Tom Brady and Sean Payton both "retired" this offseason, but not before entertaining a team-up on the Dolphins, who were punished by the NFL this week for tampering with the quarterback and head coach while they were employed by the Buccaneers and Saints, respectively. Brady has since returned to Tampa Bay for at least one more season in pewter, while Payton is already teasing a return to the sidelines in 2023. But what if Miami had actually, successfully recruited the two superstars?
The ripple effects, it's safe to say, would have been monumental. Here's our best guess at how things would've unfolded if the Dolphins executed their plans by the rulebook:
Dolphins acquire Sean Payton for package including Tua Tagovailoa
Assuming Payton and Brady were always going to be a package deal, this would've cleared the quarterback room in Miami, while giving the Saints a longer-term option under center, not to mention a QB in Tagovailoa whose size and low-risk tendencies are at least distantly reminiscent of Drew Brees. Call it Tua and a 2022 second-round draft pick for Payton, who was either gonna retire or coach elsewhere and had earned the respect of ownership to finish his career on his own terms.
Saints hire Dennis Allen as head coach
No change here. With Payton gone, Allen still stands out internally as a natural, if uninspiring, successor/placeholder.
Dolphins acquire Tom Brady for package of picks
With Bruce Arians livid at Brady's decision to restart elsewhere, the QB ostensibly leans on Bucs ownership, and general manager Jason Licht, to facilitate the relocation, using his 2020 title run as proof he's already given Tampa Bay his all. Let's say Miami surrenders four draft picks for Brady: a 2022 first (No. 29 overall), 2023 first, 2023 second, and 2022 third. A hefty price, perhaps, for a 45-year-old QB with maybe a few years in the tank, but the Bucs can't justify -- to themselves, or their fans -- dealing the greatest signal-caller of all time for chump change.
Dolphins build around Brady in free agency
With picks dispensed and plenty of cash to spend, Miami rebuilds its lineup for TB12, Rams-style, with an eye on instant success. Among the big-ticket additions: left tackle Terron Armstead, who ended up in Miami in real life but now has the Sean Payton connection coming from New Orleans; wide receiver Allen Robinson, who flocks back to Florida for a chance to catch passes from an elite QB; tight end Rob Gronkowski, who postpones retirement to follow Brady's southern tour; center Ryan Jensen, who forgoes an extension in Tampa Bay to bolster the Dolphins' line; and Julio Jones, a late addition as the No. 2/3.
Bruce Arians remains Buccaneers' head coach
Infuriated by Brady's bolt, Arians postpones his own resignation/retirement to prove the Bucs can remain competitive in the NFC South, which is still wide open. He convinces Todd Bowles to stay on as defensive coordinator with the idea of taking over in 2023, when Tampa Bay will have the ammunition from the Brady trade to fully rebuild.
Buccaneers acquire Jimmy Garoppolo from 49ers
After insisting throughout most of the spring and summer that Blaine Gabbert will replace Brady under center, Arians and Licht negotiate a deal with San Francisco to let Jimmy G fulfill his destiny as Brady's successor. Garoppolo arrives in exchange for a conditional mid-round pick with the chance to reset his own market for 2023.
Jets acquire Tyreek Hill from the Chiefs
With the Dolphins out of the running due to spending big for Brady and Payton, Hill turns to the Big Apple for big bucks after failing to negotiate a long-term deal with Kansas City. The Jets then enter 2022 with Hill as QB Zach Wilson's top new toy, and Hill inevitably spends much of the offseason comparing Wilson's arm talent to that of Patrick Mahomes.
Broncos hire Mike McDaniel as head coach
Through back channels, Denver learns that McDaniel was high on the Dolphins' radar, but now, with Payton in Miami, they play their search patiently and wait for the 49ers assistant to finish his playoff run before pursuing him as the offensive wizard to turn their program around. McDaniel, a Colorado native, leaves Kyle Shanahan for the team that began his coaching career, back when Mike Shanahan was overseeing the franchise.
Saints sign Teddy Bridgewater
After adding Tua in the Sean Payton deal, New Orleans re-signs Bridgewater as a backup/mentor for the young QB. Teddy, meanwhile, embraces the chance to return to a city and staff that enjoyed his emergency appearances a few years back.
Vikings sign Jameis Winston
No longer an option in New Orleans, Winston fails to pin down a guaranteed starting job in other places, like Chicago and Pittsburgh, and opts for a one-year flyer deal with Minnesota, now run by analytically minded GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who knows he might have to rebuild QB down the road and is willing to gamble on Winston's upside in a backup role.