Now that the bedraggled Colts have done the brave thing, the next move is John Elway's. Through his agent, the quarterback insists he'll be an outfielder soon. But logic indicates he'll play pro football this fall. As Art Schlichter might say, don't bet on anything right now.
One's first impulse was to giggle when the Colts used the NFL's first draft choice on a California quarterback who considered Baltimore the pits of the universe. Last year the Colts spent their No. 1 on Schlichter, the benchwarming handicapper. Now here came the Colts turning down trade offers, ignoring the Yankees, never minding that Elway believed the Colts were beneath his considerable dignity.
The Colts did the right thing. By calling Elway's "royal flush," as he modestly assessed his situation, the Colts proved to their customers they have the guts it takes to build a moribund franchise into a winner.
The easy thing would have been to trade the rights to Elway. But the Colts set a very high value on Elway. They wanted three No. 1's this year, one high in the order. When no team would pay that much, the Colts decided to gamble.
Elway can make a terrible team good. He can make a good team great. For the Colts, who couldn't be worse with Blaze Starr at quarterback, the gamble on signing Elway despite his protestations is one that had to be taken when they couldn't arrange a trade.
Speaking of trades, let's get on the telephone, because the Dallas Cursed Cowboys are always up to no good. The word is they're plotting ways to get Elway into a hat with stars on it. Why did they draft three defensive ends? Are Too Tall Jones and Harvey Martin headed for Baltimore, along with Gary Hogeboom?
Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' personnel man, says there's nothing going on that should set off the paranoia alarms at Redskin Park.
"Not true," he said of suspicions connecting the Cowboys to the Baltimore-Elway poker game (with George Steinbrenner kibitzing).
"We're not after Elway," Brandt said, "because you can't give up people who are going to help you challenge Washington for the Super Bowl next year--you can't give them up for somebody who might help you three or four years from now. If you're us or Washington, you can't trade for a quarterback who would sit on the bench behind Joe Theismann or Danny White."
Brandt loves Elway, just as he once loved Terry Bradshaw. "I tell you, AT & T stock probably went up considerably in the last couple weeks," said Brandt. "I've never had so many inquiries about a player as I have Elway. One day 39 different newspapers called. Lafayette, La., Boise, Idaho, Rochester, everywhere.
"The last time there was this much activity about a player was with Bradshaw. Everybody tried to trade to get him, including ourselves. Then they almost ran Bradshaw out of the league. He was a 38 percent passer the first couple years. It's not possible to be great right away. But the Steelers stuck with him. They built from that cornerstone."
If the Cowboys don't want Elway, what's going to happen?
"He'll wind up either with Baltimore or the L.A. Raiders in a trade. It's a poker game now. If one of them weakens--Elway or the Colts--it's going to be interesting."
What about the Yankees?
"For someone's who's going to go play baseball, Elway's always saying, 'We're going to sit back now and see.' You'd think he'd be going off to play baseball if he wanted to play baseball."
Like most football people, Brandt believes the quarterback from Stanford wants to play in the NFL, not in the American League. This gets complicated because it involves money and ego.
Elway's greater skill is in football. To lay it aside would be criminal. But an average baseball player can make as much money in salary, maybe $600,000, as a star quarterback. The star quarterback catches up with more glory, which can be translated into extra cash through endorsements.
"I don't think, if I were George Steinbrenner," Brandt said, "that I'd sign Elway and put out big money for only one or two years. Elway wants to play football."
Elway has three options in his "royal flush"--the NFL, the Herschel Walker League or the Yankees.
"If you check with the Baltimore Orioles, which has one of the better farm systems, they'll tell you that in a day when $100,000 bonus players are commonplace, Elway is a $30,000 to $70,000 player," Brandt said. "So maybe Elway's fallback options aren't what they seem to be."
The general manager of the Orioles, Hank Peters, said no one in baseball has rated Elway better than above-average. "You don't look at him and see a Winfield, a Reggie, a Brett."
"I really admire what Frank Kush did," Brandt said, naming the Colts' coach. "The guy has taken a chance. The draft makes it possible for everybody to win. Look at San Francisco shortly before their Super Bowl--they were last. Last year Washington won--and they had been in a low place before that."
One thing more. If Elway goes to baseball, he can enter the NFL draft again next year. But even if the Colts are still terrible, league rules say they won't have another chance at Elway. This gamble is a one-shot thing.