What if we've spent far too many hours analyzing the wrong "What if..." in recent Patriots history?
What if all that time dedicated to Jimmy Garoppolo was instead spent considering the possibilities of a long-term marriage between the Patriots and the quarterback they'll face this weekend on NBC's Sunday Night Football?
Should it not be Lamar Jackson who is considered in New England the face of the franchise who got away?
Let's go back to 2018.
The Patriots had two first-round picks that year after dealing Brandin Cooks to the Rams for their top draft choice. It just so happened, after trading Garoppolo to the Niners a few months earlier, that the class of rookie quarterbacks entering the league looked loaded.
The Patriots could've used The Next Guy to follow Tom Brady whenever Brady, then 40, moved on. Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen were available and considered the best of the bunch. Lamar Jackson had a fleet of question marks surrounding him heading into the draft -- there was no shortage of misguided evaluators who openly wondered if a change in position would be best for his football future -- and it was unclear if he'd crack the first round.
The Patriots could have potentially packaged their two firsts and ended up hovering around the No. 10 slot if they could find a taker, but all consensus top-four passers were gone inside the top-10. That left Jackson, who fell past No. 23 (where the Patriots took Isaiah Wynn) and No. 31 (where the Patriots took Sony Michel) to the Ravens at No. 32.
The Ravens pounced, built their offense around Jackson's unique skills, and have gone 25-5 in the regular season with him as their starter.
The Patriots, meanwhile, won a Super Bowl that season. As a rookie, Michel helped his new team follow its running game to a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Now, two and a half years later, there are two ways of looking at the decision the Patriots made to pass on Jackson and take Michel on draft weekend:
1. They filled a need and won a Super Bowl. Take a bow.
2. They passed on an MVP quarterback and still need one. Take an "L."
As is typically the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Michel produced as a rookie, particularly through the postseason. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry in the playoffs that year (fifth among backs). He also had 19 first downs (first) and 11 runs of 10 yards or more (first).
While those numbers can be explained in part by the excellent blocking -- both from the offensive line and fullback James Develin -- in front of him, Michel made yards on his own as well. He avoided seven tackles in three games, per Pro Football Focus, and he picked up 2.9 yards after contact per carry, which was fourth among backs in the postseason with at least 30 attempts.
There was value in that run. Whether or not that value was worthy of a first-round pick is debatable. Michel has been a one-dimensional back who averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry last season. He's now dealing with injury, and he appears to have lost his job to second-year back Damien Harris.
Plus, mounds of available data would suggest that the Patriots could have received similar production from another less-expensive player at running back because in the NFL offensive lines and schemes are largely responsible for a back's production.
That the Patriots passed on a gifted athlete at the most important position in the sport in order to draft a position that is so readily replaced seems, in hindsight, to prove Bill Belichick right in one way.
He told WEEI recently that the Patriots "sold out" to maximize Tom Brady's window in New England. Drafting Michel to fill an immediate need -- they wanted a bell-cow back after Mike Gillislee flamed out the year prior -- while bypassing a potential franchise quarterback to play behind Brady instead of helping him win another ring? That qualifies as an "all-in" maneuver.
At the moment, though, the Patriots find themselves with one of the least-productive passing offenses in football and no long-term solution at quarterback. Things would likely look and feel different in Foxboro with Jackson in town. Last season he completed 66 percent of his passes at a 7.8 yards-per-attempt clip, he had a 6-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and he rushed for over 1,200 yards.
Those numbers have not proven sustainable in Jackson's third year. The Ravens have become more predictable offensively than they were in 2019, leading to defenses focusing on the run on early downs (Baltimore averages 3.9 yards per play on first down), and forcing Jackson to try to throw in longer down-and-distance situations.
Jackson leads the league this season, according to Sharp Football, in non-first down throws needing seven or more yards (46.5 percent of his attempts), and he's averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt on those passes. Baltimore ranks 20th in the NFL in yards per pass attempt (7.1), equaling the number posted by the Patriots offense this year.
The Ravens run game remains effective with Jackson at the controls. No team rushes for more yards per game (170.1), and on average they churn out 5.1 yards per carry, just ahead of the Patriots offense at 4.9 yards per tote. But, with Jackson and his speed as the centerpiece, no one calls for more runs (52.9 percent of plays) than Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
According to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, the Ravens offense is 21st in expected points added per play this season (0.038) -- just ahead of the Jaguars (0.037) and four slots ahead of the Patriots (0.027). Last year? The Ravens were rated the most efficient offense in football, with an EPA/play figure of 0.177.
The Ravens have regressed. That regression may have been sped along by the retirement of All-Pro left guard Marshall Yanda and the recent season-ending injury to All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley. But Jackson still carries with him plenty of promise that could be amplified by a more unpredictable attack, featuring more early-down passing.
With Sunday's matchup looming, an obvious question lingers: Would Jackson not carry with him similar promise in Foxboro?
Had he been drafted by the Patriots, the offense would've undergone a radical shift whenever the quarterbacking torch was passed. But the Patriots have proven this season that they are willing and able to shift to accentuate the skills of an athletic quarterback -- as the Ravens did when they went from a pocket passer in Joe Flacco to Jackson. The Patriots are risk-tolerant enough to make that move.
Sure, the possibility exists, if recent trends continue, that Jackson ends up being the below-average passer he's been this year production-wise. The possibility exists that his 6-foot-2, 212-pound frame absorbs enough punishment that he doesn't hold up as Baltimore's quarterback.
But the possibility also exists that Jackson, 23, improves as a passer, his play-caller improves and his offensive line improves. The possibility exists that he remains a force of nature in the AFC for years to come.
The possibilities with Jackson in New England as The Next Guy, under creative minds like Belichick and Josh McDaniels, would've seemed endless.
Instead, the Patriots will try to stop him this weekend as the search for The Next Guy continues.