The League

Jim McCormick
Blitz Magazine Publisher

Jim McCormick

The editor and publisher of Blitz Magazine

Schlichter Gelded the Colts

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On an unseasonably snowy night in March of 1984 the Colts suddenly left Baltimore.

The infamous midnight Mayflower move that left the city reeling was incited by several factors. As in most franchise migrations the core issue was ownership's demands for a new city-funded stadium. It was the mixture of a shoddy Memorial Stadium and its inconvenient location, the absence of club level seats and Baltimore's antiquated ordinance that no games start before 2PM on Sundays that saw the once proud team pack-up and move to Indiana in just a matter of hours on that fateful night.

Football also influenced the move.

What makes drafts, and the NFL draft in particular, such a draw is the high-stakes gamble of it all. The incredible amount of money dispersed in just the first few picks in the NFL is unparalleled in professional sports. Careers and reputations are all banked on two intensely pivotal days in late April. A major industry is instantly infused with a new crop of talented employees. One pick can influence a team and even the league for years.

After a dismal 2-14 effort in '81, the Colts put their hopes in Ohio State's four-year starting QB, Art Schlichter, with the 4th overall pick. Schlichter was a NCAA superstar having finished in the top ten in Heisman balloting in three straight seasons and was the final signal-caller in Woody Hayes' legendary, albeit anti-climactic coaching career. But the sheen would quickly wear off with Schlichter, as journeyman Mike Pagel, a fourth round pick in the same draft, earned the starting gig for the '82 season after Schlichter's lackluster first summer with the team.

What makes Schlichter, in my opinion, the worst offensive draft pick in league history is the series of events that his selection set in place for the franchise. It wasn't just on the field that Schlichter quickly became a bust; he was also a compulsive gambler who during games would track his bets while pretending to track plays. In true Pete Rose fashion, Schlichter claimed he never bet on the Colts, but admitted to betting on other NFL games, in addition to his love of the ponies and college athletics.

With the Colts going winless in the '82 strike-shortened season (one tie, 8 losses), Schlichter's gambling spiraled out of control. He reportedly amassed over $700,000 in gambling debts with all of his signing bonus money gone halfway into his first season. It was clear that the Colts were the worst team in football, and Schlichter was the face of this reality. In his blotchy NFL career Schlichter threw 202 passes and completed just 91 of them -- a stellar 42.6 career QB rating in parts of just 13 NFL games.

Thanks to the winless campaign the Colts entered the '83 draft with the top pick and a chance to land the highly coveted John Elway out of Stanford. The rest, they say, is history, as Elway refused to suit up for Baltimore and forced a trade to Denver with threats of playing professional baseball or for the USFL.

In some abstract sense the Schlichter selection led to the Elway mess. Had Schlichter lived up to his considerable talents and played even marginally well in that shortened '82 season, it's unlikely the team would have ever been in the position to select Elway and subsequently get abused by Denver in the trade. Had the team been somewhat competitive with a solid young franchise QB in Schlichter and have regained the attention of the once rabid Baltimore fans, who knows what would have happened?

Schlichter was suspended for the '83 season and eventually turned to the Feds to get himself out of his considerable gambling debts by ratting out his bookies, who had threatened to out him to the NFL if he didn't throw games for them. The highlight of his professional football career was his 1990 Arena League MVP and championship run for the now defunct Detroit Drive. From '95 to 2006, he served the equivalent of a decade behind bars in over 40 different prisons and jails across the Midwest.

While ownership's impasse with the city over the stadium situation was the main catalyst for the team's move to the Midwest, the glaring bust that was Art Schlichter helped signal the end of an era for Baltimore football.

By Jim McCormick  |  March 30, 2009; 3:30 PM ET  | Category:  Draft Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: An All-Bust Offense | Next: Hindsight Is 20/20, Except for Janikowski

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