title game? With that database of confidence, could Manning have found a way to beat the New York Giants in one or both of those Super Bowl losses?
Then he laughed. Flutie played professional football for 21 years and finished his career with the 2005 Patriots.
"Bill always had a knack for getting there," Flutie said of Belichick. "Maybe he would have gotten there with Peyton. Maybe."
Off the record, anyway, most of our experts chose sides.
"Peyton the Patriot gets five Super Bowls rings," said one particularly emphatic participant. "Four at the worst, six at best. Brady maybe doesn't get any without Belichick."
"Wrong," said another. "Brady doesn't throw four picks in the 2003 championship game. The Colts win with him in there. Give them both two rings. Hey, maybe Brady gets three if he beats the Saints in the Super Bowl."
One panel member wondered, "What's the count right now, Brady three, Manning one? I'd say it would be exactly the opposite."
"If they'd switched," said Dick Vermeil, who coached the Eagles and Rams to the Super Bowl, "you might have seen a couple of 19-0 seasons."
He wouldn't say if he was referring to a Manning-led Patriots team or the Colts with Brady.
Newsome, who opened this piece and had a Hall of Fame player career in Cleveland, thinks it would be a wash.
"Nothing would change," he said. "They are who they are."
The last word goes to Polian, the architect of those great Colts teams.
"When you think about it," Polian said, "it's almost as though the two quarterbacks cancel each other out. They [the Patriots] were ascendant when they won their three. We [the Colts] were ascendant when we won our one. Not sure there would be any difference at all."