Tuesday night’s premiere of the “Elway to Marino” documentary on ESPN was a lot of fun, but only for fans of the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos.
Watching all over again as Marino dropped through the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft to the Dolphins must have been torture for everybody else. It never should have happened, and never would have without the unfounded drug rumors that circulated around the league as a possible rationale for Marino’s disappointing senior season at Pitt.
Here on the verge of another NFL draft, it’s more astonishing than ever to think that a Hall of Fame quarterback could be available to a team that was just three months earlier had appeared in the Super Bowl, and without the Dolphins even needing to trade up.
The system isn’t supposed to work that way, which makes it all the more interesting as the documentary zeroes in on all the oddities and power plays and broken deals that came between Elway’s selection at No. 1 overall and Marino at No. 27.
Of course, Elway turned the entire process upside down that year by refusing to play for the team that rightfully claimed him, the winless Baltimore Colts. And to think that LeBron James was demonized a few years back for simply shopping himself around the NBA as a free agent and leaving Cleveland to go with a team he liked better.
Back, though, to Marino, the first player taken in the old USFL draft but the last player that Miami expected to be available at the bottom of the first round.
In the days prior to the draft, Don Shula identified depth at defensive line as his top priority, with additional emphasis at linebacker. That says a lot about how well-positioned the Dolphins were for another deep playoff run. Miami already had the NFL’s top defense in 1982.
Quarterback remained an issue, of course. David Woodley, a scrambler from LSU, threw too many interceptions, which prompted Shula to lean heavily on the power running of fullback Andra Franklin. It was a style familiar to the coach and it could have continued, providing Woodley bounced back from a 4-for-14 passing day in a 27-17 Super Bowl loss to Washington.
“None of us are happy about what happened in the Super Bowl,” said Shula, “but it wasn’t totally his fault. The most important thing with Woodley is that there has been progress every year.”
Just in case, though, Shula attended Jim Kelly’s workout at the University of Miami and gathered notes on all the top passers.
Chuck Connor, the Dolphins’ director of player personnel at the time, told reporters he saw five quarterbacks who were likely to go in the first round or early in the second. The names he gave were Elway, Kelly, Tony Eason, Todd Blackledge and Marino. That left out Ken O’Brien, who the New York Jets shockingly wound up taking three spots ahead of Miami on draft day.
Of course, it was one surprise after another that day. Marino, for instance, wasn’t even the first Pitt player taken in the first round. Offensive tackle Jimbo Covert, Dan’s college roommate, went sixth overall to Chicago and cornerback Tim Lewis went 11th to Green Bay.
After Miami got Marino, Shula spoke of an open competition, saying that the curly-haired kid with the big arm would come to training camp fourth on the depth chart behind Woodley, Don Strock and Jim Jensen.
Woodley, though, could sense that he was toast.
“They wouldn’t have drafted him if they didn’t think he could come in here and do something,” Woodley said on the morning after the draft. “I think they’re going to give him a shot, and if they can do better with him, and if they can win more games with him, they’ll make him the quarterback.”
You know the rest, but here’s something that might not seem so obvious.
Three future Hall of Famer quarterbacks were drafted in 1983 — Elway, Kelly and Marino — but altogether they were just 2-8 in Super Bowl competition.
It’s a reminder to pump the brakes a bit on draft day. If the Dolphins get a sure starter with the No. 12 pick tonight, they’ll be doing just fine.