NFL

John Elway, Bob Irsay, and the Colts fleeing of Baltimore

The Baltimore Colts saw a savior in John Elway. However, Elway saw a nightmare, got himself to Denver, and the Colts set sail for Indianapolis.

An NFL executive I’ve known for years once had a theory that had John Elway remained a Baltimore Colt, the Colts would have remained in Baltimore. It sounded far-fetched.

It isn’t.

Elway was a preternatural talent who, had he stayed with the Colts, could’ve had the same impact on Baltimore that quarterbacks Bert Jones and John Unitas did. Both put the Colts back on the NFL map, and both put fans in the stands.

But they did more than that. They galvanized a city.

Baltimore is a football town, and its fans loved their Colts, their marching band and their star quarterbacks. They were loud, they were passionate and they were knowledgeable. In fact, when Baltimore’s Barry Levinson directed the movie “Diner,” a paean to his hometown, he portrayed a character who won’t marry until his fiancée passes a 140-question Colts’ history test.

She failed by two points.

Nevertheless, the groom-to-be relents, agrees to the wedding and leads her up an aisle lined with – what else? — a blue-and-white carpet runner in honor of the Colts.

Unusual? Not in Baltimore, where caskets were sometimes lined in blue and white. Baltimore loved its Colts, and when throngs jammed Memorial Stadium on Sunday afternoons they transformed the venue into a site so deliriously raucous that it was known as “the world’s largest outdoor insane asylum.”

That was to be Elway’s forever home when the Colts made him the first pick of the 1983 NFL Draft, and it would have been had then-general manager Ernie Accorsi had his way. But he didn’t. One week after Accorsi rebuffed a passel of trade offers for the Stanford quarterback, then-owner Robert Irsay traded Elway to the Denver Broncos for their first pick of the ’83 draft (offensive lineman Chris Hinton), backup quarterback Mark Herrmann, the Broncos’ first pick in the 1984 Draft and a wad of cash from two preseason games.

Irsay thought it was a fair deal. It wasn’t. Elway led the Broncos to five Super Bowls, was a league MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, a nine-time Pro Bowler, All-Decade choice, 100th NFL Anniversary Team member and first-ballot Hall of Famer. In his 15 seasons in Denver, the Broncos won two Super Bowls, seven division titles and experienced only two losing years.

And the Colts? One year after Elway was traded, they moved in the middle of a March night to Indianapolis and didn’t reach a Super Bowl until Peyton Manning led them there in 2006 – or one year after Elway was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Connect the dots. Elway made the Denver Broncos and unmade the Baltimore Colts.

In the four years following his acquisition, the Broncos were 44-20, won two division titles, went to the playoffs three times and the Super Bowl once. Meanwhile, the Colts receded to the back of the class. In the four years after the trade, they never had a winning season, were 19-45 overall and didn’t finish higher than fourth in a five-team division.

And all because of one player and one deal.

People today talk about the leverage NFL quarterbacks and NBA stars are beginning to exert, but nobody exercised more muscle than Elway.

When the Colts gained the first-overall pick in ’83, he said he would never play for them – threatening to sit out the season instead. He talked about wanting to play in warm weather. He talked about a possible pro baseball career with the New York Yankees. He talked about not wanting to play for then-Colts’ coach Frank Kush. In essence, he talked about everything but suiting up for the Colts.

“He would be a garbage collector before he’d play for Baltimore,” Elway’s agent, Marvin Demoff, wrote in his journal, published three decades later.

Accorsi was willing to take that chance, saying he didn’t want to go down in history as “the guy who traded away the next Unitas.” And he didn’t. Instead, a meddlesome and imperious owner did.

Had Elway stayed … had his threats not forced Irsay to panic … maybe, just maybe the Colts wouldn’t have moved, and they – not the Broncos – would’ve lived happily ever after. Elway could have … and maybe would’ve … had the same impact on the city as Jones when he led the Colts to three straight division titles in 1975-77 and lit up the city.

A smart man once said everybody loves a winner, and everybody loved Bert Jones and the Colts. He was young. He was charismatic. He was a league MVP. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated. And he turned the Colts into a frontrunner the city adored.

So why couldn’t that happen again? It could. Elway would’ve energized the city and its fans as Jones had nearly a decade before. There would be no more empty seats, no more losing seasons and no more talk of failed stadium talks. That’s the theory, and I buy it.

Elway was Baltimore’s ticket to a better future with the Colts. He was the quarterback who would cure a franchise that hadn’t had a winning season in five years and was coming off a winless 1982 (0-8-1). More important, he was the one figure who would make them care about a club that cratered under Irsay, earning the disdain of loyal fans.

And who can blame them? During Irsay’s tenure, the Colts went through seven head coaches, produced a 68-104-1 record and saw their ticket base drop from 60,000 in his first year as owner to 42,000 when he relocated the team to Indianapolis.

“He never created any goodwill,” former Colts’ running back Tom Matte told the New York Times. “He created only bad will. And that’s why the fans hated him. They saw through him.”

By 1983, the year Elway was drafted, Irsay was determined to move the franchise, with Jacksonville, Phoenix and Indianapolis possible landing spots. He wanted a new stadium, and he was willing to listen to all overtures. Furthermore, he was insensitive to the history of the franchise and unsympathetic to the legions of fans and overtures of city and state officials who implored him to stay.

“He lied and he cheated, and he was rude and he was crude,” Jones told the Baltimore Sun. “And he was Bob Irsay.”

Enter Elway, the city’s last hope. He could undo the “bad will” Irsay created because he would make the Colts matter again. At least, that was the plan. The reality was they blew their chance when they let him walk. Instead of Elway lining up behind center Ray Donaldson, the Colts wheeled out Mike Pagel – a fourth-round pick in the 1982 draft and the last Colt to wear No. 18 before Manning.

The rest you know.

In fairness, Pagel wasn’t all that bad, taking the Colts to a 7-9 finish in 1983. But he wasn’t John Elway. Nobody was.

The Colts found out the hard way on Dec. 11, 1983 at Mile High Stadium… otherwise known as the day John Elway happened. Down 19-0 in the fourth quarter, the rookie suddenly found holes in the Baltimore defense where there were none – throwing three touchdown passes to lead the Broncos to a playoff-clinching victory. It was everything Accorsi envisioned when he drafted Elway and everything he feared when Irsay traded him away.

Shortly after the season ended, Accorsi handed in his resignation as the team’s GM. Within three months the Colts were gone, too.

Maybe neither happens if Elway isn’t traded. Maybe Accorsi was right and Elway would’ve agreed to play for the Colts. We’ll never know. What we do is that when Elway was traded away, Baltimore lost more than its next great quarterback.

It lost its football team, too.

“If Elway had been signed,” Accorsi said in The GM, a best-selling book by Tom Callahan, “everything would have been different. There would have been an excitement around the city of Baltimore. It would have translated into season-ticket sales. It might even have changed the political climate around a new stadium. The Baltimore Colts didn’t have to die.”

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