In a class by themselves

01/01/2005

By Vic Carucci, National Editor, NFL.com
Special for Profootballhof.com
This article appeared on NFL.com in 2003 as part of that year’s draft coverage.

Like so many moments, events and careers in sports, the stature of the NFL's Quarterback Class of '83 has ballooned to mythic proportions through the years.

John Elway

John Elway

If you didn't know better, you might think that all six of the quarterbacks chosen in the first round that year soared to greatness in the NFL. Of course, that isn't true.

If you didn't know better you might also assume that the three who did soar to greatness -- John ElwayJim Kelly and Dan Marino (listed in the order of their selection) -- enjoyed instant success in the NFL. That isn't true, either.

Elway, Kelly and Marino went on to become three of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game. Their combined dominance from the mid-1980s through the late 1990s gave the fact that they all emerged from the college ranks at the same time and entered the NFL in the same round historic significance. It was strong enough to overshadow the accomplishments of many other highly talented and successful players selected at other positions in the first round, and some lower.

Eric Dickerson

Eric Dickerson

You never have to look up the year that those remarkable quarterbacks were drafted. You might need to do a little research to find out that Eric Dickerson, Darrell Green, Bruce Matthews and Roger Craig are among their classmates.

But the fact is that on April 26, 1983, no one following the draft -- including those with direct involvement -- had any better feel for what the future held for the first-round quarterbacks than for players at other positions or rounds. Visions of Super Bowls and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions were secondary to more fundamental issues such as whether the choices could be signed, and when, or if, they would develop to the point of making any sort of a positive impact on their respective teams.

Start with Elway. He wanted no part of the team that drafted him first overall, the Baltimore Colts, and forced his trade to the Denver Broncos. Then it took 15 years, two coaches and a franchise running back to finally become the first (and only) quarterback of the class to win a Super Bowl.

Jim Kelly

Jim Kelly

Kelly, who underwent major surgery on his throwing shoulder in his senior year at the University of Miami, wasn't even the first of the Buffalo Bills' two first-round choices. Tony Hunter, a forgettable tight end from Notre Dame, was taken in the 12th spot, followed by Kelly at 14. Then it would take three years and a brief, but spectacular, career in the United States Football League before Kelly would actually wear a Bills uniform. And even at that, the Bills had to resist some tempting trade offers for a player who wasn't a whole lot more thrilled about playing in Buffalo than Elway was about playing in Baltimore.

Marino? After throwing 23 interceptions to 17 touchdowns as a senior at Pittsburgh, he lasted until the 27th pick, next-to-last of the first round. That was after Todd Blackledge went to the Kansas City Chiefs (seventh), Tony Eason went to the New England Patriots (15th) and Ken O'Brien went to the New York Jets (24th).

Perhaps the most telling comment about the relative modesty of the expectations for these legendary figures came from the late Joe Robbie, owner of the Dolphins. Speaking a few hours after the draft began, he expressed elation over the fact that with Marino's surprise availability that late in the first round, the Dolphins were able to pass on Syracuse defensive end Mike Charles, the player they expected to grab at 27th, yet still acquire him in the second round.

"We were all set to take Charles in the first round and then with Marino still up there, we had to change tactics," Robbie told reporters. "But, we still got Charles. I guess you can have your cake and eat it too."

Compared with Marino, Charles barely qualified as frosting; he spent four mostly disappointing seasons with the Dolphins before moving elsewhere.

We remember Elway for his great comebacks, and, of course, for the Super Bowl wins. We remember Kelly for being his own offensive coordinator in the famed no-huddle attack, for his leather-toughness and for resiliency -- qualities that made him an obvious first-ballot choice for the Hall of Fame last year. We remember Marino for his gaudy passing numbers and ultra-quick release.

Dan Marino

Dan Marino

Marino, who lost in his only Super Bowl appearance, admits to being jealous about Elway's Super Bowl triumphs. When he saw Elway hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy the first time, he "almost cried."

But Marino's accomplishments have generated their share of envy.

"When Danny's around and we start talking about statistics, we all just kind of change the subject," Elway says. "We don't have anything to say. Danny owns them all."

We often wonder if there ever will be another quarterback class like this one. The 1999 draft offered some hope, with five first-round quarterbacks, but so far the only one to consistently draw high accolades is Donovan McNabb. Maybe the quarterbacks in this year's draft -- beginning with Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, and Kyle Boller -- will someday be remembered in the same or at least a similar context as the Quarterback Class of '83.

Don't hold your breath waiting. It is far more difficult for young quarterbacks today to ever reach the success or recognition that Elway, Kelly and Marino enjoyed. Unlike the '83 group, they must contend with ever-changing supporting casts resulting from free agency and salary-cap issues. And, because of far greater financial stakes, they also must contend with less patient owners, coaches and fans that can be easily worked into frenzied negativity by around-the-clock media analysis.

"There seems to be an intolerance for quarterbacks that wasn't there when those guys were coming up in '83," former Bills coach Marv Levy  points out. "The only one who had huge expectations was Elway because he was the No. 1 pick. People forget he struggled in his rookie season, but they let him play through it."

Now his achievements, as well as those of Kelly and Marino, seem to grow larger with each year.

But even with no exaggeration, it's hard to imagine another group of players drafted at the same time at any position being remembered with the same respect and awe as the Quarterback Class of 1983.

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