You read all of that correctly. In the spring of 1983, 49ers head coach Bill Walsh briefly entertained the idea of trading Montana, his star quarterback, to the then-Baltimore Colts for the No. 1 overall pick.
And who would Walsh have selected with the top pick? Stanford quarterback John Elway, of course.
The 49ers could have traded Joe Montana for a young John Elway
What we are about to explore is the worst possible universe for the Denver Broncos.
In April 2013, ESPN released the Elway to Marino documentary. The film explored the 1983 NFL draft and John Elway’s desire to play anywhere but for the then-Baltimore Colts.
Elway’s agent, Marvin Demoff, is the star of the documentary. Demoff walks viewers through the pre-draft process by reading from his detailed diary.
On April 6, 1983, Demoff wrote that 49ers head coach Bill Walsh would “be interested in Elway if he could trade Montana.” The Montana in question? Joe Montana, who won a Super Bowl with the 49ers in January 1982.
Ernie Accorsi, the Colts’ general manager, verified that claim in the documentary. FanSided transcribed Accorsi’s comments about speaking with Walsh, whose 49ers were coming off a 3-6 record in the strike-shortened 1982 campaign.
“I called him. And I didn’t offer, but I explored the Montana thing. And the kind of person he really is – his stature and how he lived up to it – he said to me ‘I could just never trade him.’ That’s what he said to me and I think it was, at that time, he was not through winning championships with Montana yet.”
San Francisco stuck with Montana, and the Colts drafted Elway with the No. 1 overall pick. Baltimore then traded Elway to the Denver Broncos for offensive lineman Chris Hinton, the fourth overall pick in 1983, and a first-round pick in 1984.
Joe Montana and John Elway proved their teams correct
Nearly 40 years later, it seems safe to say that the San Francisco 49ers made the right decision.
Joe Montana won three more Super Bowls with the 49ers and turned them into a dynasty. The former third-round pick won two MVP Awards, earned AP All-Pro first-team honors three times, and entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
John Elway joined Montana in Canton, Ohio, during the summer of 2004. Elway won two championships with the Broncos.
As for the Colts, they moved to Indianapolis in 1984 and remained in football purgatory until 1998. The Colts used the No. 1 overall pick on Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning that year.
When the NFL honored its 100th Anniversary All-Time Team ahead of Super Bowl 54 in 2020, the trio of Elway, Manning, and Montana were all there.
Josh Rosen might be the closest modern comparison
To understand how crazy that proposed Joe Montana for John Elway trade sounds, imagine the Seahawks trading Russell Wilson to the Tennessee Titans in 2016 for the rights to select Jared Goff or Carson Wentz.
Still, teams are taking more risks with trading quarterbacks. The Arizona Cardinals used the 10th overall pick on UCLA’s Josh Rosen in April 2018, then traded him to the Miami Dolphins a year later.
What changed? The Cardinals earned the No. 1 overall pick and selected Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.
Still, that was far different than a team trading a young starter and Super Bowl winner for the No. 1 overall pick. Jaguars fans, don’t get your hopes up about trading Trevor Lawrence’s rights to the Chiefs for Patrick Mahomes.