If Irsay kept Elway, Colts might be here today


MIAMI -- A climactic and historic deal, woefully constructed by a man who wasn't sure how many players were on the field, correlated itself to future Super Bowl happiness for one city (Denver) and total loss of an entire franchise by the party of the second part (Baltimore).

A devastating turn of events, one that dramatically altered the structure of the NFL forevermore. It meant Denver's destiny would soon be shaped with spectacular success. For Baltimore, it was the end of the line: decimation of a team that was to be stripped of its birthright and ignominiously trucked off to Indianapolis.

Never has the trade of one player dealt such contrasting consequences: the making of a contender, ultimately a champion for Denver, and a morass of painful regret for Baltimore.

That's what the infamous move by the Baltimore Colts of sending John Elway to the Denver Broncos on May 2, 1983, only days after they claimed him as the No. 1 talent in the annual college player draft, meant to the future of football. The cheerful giver, owner Bob Irsay, was afraid Elway was going to cost too much. To have a strong, young quarterback of such rare capabilities and to dispose of him in such a careless way was indicative of how the Irsay team operated.

It may suggest this is a chapter lifted from ancient history, but the fact remains the loss of Elway exacted a steep price -- one that will always be cited when the bad deals of the past are reviewed for their proper fit in posterity.

Now it has been 16 years for Elway in Denver, where he has recorded more come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter, 47, than any other quarterback.

The first time he brought the Broncos back from apparent defeat was at the end of his rookie year and, appropriately, it came against the team that had rejected him. Losing 19-0 to the Colts in the last period, Elway pitched three touchdown passes. Remarkably, Denver won, 21-19, but he clearly showed the qualities of leadership he brought with him.

Earlier in that same year, he had quarterbacked against the Colts in Baltimore under the most difficult circumstances any athlete has been called upon to face. Memorial Stadium was raucus, almost non-stop booing and jeering every time Elway took the snap from center. Baltimore was unmerciful, trying to square the account with the youngster because of his expressed desire to play elsewhere.

How one so young and new to the football wars held up under the barrage of blistering criticism immediately proved, beyond a doubt, how mentally tough he could be. The best of a competitive Elway showed through in the experience, even though backup Steve DeBerg came on to relieve and get the win.

An amazing aspect of Elway's longevity has been the durability of his throwing arm, which punches out meal tickets and championship appearances for the Broncos. The over-the-top delivery still seems strong despite the arm and shoulder wear that is inherent to the position. In simple sports language, he hasn't lost his fastball, which is usually the case with quarterbacks in their second decade of performance because of the physical nicks that go with the job.

Had Elway been retained by the Colts, a case can be made that the franchise never would have left. Yes, that he would have indeed made the difference. But in 1983, the year of Baltimore's selection of Elway, the team was exercising its coveted right to the first player selected in the entire draft. The top pick from all the colleges was theirs to behold.

The Colts were always involved in bizarre actions in the Irsay era of ownership. After naming Elway, and hearing that he wasn't interested in being identified with either owner Irsay or coach Frank Kush, mostly the latter, the Colts panicked. Irsay, per usual, acted impulsively. Instead of waiting out Elway, to see how firm he was in his stand of not wanting to come to Baltimore, the owner surrendered to the threat. Only six days had elapsed between the draft and trade of Elway.

"I always thought we had a chance to wait out Elway, that he would have come to Baltimore despite what he and the agent were saying," says Ernie Accorsi, then the general manager. But Accorsi was given no voice in the matter. In fact, there's even information that Elway called a Colts official and mentioned it would be a good idea to "let the issue calm down."

Suddenly, out of the blue, emanating from Denver, came word that Irsay had negotiated the transaction with the Broncos. He didn't inform Accorsi or Kush of what he was doing. Bang. Irsay had pulled the trigger, and Elway was gift-wrapped to Denver for quarterback Mark Herrmann, also tackle Chris Hinton, their No. 1 draft pick, and the first draft pick of the coming (1984) season, who turned out to be Ron Solt.

Oh yes, there was another pleasing inducement for Irsay.

This was the unprecedented move of insisting the Broncos schedule the Colts for two future exhibition games in Denver that would result in them collecting hefty checks as a visiting team in 1984 and '85.

The Denver debt with the Colts had now been fully settled -- the cost of taking Elway off their hands in a trade that was going to lead to appearances in five Super Bowls.

History had indeed been cruel to Baltimore.

For want of a gifted quarterback that they had and gave away a franchise was lost. Meanwhile, Denver celebrates the joy that came from Baltimore's grief.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad