THE COLT-BRONCO HORSE TRADE
Just look at the fuss this fellow John Elway has caused. Selected by the Colts as the first pick in the NFL draft despite his vow that he'd sign with the New York Yankees rather than play football in Baltimore, Elway last week won his bluff—if that's what it was—when the Colts traded him to the Denver Broncos, a team more to his liking. En route to his happy landing in the Rockies, these things had already happened on his account:
•In hopes of keeping Elway from casting his lot with either the Yankees or, worse, the USFL, Commissioner Pete Rozelle, ordinarily a non-interventionist in such matters, took the unusual step of saying that if the parties desired, he'd help "in any way I can" to arrange a trade between the Colts and an NFL team interested in Elway.
•Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner and Rozelle's courtroom nemesis, threatened to bring yet another lawsuit against the NFL, this one alleging that before the draft Rozelle had vindictively sabotaged a three-way deal with the Bears and Colts that would have brought Elway to the Raiders.
•Rozelle said Davis was driven by "calculated paranoia." Bears General Manager Jim Finks called Davis "absolutely crazy." According to Davis, it was Finks who, at Rozelle's behest, scuttled the deal that had Elway ticketed for the Raiders.
•Colts owner Bob Irsay stunned the football world by making the Elway trade, one of the biggest in NFL history, over the heads of his own GM, Ernie Accorsi, and coach, Frank Kush, both of whom learned about the consummation of the deal from the media.
The commotion was heightened by the widely voiced assertion that Irsay had been taken to the cleaners by the Broncos. The fact is, given the Colts' alternatives, the deal may not have been as bad as Irsay's detractors made it seem. In return for Elway the Broncos gave the Colts their rights to Northwestern Tackle Chris Hinton, the fourth overall pick in the draft; to backup Quarterback Mark Herrmann; and to their first-round pick in 1984. The Broncos also agreed to play exhibition games in '84 and '85 in Denver with the Colts, who have drawn poorly during the preseason.
Herrmann is admittedly of dubious value, but the same can't be said of Hinton, a prospect considered by many scouts to be of future All-Pro caliber. Critics contend that the Colts had rejected better deals with the Raiders, Patriots and Chargers before the draft, but while each of these teams offered combinations of present and future first-round choices, none of the choices would have yielded a player of Hinton's promise; the highest proffered pick in any of the three deals was this year's 15th overall choice from the Patriots.
It was also argued that Elway really was bluffing about not playing in Baltimore and eventually would have signed with the Colts if Irsay hadn't panicked. This line of thinking was fueled by revelations after the Bronco trade was announced that Elway preferred the NFL over baseball all along, that he wasn't the can't-miss baseball prospect he'd been cracked up to be and that, contrary to what the public had been led to believe, the Yankees had never made him an offer. It's likely that the Colts knew or at least suspected much of this, and there was a report last week that Elway and his father, Jack, the San Jose State coach, had themselves panicked and had gotten in touch with the Colts about Elway's joining the team after all. But it's also known that the senior Elway disapproves of Rush's coaching methods and didn't want his son to play for so feeble a team as the Colts. In other words, if Irsay hadn't made the swap with the Broncos, there was always the chance that Elway still would have gone with the Yankees, in which case he could have come to the NFL after two years as an immensely marketable free agent.
One way the Colts could yet come up empty is if Hinton refuses to sign with them. After drafting Hinton, the Broncos had brought him to Denver, showed him the city and decked him out in cowboy boots. The subsequent trade to the Colts distressed Hinton's agent, Dick Lynn, who grumbled, "He's gone from cowboy boots to lobster and crab cakes in one week." Although Hinton indicated he'd probably sign with the Colts, he was also talking to the Chicago Blitz in the USFL and making sly comments calculated to send here-we-go-again tremors through the Colt organization. In a nicely satirical reference to Elway's bargaining tactics, Hinton told one TV interviewer, "I don't have to play for the Colts. I can play in the USFL, and I have another option—I'm an amateur tennis player."