As part of the run-up to this year's draft, and its aftermath, ESPN has aired several broadcasts of "From Elway to Marino" as part of their "30 for 30" series. This docutisement utilizes many of the methods made familiar by modern masters of the documentary form. Like Errol Morris, it employs music to pump up the suspense. Like Ken Burns, it collages all manner of artifacts, primarily repeated close-ups of a diary/journal kept by Marvin Demoff, at the time the agent for John Elway and Dan Marino, both high-profile quarterbacks then scheduled for selection in the 1983 draft.
Why did Demoff keep such a diary? No doubt, as he says, primarily as a client service, but also, perhaps, for his own future elucidation and review, or possibly even, Demoff being no dumb-Kopf, as potential material for further documentation sometime down the line. In the event, this subsequent documentary offers several fascinating features. ESPN provided funds to reconstruct the entire 1983 draft room, and, in several shots, the modern-day Demoff sits in the middle of it, looking like a time-traveler stranded in his own refurbished memories. As recently as 1983, such a visual trope may have intentionally distanced, even jolted, the audience, but today's sophisticated viewers, in the wake of MTV, YouTube, and video-on-demand, take such devices in stride, barely pausing to even note them.
Another outré out-of-time moment occurs as the 83 Dolphins' brain trust, desperately wanting to draft Dan Marino, simply sit and wait, pick after pick, fervently hoping that the quarterback will fall to them. Does anyone believe that, today, someone, say Trent Baalke, would not trade up to get a player his personnel department considers one of the top two players in the draft, and one who also fills a position of need?
Different people, of course, define "need" differently, and the most relevant portion of "From Elway to Marino" for 49er fans occurs, don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it, between the twenty-eight-and-thirty-minute marks of the documentary. As Demoff's diary details, the 49ers considered trading Joe Montana as part of a package to acquire incoming rookie John Elway. Whoa! With Montana already on the roster, did the Niners really need another quarterback?
A few things. First, the 49ers under Walsh, as with most responsible organizations, considered it their responsibility to explore all possible ways to improve their team. Walsh and crew may have dallied with other possible trades with other possible trade partners, none of them written in the Demoff diary. Two, just because you ponder a possible trade does not mean you will go through with it. Three, as the documentary mentions, the '82 season, following the 49ers' first Super Bowl triumph, disappointed Walsh. Four, Montana then was not yet the hallowed figure we today revere. Five, Walsh eventually did acquire another blue-chip quarterback, Steve Young, even with Montana still on the roster.
Those of us who remember the Montana era as all lollipops and trophies may selectively misremember. We sometimes see through those old reliable retrospective glasses not only with twenty-twenty hindsight, but also with rose-colored lenses. Rather like the documentary, we draft those memories which best help us make sense of the past in a way we want to remember it. Yes, the documentary enlists the Montana-for-Elway trade speculation to help hype their product. It makes for good TV.
But yet another quarterback, not mentioned in "From Elway to Marino," may illuminate further Bill Walsh's mind-set at the time. Greg Cook. Paul Brown's Cincinnati Bengals drafted Cook following the 1969 season, and installed the rookie as starting quarterback for the young team. Cook possessed, besides smarts, throwing accuracy, and courage, a strong arm. His first season, he averaged 9.4 yards per pass attempt and 17.5 yards per completion. The young man could get the ball down the field, and Brown, somewhat of an offensive guru himself, encouraged his coaching staff to take advantage of the kid's rocket arm. Unfortunately Cook, the UPI 1970 AFL Rookie of the Year, had popped something in his throwing arm during his third pro game. Nevertheless, the prodigy, obviously destined for greatness and perhaps even the Hall of Fame, finished out the season, playing with an undiagnosed torn rotator cuff. Later, doctors also discovered that cortisone shots had masked a partially detached biceps.
Perhaps, with earlier diagnosis, surgery, and rehab, today's medical advances might have saved the kid's career, as with, for example, Drew Brees. But not then. Greg Cook, despite a later comeback attempt, was finished, his glory days gone, his promise, not by his own doing, squandered. Paul Brown and his assistants immediately set about redesigning the Bengal offense around Cincinnati's remaining QB, Virgil Carter. Brown's Bengals assistants at the time included a bright young quarterback coach, a sensitive fellow by the name of Bill Walsh. Virgil Carter did not possess Cook's one-time strong arm, so Walsh invented for him read-progression plays featuring short passes. Subsequent variations on these innovations later became known as the West Coast offense. But Bill Walsh did not develop this offense just because, Viola! in a fitful, brilliant brainstorm, he thought it the best. Rather, from necessity, he worked with what he had. He did not have in Virgil Carter, emphatically, a quarterback with Greg Cook's powerful arm.
Flash forward to the Joe Montana era. Montana had Cook's smarts, accuracy, and courage. He did not have Cook's arm. This in no way diminishes Montana's accomplishments. He took Walsh's offense and made it better, made it great, maybe even greater than Walsh himself imagined. After that 1982 season, Montana's mastery increased exponentially. So, the proposed Elway/Montana trade during the '83 draft build-up, again, did not involve the Montana we all remember, before he reached his full apotheosis. Nor will we ever know if Cook would have ever matched Montana's ineffable ability to rise to the moment during big games. Few others, in any sport, have ever matched it. Joe Montana, indubitably, deserves his place on the short list of America's greatest athletes ever. Above all, he changed the way his sport is played.
But Greg Cook haunted Bill Walsh. Perhaps Walsh, if even in fantasy, sought to somehow redeem his one-time protégée's tragically curtailed football life. Who knows, maybe the mastermind harbored some guilt for having served as an accomplice to the further damages done to Cook's arm, as the game rookie played on during that ill-fated 1970 season. And Walsh, a man beset by doubts despite his greatness, might have nursed another reason for attempting to secure a strong-armed quarterback. Had he done so, conceivably the strong-armed Elway would have shown Paul Brown, who passed over Walsh when selecting his successor as Bengals' head coach, along with all the other naysayers, the full measure of Walsh's magnificent offense. Remember, Walsh took pride not merely in winning games, but in winning them creatively.
We will never know what Bill Walsh and the 49ers would have accomplished with Elway at quarterback. Probably the closest facsimile remains Brett Favre during his Packers' heyday when Walsh-disciple Mike Holmgren effectively reined in Favre's gunslinger tendencies. But we do know what Montana accomplished, and, doubtless, few 49er fans, even given a do-over, would have made that 1983 trade. In the end, neither did Bill Walsh.