Imagine if Bill Belichick trotted out of the MetLife Stadium tunnel Sunday dressed in a green hoodie as he led the best team in the AFC -- the home team, in this case -- in pursuit of his fourth Super Bowl ring.
Imagine the reception awaiting the head coach of the New York Jets, a three-time champ for a franchise that, until he took over, hadn't won it all since Richard Nixon became the 37th president. Imagine how Belichick would be celebrated in the big city after serving as an invaluable defensive coordinator for Bill Parcells' two title teams with the Giants and then taking the Jets places Parcells could not take them.
Imagine if Belichick stood before the microphone on that early January day in 2000 and told reporters that he was grateful for a second chance as an NFL head coach after failing in Cleveland, and that he planned to finish the job Parcells started by taking the Jets to the AFC Championship Game a year earlier.
Imagine if Belichick hadn't shown up 24 hours after agreeing to succeed Parcells looking and sounding more nervous than a teenager on his first date when saying, "Due to various uncertainties surrounding my position as it relates to the team's new ownership, I've decided to resign as head coach of the New York Jets."
Of course, nobody knows for sure whether Belichick would've won the same three rings with the Jets that he's won with the New England Patriots, or whether he would've run away from the job like Al Groh did after one season. Remember, Belichick had four losing seasons in five tries in Cleveland and had lost 13 of his first 18 games in New England before the 199th pick in the 2000 draft, Tom Brady, made his first start and ultimately allowed his coach to grow into one of the all-time greats.
But this much we do know: The Jets have gone through four coaches since Belichick quit on them in the mother of all surreal news conferences, including Rex Ryan, who will almost certainly be fired eight days after facing Belichick for the last time and one day after finishing what likely will be a 3-13 season. Back in brighter days, Ryan was heard guaranteeing parades and promising to be the one to topple the evil empire to the north.
If he never did kiss Belichick's rings, Ryan did spend enough time this week kissing his you-know-what.
For good reason: Belichick has already clinched his 12th AFC East title in 15 years and his sixth in a row. The Jets have seized a grand total of one divisional crown -- Herm Edwards took it in 2002 with a 9-7 record -- since Belichick handed then-team president Steve Gutman a note in his own chicken-scratch words that he was done as "HC of the NYJ."
So even if we don't know exactly what Belichick would've achieved with the Jets, we do know that greatness can't be suppressed forever. Through the force of his will, Belichick was destined to do big things as a head coach whether or not Mo Lewis knocked out Drew Bledsoe on the first NFL Sunday after the 9/11 attacks and unwittingly started Brady's Hall of Fame career.
In other words, Belichick likely would've found a way to win at least one title for a franchise still living on the 46-year-old prophecy of a now-71-year-old man, Joe Namath. The Patriots had never won the Super Bowl until Belichick arrived and had made it to the big game twice in 30 postmerger years; Belichick has made it there five times in 14 years.
That's why his wild and crazy departure represents the most devastating development in the wild and crazy history of the Jets. The alternate candidates fill up a familiar house of horrors to the long-suffering fan who now passes his or her time calling for John Idzik's head.
They include: the hirings of Idzik, Rich Kotite and Lou Holtz. The A.J. Duhe game in the Miami mud. The Edwards and Ryan playoff losses in Pittsburgh, and the Parcells playoff loss in Denver.
Mark Gastineau's late hit on Bernie Kosar. The Butt Fumble. The fake Dan Marino spike. The decision to draft every first-rounder from Johnny "Lam" Jones to Blair Thomas to Vernon Gholston, and the decision to let Darrelle Revis sign with New England. The Tim Tebow deal. The Parcells resignation. The day Santonio Holmes was named a captain. The day Chad Pennington returned to the Meadowlands with the Dolphins to win the division and kill off the Brett Favre-led Jets.
Yes, the Belichick exit trumps them all. In his book "Parcells," written with Nunyo Demasio, Parcells said of his longtime aide: "He made a deal and then tried to get out of it. A deal's a deal. You want out? You're going to pay. Simple." The same Jets who sent four draft picks to Robert Kraft for the right to hire Parcells received three picks from Kraft for letting Belichick sign with the Patriots, including a first-rounder that would be used in a deal to take Shaun Ellis, a two-time Pro Bowler who wasn't in Belichick's ballpark as a franchise player.
Strange how it worked out, too. Leon Hess was a disengaged owner blamed for almost everything that went wrong with his sad-sack Jets ("I just hope we don't get embarrassed," Hess would tell friend and Giants owner Wellington Mara before games), at least until Parcells arrived and changed everything. But if Hess hadn't died in 1999, and if the Jets weren't caught in a tug-of-war between two billionaires (Woody Johnson and Cablevision's Charles Dolan) fixing to pay more than $600 million to buy them, Belichick almost certainly would've stayed.
Although he worried about Parcells' looming presence in the front office, Belichick was willing to coach for Hess, the oilman who had paid him a handsome salary and a $1 million bonus to stick around. In his famous getaway news conference, Belichick said of the ownership situation: "There are a lot of unanswered questions here. I have been concerned about it since Leon Hess died."
Belichick made some claims that day he'd surely want to take back. He said that he wanted to spend more time with his wife and kids, and that he had an epiphany while running on a treadmill next to a Jets cornerback named Kevin Williams, who had dealt with a serious lung infection. Belichick was suggesting he needed a break from coaching while he was scheming to coach the Patriots the entire time.
Gutman repeatedly described the fleeing employee as a man "in turmoil," and it turned out the team president couldn't have made a worse read. Belichick knew exactly what he was doing. He was leaving for more stability, more power and more money, and soon enough he lucked out, big time, when Brady walked into his life. Nothing has been the same about the AFC East since.
When the 11-3 Patriots face the 3-11 Jets on Sunday, a lot of attention will be paid to the 3-11 guy, Ryan, who likely will be working his final home game. But the man on the other side of the field had a bigger impact on the franchise, as in much.
A safe bet says Bill Belichick would've won a ring with the Jets, and a safer one says Rex Ryan and Joe Namath would be willing to guarantee it.