John had no memory of anything that failed before." Thus does Ernie Accorsi account for the icy cool of Unitas, who joined the Colts in 1956. That summer Baltimore played an exhibition game against the Eagles in Hershey, Pa. In attendance was a 14-year-old Accorsi, who grew up in Hershey and saw Unitas launch "the first pass he ever threw as a Colt."
Fourteen years later, in 1970, Accorsi was hired as the Colts' p.r. director. Watching Unitas warm up in the preseason, he noticed he'd lost a large measure of zip off his fastball. Turning to a bookish scout named Milt Davis, Accorsi wondered aloud, "Can we win with John, the way he's throwing?"
Davis's reply made a lasting impression: "Ernest, we evaluate the quarterback on his ability to take the team down the field and into the end zone with a championship on the line. That's how you evaluate the quarterback."
"It was a lesson I never forgot," says Accorsi, now a consultant for the Panthers. Accorsi's insurance agent is still Jim Mutscheller, the 82-year-old ex--Colts tight end. In the 1958 NFL championship game Unitas executed the seminal two-minute drill—85 yards in seven plays on the frozen turf at Yankee Stadium—to force overtime with the Giants. Alan Ameche's one-yard plunge in sudden death won the Greatest Game Ever Played. On the preceding snap Unitas had thrown six yards to Mutscheller, who lost his footing on a patch of ice and went out-of-bounds just inside the two-yard line. For decades Unitas needled him at banquets: I tried to make Mutscheller a hero, and he fell out-of-bounds.
"I always kept my mouth shut," the old tight end recently told Accorsi, "but he threw that ball behind me."
Even the drives that end up being burnished into legend by NFL Films are messy and imperfect as they unfold in real time. Before his Giants tenure Accorsi had put in two turbulent years as G.M. of the Baltimore Colts. He resigned in February 1984 after owner Robert Irsay traded away John Elway, whom Accorsi had chosen with the first pick in that year's NFL draft but who said he'd never play for the team.
Today Accorsi describes Elway as "the greatest player I ever scouted." He saw that judgment vindicated in the 1986 postseason. By then he was G.M. of the Browns, who were hosting Elway's Broncos in the AFC title game. Accorsi looked on as the quarterback he'd once drafted crafted the most epic non--Super Bowl two-minute drill ever.
It began with 5:32 on the clock. A muffed kickoff bottled Elway and the Broncos back at their own 2. In the huddle, guard Keith Bishop famously deadpanned, "We've got 'em right where we want 'em." Fifteen plays later Elway completed his sixth pass of the drive—known thereafter as The Drive—a five-yard guided-missile touchdown to Mark Jackson. Barefoot kicker Rich Karlis's extra point tied the game, and his 33-yard field goal in overtime won it.
Whom the football gods would destroy, they would first have engage in premature celebration. On second-and-10 at Cleveland's 40, Elway had been sacked by Dave Puzzuoli, who raised his hands in triumph. Denver's misfortunes seemed to be mounting when, on the ensuing third-and-18, Bishop's shotgun snap glanced off the hip of Steve Watson, who'd gone in motion. Elway performed an impromptu contortion to gather the wayward snap, then gunned a 20-yard completion to Jackson, and the roar in Municipal Stadium was reduced to a concerned muttering.
Another quirk from that possession, according to Accorsi: "We'd just picked up Brad Van Pelt" to beef up a thin linebacker corps. "Before the last play of The Drive the new guy missed the defensive call. On the touchdown pass we had 10 men on the field. The way Elway played, maybe it didn't make any difference."