The Time John Elway Could’ve Been a Patriot

Revisiting the 1983 NFL Draft.

You should really watch (here’s the schedule) the newest entry in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, Elway to Marino, which is about the impact of the star quarterback-studded 1983 NFL Draft.

As it turns out, that year the Patriots openly lusted after John Elway. The Baltimore Colts had the first overall pick, but the heralded Stanford quarterback said publicly that he didn’t want to play there. Then-Colts general manager Ernie Accorsi took him anyway, but quickly explored a trade. Apparently, New England was one of the teams in on the bidding. At least according to Accorsi, the Pats offered a package that included future Hall of Fame lineman John Hannah for Elway. But that wasn’t enough.

Accorsi says he told Colts owner Robert Irsay this:

“If you make this trade, which you certainly have the right of making, there are going to be two press conferences. You’re announcing the trade and I’m announcing my resignation. I’m not going to be a part of this. I’m washing my hands of this.”

Ouch. Later in the film, then-Patriots general manager Patrick Sullivan said that his team also wanted University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly, another future star. But, the Buffalo Bills nabbed him with the 14th overall pick. The Patriots, who had the 15th pick, ended up taking University of Illinois QB Tony Eason. That hurt. In a damning interview featured in the movie, then-Patriots coach Ron Meyer claimed he had no say in the selection and if given the choice, wouldn’t have drafted Eason. “We weren’t even allowed to read the [scouting] reports,” he said. “He wasn’t a very strong guy.”

The statement was prophetic. Eason ended up playing six-plus seasons for the Patriots, but is best known for getting devoured by the ’85 Bears in Super Bowl XX. He only spent three years as a starter. Eason, Meyer said in Elway to Marino, “was just another guy.”

True, at least in comparison to Elway, who the Colts—who covertly moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984—eventually traded to the Denver Broncos, and Dan Marino, who the Miami Dolphins took with the 27th pick of the ’83 draft. Both ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Patriots didn’t pick a quarterback in the first round again until 1993, when they selected Drew Bledsoe with top pick in the draft. Seven years later, in the sixth round, they took Tom Brady. Thankfully, he was not just another guy.