What if? Could Elway have landed with Seahawks?


So now we find out the rest of the story: John Elway could have spent his entire career with the Seahawks.

The ESPN documentary “Elway to Marino,” the network’s most recent installment of its excellent “30 for 30” series, analyzes the quarterback-rich 1983 draft with a hindsight that’s both fascinating and frustrating.

Thanks to details supplied by the diary of agent Marvin Demoff — he represented both quarterbacks — the NFL Films production suggests Elway not only would have been open to the idea of wearing a Seahawks uniform, but the Stanford grad also was hopeful it would happen.

For those of you just tuning in, Baltimore selected Elway No. 1, despite his warnings that he’d pursue a baseball career with the Yankees rather than sign with the Colts. Owner Robert Irsay listened to some trade offers before the draft, then took the coveted quarterback anyway.

But when it became clear Elway was determined to follow through on his threat, the Colts made a trade — completed 30 years ago this past Thursday — that ranks as among the most significant in pro football history.

They sent Elway to Denver in exchange for the Broncos’ first choice in ‘83 (offensive tackle Chris Hinton), backup quarterback Mark Herrmann, and another first-round choice in 1984.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, had done some major draft-day maneuvering themselves. With their eyes on Penn State running back Curt Warner, the Seahawks gave their first-round pick (No. 9 overall) to Houston, along with their second- and third-round picks, for a shot at selecting Warner at No. 3.

In other words, the package the Broncos sent to Baltimore for Elway wasn’t substantially better than the package the Seahawks sent to Houston for Warner.

And here’s the rub: Elway had an affinity for Seattle that traced to his Washington roots. He was born in Port Angeles and had lived in both Aberdeen (where his dad, Hoquiam High graduate Jack Elway, coached the Grays Harbor College football team) and Pullman (after Jack had taken a job as a Washington State assistant).

Furthermore, Elway’s fiancee at the time, Stanford swimmer Janet Buchan, was a Tacoma resident who had been a star high school athlete at Wilson.

Family ties abounded, a potentially transcendent talent was there for the taking, but the Seahawks were unable to seize the day. They were happy with Warner, who would earn three Pro Bowl selections and was named an All-Pro in 1987.

Curt Warner cannot be characterized as a disappointment, unless the relatively short shelf life of his career — 93 games over seven seasons with the Seahawks — is compared with Elway, who started 231 times for the Broncos. Durable? When former Denver coach Wade Phillips called Elway “the Lou Gehrig of quarterbacks,” it didn’t sound like an overstatement.

While Elway resembled a pillar of strength in Denver between his rookie season of 1983 and his final, triumphant Super Bowl championship season of 1998, the Seahawks started 12 different quarterbacks. The musical-chairs rotation during that span began with Jim Zorn and Dave Krieg, and ended with Warren Moon and Jon Kitna, and included Gale Gilbert, Bruce Mathison, Stan Gelbaugh and Dan McGwire.

Seattle’s offense was so bleak in 1992, the Seahawks were able to draft the No. 2 overall pick the following spring. It turned out to be Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer, who showed promise as a rookie before regressing.

What if Seattle had traded for John Elway 30 years ago this week? The “what ifs?” are endless.

Elway joins an ascending team coached by Chuck Knox. The rookie probably sits behind Krieg for a year, then gets comfortable immersing himself into an offense that features Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent, among the most dependable go-to targets ever born.

There’s a succession of AFC West playoff appearances in the mid-1980s — the Broncos don’t have Elway, remember — and something of a Seattle dynasty going on throughout the 1990s, those years when teams known for reliably competitive defenses were undermined by, well, such quarterbacks as Stan Gelbaugh and Dan McGwire.

Then again, as the “Marino to Elway” documentary points out, the “what-if?” drill is open for everybody. The chance to work with Elway intrigued San Francisco coach Bill Walsh, to the point he was willing to trade a young 49ers quarterback to the Colts.

His name was Joe Montana.

When it came to quarterbacks with strong arms, and the potential of breaking a game open with one play, the Raiders’ Al Davis always was a step ahead of everybody else. Davis put together a trade scenario with the Colts for Elway that didn’t work out because, Davis insisted, the league conspired in a plot, conceived in the commissioner’s office, to irritate the Raiders.

Here’s still another “what if?” What if the Seahawks, 30 years ago, had kept their ninth selection in the first round? It turned out be USC offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, a 14-time Pro Bowl selection who cruised into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

What if?

The question lingers: John Elway, who would become the bane of the Seahawks, once had aspirations of playing for the Seahawks. It could’ve happened, and with a brief phone call tweaking a draft pick here and there, it would’ve happened.

As blunders go, the Seahawks’ identification of a running back as a Top Three prize of the 1983 draft is not the most egregious move ever made by a pro sports franchise. That distinction forever will belong to the Boston Red Sox, who traded some kid named Babe Ruth.

But the failure to recognize a potentially legendary quarterback — a Washington native who longed to stay on the West Coast — haunted the Seahawks for two decades.

Oh, well, maybe it’s best to look at this way: If Seattle ever celebrates a Super Bowl victory with a championship parade, it won’t be a stock version of the same old thing. It will be a first.

There will be a novelty about the celebration, a novelty Elway was primed to spoil some 25 years ago.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com