For practically their entire existence, the New York Jets have been on a long, fruitless quest for good quarterback play.
If not for a conversation between two future Hall of Famers back in 1997, they might have landed one of the greatest passers the NFL has ever seen.
After three seasons at the University of Tennessee, quarterback Peyton Manning was projected to be selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft, owned by the Jets. But he opted to return for a senior season, thanks in part to a discussion with future San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan.
Duncan had been the projected No. 1 overall pick in his sport following a dominant junior year at Wake Forest in the 1995-96 season, but he’d elected to remain for one more year.
With his decision looming, Manning talked to Duncan, one of the few people who could understand his position.
“I knew I could be even more prepared for the NFL if I stayed on for my senior year. … I talked to Tim Duncan, I saw him at a college basketball game that year,” Manning recalled in a recent interview with the MMQB Podcast. “He had stayed for his senior year, which was kind of against the norm, and he just said, ‘Hey look, I wanted to be a senior, I wanted one more year to get ready,’ so that kind of let me know that it was OK. … I just really wanted to be a senior in college. It was by far the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Either that … or he didn’t want to play for a Jets team that had gone 1-15 the year before and 3-13 the year before that. (After the hiring of coach and general manager Bill Parcells, the Jets went 9-7 in 1997 and 12-4 in 1998.)
Still, a different Hall of Famer would be drafted first overall in 1997—offensive tackle Orlando Pace—but only after the Jets had traded the pick to the St. Louis Rams for four draft picks, including No. 6 overall.
That first-rounder would also turn out to be a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, Walter Jones. Of course, the Jets had also traded that selection by the time it was made.
Somehow, the Jets missed out on three Hall of Famers in a matter of weeks.