FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- On Monday night, the football-watching world will get a chance to see the player the New York Jets once hoped would be their quarterback of the future.
Matt Schaub of the Houston Texans.
What, you thought it was a snarky reference to Mark Sanchez?
In 2006, the Jets were hot for Schaub, a promising young backup with the Atlanta Falcons. With Chad Pennington coming off his second shoulder operation, the Jets' new regime at the time -- general manager Mike Tannenbaum and coach Eric Mangini -- wanted a long-term solution at quarterback.
Little-known fact: They targeted Schaub, offering defensive end John Abraham to the Falcons in a straight-up deal, Mangini revealed.
"We tried like hell to get him," Mangini said recently in a phone interview.
Schaub was playing behind Michael Vick and had started only two games in two seasons, but his potential intrigued the Jets. At the time, it seemed like a lopsided proposal. Not many teams would consider dealing a proven pass-rusher in his prime, but the Jets didn't want to commit to Abraham, who had the franchise tag, had some off-the-field issues and was seeking a monster contract.
The negotiations turned contentious. Eventually, the Jets traded Abraham to the Falcons for the 29th pick in the draft, which Atlanta acquired from the Denver Broncos. The Jets used the pick to draft Nick Mangold after trying unsuccessfully to deal it to the San Diego Chargers for running back Michael Turner -- another little-known fact.
It's hard to second-guess the move because Mangold is one of the top centers in the league, but what if?
What if Mangini had pried Schaub away from the Falcons? The alternate history probably would've unfolded like this:
Mangini said the Jets would've kept Pennington in 2006, which turned out to be a terrific year for him. In 2007, it probably would've been Pennington and Schaub. But by 2008, it would've been Schaub's show.
Which means there never would've been a trade for Brett Favre in 2008.
And there never would've been a need to draft Sanchez in 2009.
Chances are, Schaub would be playing quarterback for the Jets, not the undefeated Texans, on Monday night at MetLife Stadium.
Mangini became smitten with Schaub in 2005, when Mangini was the New England Patriots' defensive coordinator. They faced the Vick-less Falcons, and he called blitz after blitz, expecting to rattle the young quarterback. But Schaub lit up Mangini's defense, passing for 298 yards and three touchdowns, nearly pulling off the upset.
After becoming the Jets' coach in 2006, Mangini did his homework on Schaub, receiving a glowing endorsement from a former coaching colleague, Al Groh, who coached the quarterback at Virginia. Mangini was convinced Schaub was the real deal, but, as he said: "As strong as our conviction was, theirs was stronger."
The Falcons, thinking Super Bowl, wanted to keep Schaub as Vick insurance. In essence, they chose him over their first-round pick.
A year later, the Falcons finally decided to cash in their bargaining chip, sending Schaub to the Texans for two second-round picks. Since then, he has blossomed into a top quarterback. He's 36-32, including eight straight wins, with a 94.6 passer rating in five-plus seasons.
The Jets' quarterback situation, which seemed so secure after Sanchez's second year, is starting to fray. Meanwhile, Schaub is the playing the best ball of his career, coming off back-to-back games with 115 passer ratings.
Mangini, who studies every game in his role as an ESPN studio analyst, was blown away by two passes Schaub made two weeks ago against the Denver Broncos. He made 52- and 60-yard completions, delivering them with pass-rushers in his face. He never had a chance to step into the throws, showing his raw arm strength.
"They were impressive throws," Mangini said, "but they were more impressive because of what was happening in front of him."
Those plays were overshadowed, of course, by the well-documented ear injury. Schaub lost a small part of his left ear on a vicious -- and illegal -- hit by the Broncos' Joe Mays, but he missed only one play with his Holyfield ear.
"Obviously, when you look like you might lose your quarterback and he bounces back up and misses a play and comes back in and leads his team to a win, that's an emotional lift," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "It's what you're looking for from your leader in this league. If a guy wants to be a great quarterback and a great leader, he's got to be able to do those types of things."
The Jets saw those qualities way back when, long before Schaub was on the league's radar -- another what-if story for a franchise that has plenty of them. In 1983, it passed on a guy named Dan Marino.