By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — No individual player has made a bigger mark on NFL history than Tom Brady. So any nugget involving his place of employment has a direct impact on the way that NFL history is told.

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It was interesting, then, to hear from ESPN’s Jeff Darlington on Tuesday morning. In the wake of Brady’s comment from “The Shop” going public, Darlington was part of a panel discussion about teams that should regret having passed up on Brady in free agency last year. Darlington — who pursued Brady’s free agency closely last year — went a bit off the board by going with the New Orleans Saints.

“I think that people still underestimate how close Tom Brady was to signing with the New Orleans Saints up until he ultimately decided on the Bucs,” Darlington said. “I know that that’s going to be a statement that people try to question; it’s the truth.”

The Saints, as we know, ended up sticking with Drew Brees for one more year. They can’t really regret that decision. Brees is the best player in franchise history, and though broken ribs limited him to 12 games, he played well during the year and even beat Brady in two head-to-head meetings in the regular season. Brady did get the last laugh, outperforming Brees (who threw three interceptions) in the divisional round of the playoffs.

Darlington said that Sean Payton’s regret may be in the fact that he didn’t have Tom Brady last year, and now doesn’t have Tom Brady or Drew Brees in 2021 and beyond.

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“The Saints, despite understanding they did what they had to do, there is a little bit of — let’s call it regret — that Tom Brady is not their quarterback,” Darlington said.

Adam Schefter did report in February that the Saints might have gone with Brady if Brees had retired. Darlington, though, makes it sound like the Saints considered going with Brady regardless of Brees’ decision to play one more year or retire. And he makes it seem like the Saints even wanted Brady.

It’s interesting in the sense that any “what if?” in sports is interesting. If Brady had joined the Saints, then we know that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not your defending Super Bowl champions entering the 2021 season. It could very well be the Chiefs. It could just as easily have been the Saints, who went 12-4 and won the NFC South. The NFL record books would have Brady as the all-time passing leader already, a mark he’ll likely achieve anyway by early October. And just for fun … what if Drew Brees didn’t want to retire and ended up signing somewhere like … say … New England?

That story would have played out with some high drama on a weekly basis. And it feels fair to assume that Brees would have had a better year one in New England than Cam Newton did, thus changing the scope and shape of the AFC East.

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You could go on and on and on with the butterfly effect here. Even though that’s largely a waste of time, it’s nevertheless a little bit of a fun daydreaming session in the middle of June as we look back on the decision by most NFL teams to pass up on the GOAT when he was available for the taking last year. The Bucs made their push, and they have their Super Bowl to show for it. Everybody else — including the Saints — is left to wonder … what if?