What if Todd Helton had gone to the Indianapolis Colts rather than the Colorado Rockies?
Todd Helton is probably going to be the second player to wear a Colorado Rockies logo in the Hall of Fame. He was an elite baseball prospect coming out of high school but attended college at the University of Tennessee after being drafted by the Padres in the 2nd round of the 1992 draft.
The Colorado Rockies then drafted him eighth overall in 1995 after a stellar baseball career with the Vols, but what many don’t know is that he went to Tennessee with an Athletic scholarship not only as a baseball player, but as a football quarterback as well. Helton started only 3 games for the Volunteers before he was injured and replaced.
His replacement? Well, I brought up the Indianapolis Colts for a reason. Helton’s replacement was Denver sports legend Peyton Manning.
But what if Helton didn’t hurt his knee during that fateful game against Mississippi State? What would his NFL career have looked like? Would he have been anywhere as successful in the NFL as he was in the MLB? Let’s break it down.
Considering that the same coaching staff trained both Todd Helton and Peyton Manning, I want to pattern Helton’s transition to the NFL off of Manning’s transition as well. Does this mean I want to equivocate Manning and Helton’s talent? NO. I do think, however, that we can determine the difference in skill level by comparing the two’s college careers first. To be fair to Todd Helton, I am only going to consider the 4 games he played significant time in, as they only used him sparingly otherwise throughout his time on the Vols.
Looking at this data, it is easy to see why Todd Helton went down the baseball career path. Had the Colts chosen to use him as they had Peyton Manning, he would have been a below average starter in the NFL. Transitioning his stats to the NFL, Todd Helton would have likely produced a QBR of around 56.5, with 21.1 being the worst case and 79.9 being the best case.
For reference, his TD per season range would’ve been between 7 and 28, with an average of about 16. His interception range would be between 16 and 60, averaging about 29. These stats show that Helton would have been a medium ceiling, extremely low floor type of QB.
For the record, his average QBR of 56.5 would consistently see him at the bottom of the list of starters every year (the last QB to have a rating worse was JaMarcus Russell in 2009). If Todd Helton were to play in the NFL, he would have to perform on the high end of the spectrum, 79.9. Even then, he would have been in the bottom half of starting QBs, think Jameis Winston this year or Baker Mayfield last year, not ideal comparisons.
It isn’t all doom and gloom for Helton though, there is one stat that he would probably perform better in than Manning … rushing yards. If things went well for him, Helton could see as many as 400 rushing yards a season, around the same as Patrick Mahomes or Justin Fields in 2021, good enough for around 6th in the modern league, something that would be even higher in the old NFL.
So we know what it would take, but how would this affect the Indianapolis Colts’ performance in the NFL? We are going to only look at the first five seasons of a potential Todd Helton career because that is how long the average QB lasts in the NFL, and Todd Helton would probably not last much longer than that if he had pursued the pigskin rather than baseball. For the fun of it, we will look at their record across his high, low and average.
During Peyton Manning’s first five seasons in the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts went 42-38 with a Pythagorean win-loss of 41-39. If we assume that the Colts only lose the TDs that Manning physically threw and the Toddfather threw no extra pick-6’s, then the Colt’s would have had a Pythagorean win-loss of 25.3-54.7 at the worst, 40.5-39.5 at the best, and 32.2-47.8 for average.
Breaking down the individual seasons would have seen Helton only bring the Colts one winning season in 2000, going 10-6, and an even 8-8 season in 2002. The team would make the playoffs once in 2000 under Helton, whereas they made it three times in the same span under Manning.
As far as fun extreme factoids, had Todd Helton performed his potential best, he would have likely led the squad to a playoff berth in 2002 as well, and had he performed at his worst in 1998, the Indianapolis Colts could have been the first team to go 0-16 (though 1-15 would be more likely).
So what have we done here? Well, we have determined that Todd Helton trained in the right sport. We would see his Hall of Fame talent in baseball become a below average starter in the NFL with one playoff appearance.
The Colorado Rockies were lucky to get Helton when they did, with players more often choosing football over baseball. In this what if, it would seem the Colorado Rockies got lucky. In reality, teams knew Helton as potential MLB powerhouse when he was only in high school.
Helton’s final destination would probably have always seen him ultimately take the baseball diamond. But who knows, had he not injured his knee, Todd Helton could have been relegated to a footnote in NFL history, rather than the MLB Legend we know him as today.
Data for this article was researched at Pro Football Reference, Pro Baseball Reference, College Football Reference, Wikipedia, and the University of Tennessee.