‘The Butterfly Effect.’ A term popularized to the masses as the title to a 2004 film starring Ashton Kutcher, ‘The Butterfly Effect’ (also known as ‘disambiguation‘) is actually an idea born from the mind of Edward Lorenz, and part of ‘chaos theory.’ 

‘The Butterfly Effect’ defined: “In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.”

In simpler terms, if reality could be played out many times over, changing one small variable in a ‘past’ could create an entirely different future. Example: You were born at a particular time, for a specific place, the child of particular parents. In a parallel timeline, maybe one small variable shifts, and the future is totally different.

Maybe in an alternate timeline, a dog runs out in front of your father’s car on the way to the chance encounter where he meets your mom. Your dad takes the time to check the animal’s tags and contact its owner, now the timing is shifted, and your parents never meet. You can run this thing down into the rabbit hole for eternity. Entertaining these branch realities can be quite fun.

In football, you can play the “what if” game to a limitless extent.

Without being too far fetched, here are a few Cowboys-related “what if’s” that have always sent me spiraling down the rabbit hole.

Mike Vanderjagt’s Role in Romo’s Botched Hold

Yes, Cowboys fans I’m about to drag you over this broken glass one more time, but retract your claws, I’m not here to pile any additional blame on Romo. I thought he should have been removed as holder the week he took over as starting QB, but that’s neither here nor there.

You know the drill all too well. 2006, Wild Card round at Seattle. Chilly, slippery night. Cowboys trail 21-20 with just under 1:20 to go in the game. Cowboys set up for a chip shot field goal. Romo bobbles the snap, attempts to run for paydirt around the left side, but is tripped up from behind by Seattle safety Jordan Babineaux and stopped short of goal line. As we know the Cowboys famously lose that contest, a great 2nd half of the season is spoiled, and Bill Parcells never coaches another game.

Okay, so what does Mike Vanderjagt have to do with this? Let me circle back.

I was in attendance the night that Mike Vanderjagt broke. The man broke, he crumbled. I witnessed it. November 19, 2006, the Cowboys, revitalized by the hot start of newcomer Tony Romo took on the 9-0 (eventual champion) Indianapolis Colts at Texas Stadium. Cowboys kicker Mike Vanderjagt, who up until that season had been the most accurate kicker in NFL history, was slumping. Vanderjagt missed two high percentage attempts in the first half. The latter of the two, just before half time, took his soul. Vanderjagt missed from 45, and the Dallas crowd let him have it. Deafening boos rained down on the kicker as he sulked into the tunnel. Where I was sitting, Vanderjagt had to walk right by me to get to the locker room. His shoulders slumped, his face was distraught. I looked over to the friend I came to the game with and said, “he’s done.”

Mike Vanderjagt was indeed ‘done.’ The Cowboys had a short turnaround to play 4 days later on Thanksgiving, but with the long week ahead, the team made the switch, dumping Vanderjagt in favor of veteran Martin Gramatica.

So back to the Romo hold. One of the things that always stood out to me on the Romo botched hold was what futile resistance the diminutive Gramatica put up as Babineaux came through him in pursuit of Romo. At 5’8″/170, Gramatica was pushed aside with zero effort and didn’t even impede Babineaux’s stride as he hunted Romo. If he had even just gotten in the way a tiny bit, Tony Romo scores. The Cowboys then go up 27-21 with 1:15 to go, giving the ball back to a Seattle offense that hadn’t done much all night.

Gramatica went, 6 for 8 kicking down the stretch for the Cowboys, so who knows if Vanderjagt would have made enough gets to get the team to that spot in Seattle. However, I always wonder if the 6’5″/218 lb. Vanderjagt had still been the kicker, could he have bumped Babineaux off course just a tick, and kept him from tackling Romo in time. With no effort, just simply existing in the path may have been enough to change history.

If Vanderjagt changes Babineaux’s course, the Cowboys likely win. Romo’s career starts with a playoff win, instead of a boulder in the “choker” narrative wheelbarrow.

If they win in Seatlle, do they go on a run? If they go on a run, does Parcells decide he wants to stick around? So many possibilities.

“The Dallas Cowboys Select: Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, California”

During the 2004 NFL Draft, Oregon State running back Stephen Jackson came sliding down the board toward Dallas unexpectedly, at a time when running backs did indeed matter. This was an absolute no-brainer. Value and need had intersected, Stephen Jackson to Dallas was a match made in heaven.

The lowly Buffalo Bills rang, and wanted back into the 1st round after drafting WR Lee Evans, to take their QB of the future, J.P. Losman. With the Bills looking like a team likely to be drafting in the top 10 the following year, the package they put together was tempting enough. The Bills moved into the Cowboys 22nd overall selection, in exchange for an additional 2nd rounder, an additional 5th, and Buffalo’s 1st selection the following year.

The Bills actually surprised in 2004 with a 9-7 record, netting just the 20th pick in 2005 for the Cowboys, 9th slots later than the Cowboys’ own selection. The Cowboys wisely selected Hall of Fame EDGE DeMarcus Ware with the 11th overall selection. But with the 20th overall selection, Bill Parcells wanted to round out his 3-4 defense desired a jumbo, 5-technique end. The Cowboys selected LSU DL Marcus Spears.

Spears was a fine player and all, but Cal QB Aaron Rodgers, once in the mix to be the 1st overall selection, was enduring a historic tumble down the board. With a 33-year-old Drew Bledsoe as QB1, and Tony Romo still an NFL infant, a proactive selection of Aaron Rodgers would have made a ton of sense.

I know it might make your lunch swirl in your belly to imagine the “baaaad maaan” in silver and blue, but in this branch reality, we never knew him in green and yellow.

Could you imagine a decade-plus of Aaron Rodgers in Dallas? Imagine Aaron Rodgers taking over Week 6, 2006, when Parcells finally had his fill of Bledsoe. Does Parcells stay longer because he knows he has a Hall of Fame signal-caller? Rodgers had been able to handle Parcells’ coaching style? Would Sean Payton maybe have tried to wait Parcells out another year, to be try and become the Cowboys head coach knowing he had Rodgers, rather than take off for New Orleans? Endless alternate realities.

John Elway, the Cowboy

In the famous 1983 NFL Draft that gave us, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, and Eric Dickerson, the Baltimore Colts selected Stanford QB John Elway with the 1st overall selection. In the pre-draft process, Elway made it clear that he had no desire to play football for the Colts, and if they were to select him, he would opt to accept an offer to play baseball for the New York Yankees.

john-elway-denver-broncos 1991 - TIm DeFrisco/AP
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Teams began compiling trade proposals to acquire Elway’s services from Baltimore. Cowboys exec Gil Brandt at one time felt he had Elway secured. Brandt’s package would have sent QB Danny White to Baltimore to reunite with this college coach Frank Kush, along with two other starters and a 1st round selection. The Cowboys were almost in celebration mode when Colts exec Jim Irsay got involved, and the deal disintegrated. Irsay had some sort of bad blood with either Brandt, or Tex Schramm, and didn’t want to do anything to benefit the Cowboys. The Colts accepted a lesser trade package from Denver, and the rest is history.

If John Elway becomes a Cowboy, we likely never have our ‘triplets.’ At the very least, they certainly aren’t spending the 1st overall pick in 1989 on Troy Aikman with a 29-year-old Elway entering his 7th season as the starter. My goodness, do the Cowboys draft, Barry Sanders, that year in that scenario? Well, I guess they probably aren’t picking at the top of the draft in 1989 if Elway ran the show in 1988.

In this branch reality, does Tom Landry keep his job? Do the Cowboys even acquire Herschel Walker, let alone later famously trade him to Minnesota for the makings of a dynasty? Elway didn’t win his 1st Super Bowl until 1997. With the Cowboys, does he win any? Does he win more?

The Ripple Effect of Passing on Randy Moss

First of all, I’m tired of everyone acting like the Cowboys are the only team who passed on Randy Moss in the 1998 NFL Draft. He was the 21st selection, okay. Lots of teams passed on him. The Bengals passed on him twice. He wasn’t even the first player taken at his position. The Titans took Kevin Dyson five slots ahead of him. It wasn’t just Jerry Jones who was a bit leery of Randy Moss’ off-field concerns.

Anyhow, what if the Cowboys did, in fact, take Randy Moss that year?

The Cowboys went 10-6 that season. One of those losses was to the absolute juggernaut Minnesota Vikings, who schooled the Cowboys with Moss on Thanksgiving Day that season. Take Moss off of the Vikes, and put him on the Cowboys, and it is probably the Cowboys and Falcons out in front of everyone else as NFC favorites.

Michael Irvin was still a Cowboy in 1998. Moss and Irvin would have been a filthy duo, with Deion Sanders still chipping in on offense at times. Good Lord, that sounds like a lot of fun.

If Randy Moss is a Cowboy, does Michael Irvin’s career end with a spinal injury on the cold turf in Philly? Are they maybe up big in that game? Is the down and distance the same for that play to be called? Is Moss perhaps in Irvin’s spot, and the match never happens?

With offensive-minded Chan Gailey in command, and a weapon like Moss, would we have gotten to see the unshackled Troy Aikman we all wish we had gotten to see? 

In 2000, the Cowboys, devoid of offensive speed traded two first-round picks for Seattle speedster, WR Joey Galloway. If Randy Moss is a Cowboy, that trade never gets made. If that trade never gets made, the Cowboys have first-round selections in 2000 and 2001. In 2001 with a 35-year-old Troy Aikman (if he was still playing), the Cowboys would have had the ammo to be proactive and select Drew Brees before San Diego snagged him at the top of the round, rather than settling for Quincy Carter 21 picks later.

Imagine Randy Moss’ Hall of Fame career having been played mostly in Dallas, with Troy Aikman and then Drew Brees. Crazy.

No Zeke, No Dak?

If you recall, then-rookie Ezekiel Elliott had spent most of his 2016 preseason nursing a hamstring issue. He had not seen any game action until the “dress rehearsal” game vs. Seattle. Just a minute and a half into the game, Ezekiel Elliott does a fantastic job of picking up a blitzing K.J. Wright flipping him head over heels. Tony Romo scrambles, heads for the sticks with his feet, and is tackled awkwardly from behind by Cliff Avril, breaking a transverse process in his back, opening the door for Dak Prescott as Cowboys QB.

Now hear me out. What if the Cowboys decided to just let Elliott rest the remainder of the preseason, and find his rhythm during live action?

If Darren McFadden or Alfred Morris in the game, do they not make such a sensational block on Wright, allowing him to get the sack, but conventionally than doesn’t injure Romo? Do they block Wright in one direction or the other, enticing Romo to run a different course than the one that he chose? If the geometry on that particular play is changed in any way, do we even see Dak Prescott in 2016? In 2017? Do we even know if he can play now, in 2020? Is Dak still on the team, having been such a poor practice performer early in his career, but in this reality not having the chance to prove his worth in live-action?

The rabbit hole is endless. The most minor adjustments to the most seemingly insignificant variables could have altered games, careers, billions of dollars, and reality.
A game of inches indeed.

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