Bill Walsh considered trading Joe Montana for John Elway
Joe Montana won four Super Bowls and is considered by many to be the greatest quarterback of all time. John Elway won two Super Bowls and is considered to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Can you believe that the coach who had so much success with Montana, Bill Walsh, seriously thought about trading him for Elway even after winning a Super Bowl with the Notre Dame product? That was one of many intriguing details brought to light in ESPN’s 30 for 30 special on the 1983 NFL Draft.
This week, I finally got around to watching “Elway to Marino,” even though the film first aired on ESPN on April 23. The outstanding documentary chronicled the historic 1983 draft from the perspective of agent Marvin Demoff, who represented eventual Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway and Dan Marino, who were both first-round selections that year. Demoff maintained a diary on his daily affairs from that time so that he would be able to accurately relay all his business conversations with the Elways. Demoff was able to reconstruct history for the documentary by referring back to his notes.
The big controversy surrounding the draft was that Elway, who was coming off a record-breaking career at Stanford, did not want to go to the Baltimore Colts. The Colts were coming off an 0-8-1 season, and the Elways did not like the team’s head coach, Frank Kush. They also felt the franchise was unstable, which proved to be correct when the team moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis overnight prior to the 1984 season.
The Elways spent the months leading up to the draft saying that John would not play for the Baltimore Colts. They even used the multi-talented athlete’s baseball career — he was drafted and played a season for the New York Yankees minor leagues — as leverage in negotiations. Many teams tried trading with the Colts in order to get Elway, but most of the teams failed in their efforts. Colts GM Ernie Accorsi had a high price tag for Elway, which many teams could not meet. Plus, team owner Robert Irsay frequently dealt with teams on his own, which complicated the process.
But Demoff, in the documentary, dropped one bombshell.
On April 6, 20 days before the draft, Demoff wrote this note: “Discussion with Bill Walsh. Would be interested in John Elway if he can trade Joe Montana.”
Though Montana and Walsh went 13-3 in 1981 and won Super Bowl XVI, the San Francisco 49ers were coming off a 3-6 season in 1982 and held the No. 5 overall pick in the draft. Walsh, who recruited Elway out of high school back when he was the head coach at Stanford, was not too satisfied with his team after the poor season.
Colts GM Ernie Accorsi says he called Walsh after hearing about the conversation with Demoff.
“I called him,” Accorsi said on “Elway to Marino.” “And I didn’t offer it, but I explored the Montana thing. And … the kind of person he really is – his stature and how he lived up to it – he said to me ‘I could just never trade [Montana].’ That’s what he said to me. I think it was, at that time, he was not through winning championships with Montana yet.”
Elway apparently did not know that there were talks about him being traded for Montana.
“It’s crazy that that was even a thought,” Elway said. “To me, it would have been a good fit. I would have loved to have been able to play for (Walsh). But looking back 30 years later, that would have been a tough situation stepping into.”
Elway wound up traded to the Denver Broncos, for whom he started and helped lead to the playoffs in 1983. He played his entire career with the Broncos, leading the franchise to 10 playoff appearances and back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1997 and 1998 under coach Mike Shanahan. Elway made nine Pro Bowls, won an MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, and is regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Though you never know how much success Walsh and Elway could have had in San Francisco, it would be hard to have any regrets about the way things went for the Niners. The team made the playoffs eight straight years after the disappointing 1982 season, all before they made a controversial trade by sending the aging Montana to Kansas City (Walsh was not with the team when that trade was made). The Niners won three Super Bowls with Montana and Walsh, and a fourth with Montana and George Seifert.
San Francisco fans would never give back what they won with Montana as quarterback, but it’s always fun to wonder about how things might have been had Elway and Montana swapped placed in ’83.