Trading away a future Hall of Famer is never a good decision. Hindsight is always 20-20, and no one can predict what will happen decades in advance, but the Colts trading away John Elway in 1983 is one of the worst decisions in NFL history -- even if he forced their hand by threatening to play baseball instead of suiting up for Baltimore.
It looks even more outlandish when digging through the details, which reveal several harsh realities of the trade. Not only did the Colts turn down better offers from other teams, but the trade created a great deal of turmoil among their executives and coaches.
Continuing our 10-day series examining the biggest trades in NFL history, here are a handful of facts you may not have known about how Elway ended up in Denver.
The Colts got productive players in return, but no quality quarterback
At the time, many believed the Colts settled for a lesser package of players and picks than they should have. It was essentially a lower-level quarterback and the rights to two draft picks. Not exactly a king’s ransom for a No. 1 overall pick who seemed like a sure thing. However, as bad as the haul looked, the Colts actually received some productive players.
Sure, quarterback Mark Herrmann didn’t have a big impact in just five games with the Colts, but Chris Hinton and Ron Solt, who was taken in the first round in 1984, were starters for several years.
Hinton was a seven-time Pro Bowler and a five-time All-Pro, and most of those accolades came with the Colts. He was the team's primary left tackle for seven years.
Solt was also a valuable player. He started 71 games at right guard for the Colts, making one Pro Bowl in that span. The only problem was the Colts didn’t have a franchise quarterback, and the Broncos now did.
Herrmann was merely a journeyman, and his stay with the Colts was short-lived. So though it’s nice that the Colts actually received a pair of starting offensive linemen, the lack of a stud under center was difficult to accept -- especially when a trade down could have netted either Jim Kelly or Dan Marino.
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GM Ernie Accorsi resigned one year after owner Robert Irsay traded away Elway
General manager Ernie Accorsi was unhappy with the Colts’ decision to trade away the rights to Elway for a mediocre package in return. He was the man behind the roster, building the team and controlling the personnel. That didn’t matter to owner Robert Irsay, however, who made the deal without considering the implications it would have on his coaching staff and front office.
A year after Baltimore made the trade, Accorsi suddenly retired. It was a surprising decision that caught a lot of people off guard, though the turmoil in Baltimore was a hint that a move like this could be coming.
"I've thought about this for more months than the length of those rumors," Accorsi said at the time.
Accorsi had been with the Colts for 12 years, many of which were underwhelming and lacked playoff appearances. That wasn’t entirely his fault, considering Irsay and his sometimes-shocking decisions hurt the overall development of the team.
The fact that the Colts were possibly moving out of Baltimore likely also played a role in Accorsi’s resignation, but the main factor was the Colts’ lack of a quarterback after Irsay passed on Elway – a move the franchise would forever regret.
Chargers owner Gene Klein showed interest in Elway as leverage for Dan Fouts
One team that appeared to be interested in Elway was the Chargers. It was an interesting development because Dan Fouts, their all-time best quarterback, was a free agent, and the possibility of replacing him seemed unfathomable. However, owner Gene Klein showed interest in the No. 1 overall pick as a negotiating tactic for Fouts.
Klein reportedly offered the No. 20 and 22 picks in the 1983 draft, their first-round pick in 1984 and quarterback Ed Luther for Elway, which was a significant haul. The Colts, however, declined the offer because it didn’t involve the fifth overall pick, which Accorsi wanted to use on Dan Marino.
That same offseason, Fouts wound up signing the largest contract in NFL history, a six-year deal worth more than $1 million per year. Fouts had considered retirement but ultimately went on to play several more years after signing his new deal.
The Yankees courted Elway strongly before the 1983 draft
It’s no secret that Elway was a big baseball prospect. He was drafted by the Yankees in 1981 and even participated in minor-league camp that summer, seemingly gearing up for a career on the diamond rather than the gridiron. However, Elway stuck with football at Stanford and up until he made it to the NFL.
The Yankees did their best to steer Elway toward baseball, though. George Steinbrenner brought Elway to Yankee Stadium, gave his mom a gold “NY” necklace, and told him that he could be in the majors in a year or so after rising through the minor leagues relatively quickly.
Elway used the Yankees’ interest in him as a negotiating tactic to get out of Baltimore, threatening to go play baseball rather than playing for the Colts. Many believed it was merely a bluff because of Elway’s inability to hit a curveball, but regardless of how serious Elway was, his leverage worked.
The Cowboys offered the Colts more for Elway than the Broncos
With it being known that Elway would not play for the Colts, several teams got in on the bidding. The Raiders reportedly floated a three-team trade involving Howie Long and the Bears, the Seahawks were interested, and the 49ers reportedly once considered trading Joe Montana to the Colts in a package deal.
The Cowboys, however, offered the most of anyone. According to former vice president of personnel Gil Brandt, Dallas was willing to give up three starters and a pick in the 1984 draft.
"We offered three starters and a future pick for next year," Brandt said in ESPN’s “Elway to Marino” documentary. "In my mind, it was a better offer than what they ended up doing with Denver. The only thing is, we were dealing with (coach) Frank Kush instead of dealing with Mr. Irsay."
Irsay was the man who pulled all the strings, so any deal would have to go through him.
Elway had more Super Bowl appearances than the Colts had postseason trips
From 1983 to 1998, Elway was the Broncos’ starting quarterback. The Colts went through a number of players at that position during that same stretch, none of whom had as much success as Elway.
During that span, Elway led the Broncos to a whopping five Super Bowl appearances, winning his final two in 1997 and 1998. The Colts struggled to not only make the playoffs but to simply win games. They didn’t reach the postseason until four years after the Elway trade, struggling to just 19 wins from 1983-86.
In fact, they would go on to make the playoffs just three times from 1983-98, an awful stretch during which they had just five winning seasons. They won their division just once, while Elway helped the Broncos win theirs seven times.