Thirty years ago Sunday opponents Washington and Denver discussed pulling off a blockbuster, Broncos-busting trade that would have drastically changed the franchises’ histories. They didn’t do that deal, but 13 years later the NFL teams actually completed an astonishing swap.
John Elway, then the Broncos’ superstar starting quarterback, was the centerpiece of a 1991 negotiation that also oddly included the uncle of Brett Rypien, now the Broncos’ third-string quarterback.
In March 2004 the Broncos dealt Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis, who had rushed for 3,099 yards and 29 touchdowns in his first two seasons, for Washington’s four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey.
Denver and the Washington Football Team have reached Super Bowls in 13 seasons, eight for the Broncos, and won six – one by D.C. over Denver.
Currently, though, the NFC team and the AFC team are a combined woeful 5-9.
If that proposed trade in ’91 had been finalized, Elway wouldn’t be the Broncos’ president of football operations, and the franchise might not ever have won a Super Bowl with Elway or Peyton Manning, who will be honored Sunday for his Hall of Fame induction.
Thank goodness rational minds prevailed.
Although a dialogue between the Broncos and Washington unquestionably happened three decades ago, as verified by people involved on both sides, there are different versions of the event.
Broncos coach Dan Reeves and Washington coach Joe Gibbs, who were friends and adversaries in Super Bowl XXII, talked about a possible trade of Elway for quarterback Mark Rypien and a Washington running back. The Broncos were coming off their worst Reeves-Elway season (5-11 in 1990), and John had 3,526 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, 14 interceptions. The coach-quarterback relationship, never tight, was deteriorating.
Washington was 10-6 in ’90 and lost in the second round of the playoffs. Rypien threw for 2,070 yards, with 17 touchdowns and 11 picks. He threatened to hold out for an increased salary from $275,000. He eventually signed for $1.25 million. Elway received $1.9 million in ’91.
Gibbs and Reeves agreed on the QB trade but were at odds on two other players Reeves sought.
When Pat Bowlen learned of the potential deal, the owner refused to approve it. Reeves responded by firing offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan at the end of the season, and Bowlen fired Reeves at the conclusion of 1992. Shanahan once said he heard rumors of an Elway trade, and he certainly was against it, particularly since he and the quarterback were close professionally and personally.
The other account:
In a 2012 interview with the Washington Post and four years later with the local ESPN radio station, Charley Casserly, Washington’s GM in ’91, said the team “called (the Broncos) and asked what’s the price for John Elway. OK, that’s a fact. And they did not say no. They said ‘Let’s think about it.’ They came back and said, ‘Jim Lachey’”. He was a Pro Bowl left tackle. But “Jack Kent Cooke (Washington owner) said, ‘We’re not trading Lachey.’ So there were never any discussions, serious discussions, on our side. And they (Broncos) then the next day said no on it.’’
Washington went 14-2 with Rypien in 1991 and won the Super Bowl. Denver was 12-4 and lost in the AFC Championship in Buffalo, 10-7, after Elway was forced out with injury and three field goals missed.
In early 2004, with Gibbs returning as Washington coach and Shanahan as the Broncos coach, the teams arranged a Big Deal. Bailey, an annual Pro Bowler, was on the last year of his contract and demanded a significant raise. Instead, Washington franchised Bailey.
Portis, in his second season, was one of the league’s best rushers, but seriously irked his coach in a game with the Chiefs by strapping on a boxing-type championship belt on the sideline.
Years later, Adam Schefter, then a sportswriter with The Denver Post, said Shanahan told him off the record he was considering trading Portis. The trade was agreed upon just before both players participated in the Pro Bowl.
Shanahan ended his coaching career in Washington. He was honored at the Broncos’ game against the Raiders. Bailey was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. Portis pleaded guilty a month ago to his role in a health care fraud scheme.
And everybody knows what became of The Duke of Denver after The Trade Never Made.