NFL "National Football Lookback" - The Denver Broncos don't trade for John Elway

It’s that time of the week again, another edition of the National Football Lookback. In this edition I’m wrapping up the AFC West with the Denver Broncos, looking way back to 1983, and what if the Broncos never traded for John Elway?

Early in their existence, the Denver Broncos were not a successful franchise. From 1960 up until they traded for Elway in the 1983 NFL draft, the Broncos had been to one Super Bowl (a loss to the Cowboys in 1977) and only finished first in their division twice. They were coming off a strike-shortened 2-7 record in the 1982 season and had the fourth overall pick in the draft, which they used on offensive lineman Chris Hinton. However John Elway, drafted first overall by the Baltimore Colts, refused to play in Baltimore and the Broncos subsequently traded Hinton, backup quarterback Mark Hermann and a first-round pick in 1984 for Elway to fill their need at quarterback.

John Elway would have an immediate impact on the Broncos fortunes, taking them to the playoffs in his first season at Mile High Stadium. Over the course of his career, his impact would grow immensely, leading the Broncos to the playoffs in ten out of sixteen seasons, making it to five Super Bowls and winning two in 1997 and 1998.

John Elway's "helicopter" dive was a defining play in their victory over the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII

Elway is now the General Manager in Denver and has guided them to a further two Super Bowls in his post-playing career, winning one at Super Bowl 50 in 2015. But what would’ve happened to this now great franchise had they not pulled the trigger on the Elway trade back in 1983?

The Denver Broncos were in desperate need of a spark for their organisation after a poor 1982 season and the retirement of quarterback Craig Morton, but Elway’s motivation for football was questioned after he refused to play in Baltimore. So if the Broncos stuck to their original draft class, this is how it could've all played out.

The quarterback room for Denver going into the 1983 season would’ve been Steve DeBerg, Mark Hermann, and rookie Gary Kubiak. DeBerg was actually a solid quarterback throughout his career, but would never reach the heights of Elway, winning only one out of the four playoff games he played in during a twenty-one-year career. So let’s assume the Broncos don’t make the playoffs in 1983 and move on from DeBerg. With their first-round pick in 1984 still intact, the Broncos would’ve had their pick of the quarterbacks, after all, there wasn’t a first-rounder drafted in ’84.

The first quarterback who was selected in 1984? Boomer Esiason. So the Broncos miss out on their historically great number seven in 1983, but they do draft another all-time great quarterback to wear number seven in 1984.

In this scenario, the Broncos pick up a hugely talented and successful quarterback. Esiason would win the league MVP award in 1988, one year after Elway, and actually had a better quarterback rating over his career than Elway. On paper this looks like a great trade-off for Denver, they keep their original draft picks and get a quarterback who, statistically at least, performed as well if not better than the guy they traded for.

Then again it’s never that simple in the NFL.

Esiason may have been a statistically great quarterback in the 1980s and ’90s but he was never a player who took his team over the top. Boomer eventually finished his career with a losing record and despite his stellar play was always overshadowed by the likes of Elway and Marino. Ultimately he would’ve always been too promising for the Broncos to move on from, but never successful enough for them to win the big one. Denver therefore would’ve stayed as a middling franchise, waiting for a savior at quarterback.

Fast forward to the present day and John Elway the General Manager. Having never played in Denver there is little chance that Elway would be there running the show now. Without Elway and the rich history, I doubt the Broncos are in the running to sign Peyton Manning in 2012. A decision which, as I mentioned, lead to another period of success and another Super Bowl.

Elway hoists the Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl L after the Broncos defeat the Panthers.

Sorry Broncos fans, but without that trade for John Elway, you’ve lost 6 or 7 Super Bowl appearances and 3 Championships. You’re the new Cincinnati Bengals.

The Colts on the other hand would’ve had a 35 year stretch at quarterback of John Elway, Peyton Manning, and Andrew Luck. Looking back, this deal has got to hurt the Colts.

Written by Scott Glynn, first published on 01/06/2020

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