The idea for this week's "What If" came to me this past week while I was watching the Big 12 tournament. There's literally no connection between the two, that just happened to be when I thought to myself, "I wonder what it would have been like if Don Shula had remained in Baltimore."
And so an idea was born.
What if Don Shula hadn't left for Miami?
Full disclosure, this will probably be the most speculative "What If" article to date, because there is really no way of knowing what would have happened. But I'll offer up two different timelines, of sorts, because I think one two things would have happened.
We all know what happened. The Colts lost Super Bowl III and followed that up with a disappointing 1969 season. Afterwards, the Miami Dolphins began contract negotiations with Shula. When it was all said and done, Shula opted to leave Baltimore for Miami.
Since the talks between Shula and Dolphins occurred before and after the merger, the Dolphins got hit with a tampering charge, and surrendered their first round pick to the Colts. Still, the Dolphins ended up with Shula.
But if Shula had stayed in Baltimore, the NFL would certainly have looked a lot different.
It's very likely that the Dolphins do not go undefeated in 1972, and probably do not have the success through the 70s that they did with Shula. Before 1970, the Dolphins were a combined 15-39-2 in their first four years of existence. In Shula's first season, they went 10-4 and made the playoffs. In his second season, they made the Super Bowl. In his third and fourth seasons the Dolphins won the Super Bowl.
Had Shula stayed in Baltimore, this wouldn't have happened.
As I said, if Shula stays in Baltimore, one of two things would have happened. I'll start with the option which isn't as great as the other.
Obviously, frustration was at a high after the Colts lost to the Jets in the Super Bowl. Had Shula remained, the Colts would have needed to win Super Bowl V, as they did, in order to keep the players believing in Shula.
It is rather well documented that quarterback John Unitas didn't care much for Shula. Had the Colts continued to stumble in the playoffs or the Super Bowl into Unitas' later years, that friction may have grown. It would have been interesting (to say the least) to see if the Colts would have kept an aging Unitas, or a young successful head coach.
Obviously, the smart business move would have been to keep Shula over Unitas in the early 70s (if it came down to that). Remember, though, Carroll Rosenbloom had fired Weeb Ewbank after a few disappointing seasons.
Had the Colts suffered from a long Super Bowl hangover, or grown tired of Shula's notoriously difficult practices, Rosenbloom may have grown tired of Shula as well.
In this situation, it's definitely possible that the mass exodus of players via GM Joe Thomas could have happened if Shula stayed. It just would have happened at the same time Shula would have been fired (and obviously Thomas wouldn't have been there yet). So basically, what happened in the 2011-2012 off-season for the Colts.
Of course, I'm leaving out the distinct possibility that Rosenbloom still trades the team to Robert Irsay, setting up an Irsay - Shula dynamic which may have been interesting. But that's a whole different can of worms that I don't feel like opening.
So let's look at the other scenario of Shula staying, a much nicer one.
In this scenario, Shula and the Colts bounce back from their disappointing 1969 season and win Super Bowl V, just like they actually did.
In 1971, it's a very realistic possibility that the Colts would have returned to the Super Bowl for a rematch with Dallas. Remember, the Colts were in the AFC Championship Game in 1971 anyway, losing to Shula's Dolphins. Without Shula, the Dolphins wouldn't be there, and the Colts head back to the Super Bowl.
As some of you noted in the comments last week, the 1960s Colts were extremely good when playing a team for the second time. They would have again been playing the Cowboys in the Super Bowl, a game which I give the Colts a good chance to win.
As he did with the Dolphins, Shula wouldn't have had too many issues having success with the Colts of the late 70s, even with the changing personnel. Under Shula, the Colts probably would have been a serious AFC contender every year in the 70s.
The biggest potential change could have been in the 1980s. With a successful team in town, it is very possible that the city of Baltimore doesn't drag its feet when putting up the funds for a new stadium. It would have been a lot easier for Rosenbloom or Irsay (whoever you want to be the owner in this scenario) to coax the city to help pay for a stadium with a winning franchise in town.
It is very possible that, in this situation, the Colts remain in Baltimore.
That, of course, opens a whole new problem of where teams would have ended up relocating then. My quick opinion, had the Colts remained in Baltimore, would be that the Cardinals move just down the road to Indianapolis, as opposed to Phoenix, the Rams then head either to Arizona or to St. Louis and the Browns go to whichever one the Rams don't pick. Maybe. I have no idea, that's just a complete guess.
What we do know for sure, if that the NFL would look completely different if Shula had remained in Baltimore.