Monday Musings: Just how close Elway came to being a Colt; scouting tonight’s opener

When I realized that my Monday column fell on the real opening day of Denver's season, I wanted to put together something with a gravitas fitting to the occasion. Musing over the years, I found myself thinking back to an event that was essential to John Elway’s presence as Vice President of Football Operations for the Broncos. It features historic characters, human fallibility and an outcome that changed history for the team that he’s putting back in orange.

Did you know that John Elway actually agreed, in a phone conversation, with Ernie Accorsi (the much-loved GM of a demented franchise in those Baltimore Colts, owned as they were by Robert Irsay) to wear the horseshoe? History records that Elway was willing to make the leap that would have kept him from ever becoming a Bronco. I’d never heard this part of the story until recently, and since we are on the threshold of the first regular season game with Elway running the franchise, I think that it’s worth looking back upon.

Most of you know that I like to read a lot. That’s really an understatement - if a silence falls during dinner, I’ll read the ketchup bottle. Writing for me was just an outgrowth of a love from childhood for the power and value of words and language. One of the many benefits of a fondness for reading is that by definition, a lot of good authors love to tell a good story. Tom Callahan is just such a man, and among other things, he wrote a biography on legendary football figure Ernie Accorsi - it was simply titled The GM. Ernie, well, he was one of a kind. In a world where the GM won’t compliment a player because then he might be held to it in contract talks, when Ernie told you that you were doing a great job, he remembered it when it was time to up the ante. In a business that’s cold by its nature and in which men change jobs constantly, he lived practically his whole life in the northeast and never wanted to live anywhere else. He like everyone, got along with nearly everyone, and knew everything that you could know about the game.

He only worked for the front offices of a few franchises, and those for whom he did, he changed forever. Ask anyone who was in pro football from the 1970s to the 1990s and they’ll tell you the same - Ernie Accorsi was a rarity in the sports world: a good man who didn’t let the system change him. Vince Lombardi had given him good advice - he told Accorsi to remain who he really was, and that the hard-charging, cold and sometimes backstabbing folks wouldn’t know how to handle him. Accorsi took it to heart, and Lombardi was proved to be right. 

Carroll Rosenbloom, however - the former owner of the Baltimore Colts - really was not a decent guy. The truth is, he was allegedly more than a bit of a crook:  Rosenbloom had inherited a dungarees factory from his father and turned it into a hot business - perhaps literally. According to his own sister, he hired the job out and paid to have the business torched for the insurance money. Calling him a scoundrel probably understates the case if even half the things I’ve read are true, but Rosenbloom was as shrewd as he was crooked. His schemes generally worked out, and he became a very wealthy man.

Following 19 seasons of ownership including four NFL championships, Rosenbloom really didn’t want to own the Baltimore Colts any longer come 1972. He’d bought in for a relative pittance ($25K), back when franchises weren’t worth much because they lost money, and now it was worth millions. It would be worth a lot less, though, if he had to pay capital gains taxes on the sale of it - so he and his friend Robert Irsay hatched themselves a scheme. Irsay would buy the Rams (then in Los Angeles), which he did for $18 million, and he and Rosenbloom would then trade franchises. Irsay would get the Colts (as well as some of Rosenbloom’s future favors) and Rosenbloom would get to legally defraud the IRS. It was perfect. For the wealthy and the very wealthy, favors can be worth much more than cash.

Irsay was as perfect a match to Rosenbloom as you could find. Irsay drank to excess and did at least one press conference visibly intoxicated. Reportedly, it wasn’t an aberration - he drank a lot, both in volume and frequency. He and Rosenbloom were friends, both were scoundrels, and neither minded defrauding someone in order to gain even more of his sizable fortune. What was worse from a football standpoint was that Irsay loved to play the role of a hands-on owner, despite knowing next to nothing about the game.

In the course of executing the plan that he’d hatched with Rosenbloom, Irsay inherited Ernie Accorsi as the team's PR director, eventually promoting Accorsi to GM in 1982 after Accorsi had spent two years working for NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle before returning as the Colts' assistant GM in 1977. Accorsi in turn had inherited head coach Frank Kush when he took the GM job in 1982. Ernie, who rarely had a bad word for anyone, said that Kush’s widely known reputation for being a tough, physical guy and also a jerk were both overstated. When it was time to make the 1983 draft picks, Accorsi went out looking for a quarterback to select first overall, and he happened to go to the East-West game (Jack Elway was the coach for the West that year) to see John Elway play. On one play in practice, Elway rolled out to the right, and his receiver dashed down the left sideline until he was seemingly out of range. Elway threw across his body flat-footed and the ball soared 75 yards through the air diagonally and into the receiver’s hands. Accorsi was instantly sold - he’d been researching the QBs in that storied draft class and he knew exactly what he was seeing. Elway was the player that the Colts could build a franchise around.

Jack Elway had said privately that his son would never play for Frank Kush, who he viewed with disgust. John had said publicly that he’d never play for Baltimore, and even went so far as to sign a minor league contract with George Steinbrenner and the Yankees. Accorsi, who seemed to know everyone, got in touch with the guy who had scouted Elway for the Yankees, Bob Nieman, and found that Nieman didn’t think that Elway would be able to hit Triple-A pitching, so the threat of jumping football for baseball was minimal. Ernie also noted to Tom Callahan that if Steinbrenner ever knew who spilled the info, he’d have the late Nieman exhumed just so he could fire him. However, knowing that didn’t solve Accorsi’s problem. He still didn’t have Elway.

As the furor grew and dragged on, John Elway took matters into his own hands. He called Accorsi one night and they talked for a long time. Elway told Ernie that he was tired of the fuss and bother, and when it came down to it, he said, he just wanted to play football. Accorsi said that the conversation was long, they found common ground and the pick became a done deal. Ernie, being an honest guy, then made the major error of telling Robert Irsay about the talk. Irsay, half-tanked, immediately started getting on the phone to trade Elway. He was talking to the Patriots GM Chuckie Sullivan about trading John Hannah for Elway when Accorsi stepped into his office. How about John Hannah? Irsay is said to have asked. Accorsi ordered him to hang up on Sullivan immediately.

Accorsi says that he then went to Frank Kush and told him that even if it cost Accorsi his job, or both of them their jobs, they had to stand together and make sure that they got Elway. Kush assured him that he was behind him 100%. As they walked together into Irsay’s office, Irsay immediately asked Kush how he’d feel about having John Hannah. Kush’s reply?

Love to, boss. He lasted nearly three entire seconds before rolling over. So much for the tough guy reputation. Accorsi was on his own, but he stuck to his guns through the meeting. If Irsay traded Elway, there would be another press conference soon after, Accorsi said, because Ernie was going to resign. For the purposes of the meeting, at least, Irsay promised that he wouldn’t trade Elway.

Fortunately for Denver, Irsay remained undaunted. As Accorsi was watching an NBA game on TV soon after, the station broadcasting it ran a crawler across the bottom of the screen: Irsay had traded the rights to Elway to the Broncos for backup QB Mark Hermann, the rights to OT Chris Hinton (whom Denver had selected with the fourth-overall pick), Denver's 1984 first-round pick and the proceeds of two preseason games, which came to about $250K each.

Things would get uglier from there - Accorsi wasn’t kidding about quitting. Near the end of the season, Accorsi took a trip to New York and had a meeting with Pete Rozelle. He told him that the franchise was in deep trouble, that Irsay was a loose cannon who was going to do whatever he felt like doing when in his cups. That was a frequent state of affairs, both Rozelle and Ernie knew, and Accorsi also said that Irsay was going to move the franchise, the NFL be damned. Rozelle didn’t really seem to know what to do about it, but Accorsi had been a Colts fan since growing up in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  He’s lived for that franchise all his life and wanted to do the right thing: he wanted to try to save the Baltimore Colts franchise. Rozelle did nothing. In January, a drunken Irsay held a press conference and denounced the rumors that he was going to move the team. At the same time, he exclaimed during his rambles, This is MY goddamn team.  The implication was that he was going to do whatever he wanted. He did.

Late in the evening on an early March day, Accorsi’s phone rang. It was a film guy who worked for the Colts, and he needed to tell Ernie that moving vans from the next state were there, loading up and moving the franchise. The vans would also take an unusual route, basically fleeing to the state line and taking to their actual route from there. The legislature in Maryland had brought a bill to the floor that day and its passage would have invoked eminent domain and required the Colts, as a state matter, to remain in Baltimore. The Mayor of Indianapolis, on the other hand, had arranged for the vans and set up a place for them in town.  Accorsi called Rozelle to inform him, and Rozelle seemed nonplussed. Accorsi was too nice to point out that he’d told him that this would happen but three months earlier.

But there was, to be sure, a series of happier endings. Unhappily for him, of course, Carroll Rosenbloom, who was said to be an expert swimmer, was drowned in the waters off of Golden Beach, Florida. The case remains unresolved, but the indications are that he either suffered a heart attack while swimming, as the coroner maintains, or that he was murdered, as a lot of other people maintain - the coroner could be right and yet certainly, there was no shortage of possible perpetrators given the number of people that Rosenbloom had allegedly defrauded, fired or taken things from. I didn’t look into the conspiracy theory, not being that interested in Rosenbloom beyond football. Robert Irsay died in January of 1994 after surviving a stroke and developing pneumonia, heart and kidney problems. His son Jim runs the Colts to this day, but with the constant leadership of respected GM Bill Polian.

John Elway ultimately came to where he truly belonged: Denver. He gave us years of enjoyment and the exaltation of back-to-back Super Bowl titles before he retired as QB of the team. Tonight will mark the first regular-season game of the tenure of Elway as VP of Football Operations as well as those of head coach John Fox, DC Dennis Allen and Mike McCoy (who will now be asked to perform as a real OC, including calling plays). It seemed like a good time to tell how the tale truly began as we enter a new chapter in the Broncos’ story. I think that it’s good to learn from the past, enjoy the present and look forward to the future. I’m looking forward to a new season for the Broncos.

Tonight, the Broncos open their first season under the Elway/Fox/Xanders (EFX) group with a lot of players who have been together only a matter of weeks. The level of turnover has been high, as you’d expect from a team that’s changing its defensive system and upgrading its offensive line and running game as well as modifying its offensive approach. I think that overall, the Broncos did a pretty good job in preparing as much as is possible under the circumstances. They’ve got a young but elite player in Von Miller, Rahim Moore seems to be a natural for the free safety slot, and Orlando Franklin brings some much-needed aggression to the offensive line. Willis McGahee gives Denver a much better running option in goal line situations. There’s a long way to go, but the Broncos have made some major steps in climbing this mountain. Now we get to find out just how those steps have affected the team.

Elway has broken with a Denver tradition and announced that the team was in what amounts to a three-year rebuilding process, and the implication is that they are done with the constant changing of schemes, coaches and players. The Broncos are going to establish who they are as a team and make every effort to get back to the perennial playoff contender that they once were. It’s not going to always be a smooth road, to put it mildly.

Opening the season on Monday Night Football, with a national audience for one of the storied rivalries of the division was a bit of inspired scheduling on the part of the NFL. I’ll admit it - I’m going to be on the edge of my seat for this one. A win would be a huge boost for the rebuilding franchise. The longest labor stoppage in the history of the NFL is over, the biggest free agent market in the league’s history is behind us, and Denver will now show us what we’ve been waiting for, for what seems like a very, very long time. I can’t wait to find out what the real product looks like.

The Oakland Game

Let’s face it - after the longest work stoppage in league history, I think that everyone is somewhat relieved to have the soothing balm of some normalcy as we start the new season. In addition to telling the Elway story in honor of his first regular season game running the team, I wanted to look at some of the keys to how I see this game playing out. Here are a few facts that could be worth considering:

  1. Oakland has lost 8 straight season openers
  2. Denver has won 11 straight home openers, the longest current streak in the league.
  3. Oakland has lost 11 straight games played at night.
  4. Oakland has a mediocre overall run defense, but a good front seven including MLB Rolando McClain.
  5. Denver has a chance to test out what they believe will win games - the two-headed attack of Knowshon Moreno and McGahee, and the run blocking of the OL. It’s a great opportunity.
  6. Oakland, as Ted noted, has a relatively weak secondary. Meanwhile, Denver has one of the best cadres of receivers in the league and they have a lot of faith in QB Kyle Orton.
  7. Oakland does have a good defensive front in terms of rushing the passer (they move Richard Seymour around particularly well and Matt Shaughnessy has looked good) and a strong performance by McClain in the middle - Denver is about to find out if they can pass-block. If they can run the ball and pass block, Oakland is in serious trouble. If they can’t, Denver may struggle. It’s a big key.
  8. On Oakland’s side is their running game. They have an OL currently made of more question marks than anything else, but their running backs have been a huge problem for Denver. Yet, Denver’s defensive personnel and system are too different right now for the past to matter much. Denver’s D is going to learn quite quickly how far they’ve come as far as stopping the run.
  9. Oakland’s passing game isn’t likely to be strong enough to carry them if the run fails unless Denver can’t get pressure. With the new front group, it would surprise me if Denver struggles to do so. Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller along with Robert Ayers, Kevin Vickerson and Brodrick Bunkley in the middle have looked strong, played physically and gotten pressure.
  10. Against the run, Denver has its biggest challenge. Their answer is that Bunkley is an anchor and Doom has been playing the run like a different guy in preseason (the new 10 lb look great on him - so does the new beard). That Wes Woodyard at Will continues to work towards putting on muscle weight and he’s now playing a hair under 230, which is close to the 230-237 that Jon Beason played at when playing both Will (2007 and 2010) and Mike (2007-2010) linebacker under Fox, and that Joe Mays is a tackling machine who didn’t bite on the same play fakes during the Seattle game that caught him in Dallas - he’s learning a new position on the fly. Brian Dawkins will have to be available to shut down the run, but he can do that from just outside the box too. He’s not as fast as he once was, but his astute play-recognition makes up for a lot of that when he needs to come up quickly. Miller has to step up a bit to the NFL level in his new run-stopping role but he’s coming along - Ayers will also be there to help him (in a first game in his new position), and Kevin Vickerson will start at UT.

When you put it all together, it’s hard for me to see Denver losing this game UNLESS. What’s the unless? Unless Oakland strikes fast in the first quarter and Denver has to play catchup, ala last season. It’s been Denver’s weakness in the recent past, although this is not the same team, in a lot of ways. If it happens, though, games can just get out of hand quickly, and when it happens neither the offense nor the defense can get them back under control. If Denver can control the opening quarter they don’t even have to score so much as not make turnovers and keep Oakland off the board early. If they can achieve those goals, I doubt that the Raiders are ready to carry the day. I’m taking Denver at home.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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