August 24, 2012
When it comes to a deep pool of quarterbacks being selected, the 1983 NFL Draft is at the top of the food chain. Six NFL signal callers were selected in the first round that year: John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Ken O’Brien, Tony Eason and Todd Blackledge. While it will be a while before the class of 2012 has a body of work that we can evaluate accurately in the grand scheme of things, it’s worth noting that all four quarterbacks selected in the opening round are slated to start in Week One this season.
The NFL is beginning to transition away from more veteran quarterbacks in what seems to be a youth movement at the position. Instead of Matt Hasselbeck, the Titans are turning to second year man Jake Locker. Christian Ponder enters his second year with the Vikings as the unchallenged number one on the depth chart. The Seahawks, despite shelling out $26 million for Matt Flynn, are still treating the competition as an open one, with third round pick Russell Wilson getting the start in the team’s third preseason clash.
It may be unfair and rather one sided to try comparing the classes of 2011 and 2012 to the Class of 1983 with such a limited amount of game action from them, but let’s take a look at what they will inevitably be compared to by fans and analysts around the nation and the league.
Class of 1983
John Elway (selected 1st overall by Colts, traded to Denver): Elway was the then-Baltimore Colts selection with the first overall pick in the draft. The only problem was, he didn’t want to play for Baltimore and threatened to return to playing minor league baseball with the Yankees organization if the team didn’t deal him. Faced with a tough situation, Baltimore dealt Elway for Chris Hinton, who was Denver’s first round pick in 1983, quarterback Mark Herrmann and the Broncos’ first round choice in 1984, which the Colts turned into Ron Solt.
The rest is history. Elway turned Denver into a winner, taking the team to five Super Bowls and winning two. He was selected to the Pro Bowl nine times and led the Broncos to the postseason nine times in his career. Throw in a MVP award in 1987 and the Super Bowl MVP in 1998 along with 300 passing touchdowns and 33 rushing scores and Elway was a lock for the Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 2004.
As for the Colts, things didn’t end up nearly as rosy for them. The team would make the playoffs just once between 1983 and 1995, that coming during the strike season of 1987. The Elway fiasco may have been the penultimate blow to the franchise: they moved from Baltimore in the middle of the night following the 1983 season and became the Indianapolis Colts. Baltimore would not see another NFL team until Art Modell moved the Browns there in 1996 and called them the Ravens.
Todd Blackledge (selected 7th overall by Chiefs): The Chiefs were desperate for a quarterback, not content with playing Bill Kenney, a former 12th round pick of the Miami Dolphins. Instead of grabbing one of the other options on the board, they went with Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge to take over the reins of the offense. The problem for the Chiefs was that it never actually happened.
Blackledge was unable to beat out Kenney for the starting job and when Kenney produced his lone Pro Bowl campaign in 1983, it pretty much sealed the fate of Blackledge. Blackledge would start only 24 games in five years with the Chiefs, going 13-11. He would move on to Pittsburgh and play two seasons for the Steelers, going 2-3 as a starter behind Bubby Brister. After that, his career was over, a bust finished in the NFL by age 28.
Blackledge played in 46 NFL games, starting 29. He completed less than half his throws (48.1 percent) for 5,286 yards with 29 touchdowns and 38 interceptions while posting a 15-14 record as a starter.
Jim Kelly (selected 14th overall by Bills): The Bills were excited about drafting Kelly to take over from Joe Ferguson. Kelly was less than enthralled with being selected by Buffalo however, and instead went to play for the Houston Gamblers in the USFL. It wouldn’t be until the USFL collapsed that Kelly decided to play for Buffalo, inking a deal in August 1986. The move paid off handsomely for both the quarterback and the franchise.
Kelly would go on to lead the Bills for eleven seasons, making his mark in the “K-Gun” no huddle offense that was devised by Ted Marchibroda. Kelly would be named to five Pro Bowls in his career and led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. While Buffalo was unable to win the biggest game of them all, their four straight Super Bowls is unprecedented and unmatched in NFL history.
Kelly’s final game with the Bills came in a playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars following the 1996 season. It was shortened by a concussion, and a fourth quarter Jaguars rally left Buffalo on the wrong end of a 30-27 score. Kelly finished his career with 35.467 passing yards and 237 touchdown passes. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
One interesting note about Kelly’s selection is how the Bills obtained the pick. In 1979, the Bills had the first overall pick in the draft and chose Tom Cousineau out of Ohio State. Much like Kelly, Cousineau didn’t want to play for Buffalo and instead chose to play with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. When he came back to the United States to play in the NFL, Buffalo still retained his rights. They dealt him to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for Cleveland’s first round pick in 1983.
Tony Eason (selected 15th overall by Patriots): One pick after the Bills selected Kelly, the Patriots, also in need of a quarterback (all five teams that were in the AFC East that year selected QBs in the first round,) took Eason. He played college football at Illinois, a school that was not necessarily a passing powerhouse in the classic grind it out Big Ten Conference.
Eason put together a fair career in the league and helped the Patriots to their first Super Bowl appearance in 1985. That year however, was dominated by the Chicago Bears and their vaunted “46” defense. Oddly enough, 46 would be the number of points that the Bears would put up on New England that night, pummeling the Pats 46-10 en route to Chicago’s lone title in the Super Bowl era to date.
Eason split time with an aging and injury prone Steve Grogan for parts of seven seasons with New England before signing with the Jets in 1989. Eason would play the remainder of the 1989 and all of the 1990 seasons with New York before retiring. He finished 28-23 as a starting quarterback with 61 touchdown passes and 51 interceptions; after starting 14 games for New England in 1986, going 10-4, Eason would start only 10 more the rest of his career.
Ken O’Brien (selected 24th overall by New York Jets): O’Brien is one of the more forgotten quarterbacks of the 1980s and it’s definitely easy to overlook that he was part of the 1983 class. O’Brien was not from a football power in college by any stretch, having played at Sacramento State and UC-Davis before transitioning to the pros, but he was a cerebral quarterback that didn’t make a lot of mistakes, which kept his teams in games.
O’Brien had back to back seasons where he tossed 25 touchdown passes in 1985 and 1986, but he never threw for more than 15 in any other season during his career. O’Brien led the Jets to the playoffs in 1985 during his first full season as a starter but for the most part, the Jets were an average team during his tenure, unable to break into the AFC power structure that was dominated by Denver and Cleveland during the mid-1980s and the Buffalo Bills in the late 1980s through the early 1990s.
O’Brien finished his career in 1993 with the Philadelphia Eagles after spending most of the 1992 season with the Jets coming off the bench as the team turned to Browning Nagel as their quarterback of the future. O’Brien went 50-59-1 as a starter in the league, tossing 128 touchdown passes and 98 interceptions in his career. He made the Pro Bowl twice, first in 1985 and again in 1991 as despite throwing a meager 10 touchdown passes, the Jets went 8-8 and O’Brien led the league with five game winning drives.
Dan Marino (selected 27th overall by Dolphins): Nearly 30 years later, it’s still a mystery how Dan Marino fell to the next-to-last pick in the first round. The Miami Dolphins, coming off a Super Bowl defeat at the hands of John Riggins and the Redskins the year before, were more than happy to snatch Marino up. The aerial assault that went on in south Florida for the next 17 seasons produced numbers that weren’t surpassed until today’s pass happy offensive attacks.
Marino was the first quarterback to eclipse the 5,000 yard mark for passing yards in a season in 1984 when he threw for 5,084. He added 48 touchdown passes that year, a mark that has been surpassed only by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady since. Marino led the league in completions six times, attempts five times, yards five times and in touchdown passes on three occasions. Ten times in his career he posted the lowest sack percentage in the league, including the first seven years of his career.
However, Marino will forever be known for being unable to win the Super Bowl. He led the Dolphins to just one Super Bowl appearance, that coming in 1984 when they were turned aside by Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. The Dolphins were stymied from returning by teams such as Denver, Cleveland and Buffalo. Marino retired following the 1999 season with 61,361 passing yards and 420 touchdown passes.
Where might the young quarterbacks of 2011 and 2012 fit in correlation to this historic class? Stay tuned and we’ll give you a rough idea as to how they may factor in.