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Offseason Starts in Mobile

While there are still two teams that have not yet begun their offseason, for everyone else the path being traveled is that of improvement for 2012.

And that big first step is underway this week.

On Saturday at 3:00 p.m. (CST) the Senior Bowl will take place in Mobile, Alabama but the game itself is an anti-climax for the legions of NFL coaches and scouts who have headed to the southern city this week.

There is a virtual who's who of NFL personnel people and coaches in Mobile to watch the practices of the north and south squads in advance of the game, looking simultaneously for top talent and for diamonds in the rough.

Once upon a time the medical people in Baltimore and Detroit thought a balky knee from playing at Ohio State would make a young Buckeyes linebacker a bad first round risk—his name was Randy Gradishar, the Broncos took him, and the rest is Ring of Fame history in Denver.

Rod Smith was not even invited to the Senior Bowl—Missouri Southern was just a  speck on the NFL map, and nobody drafted him at all.  The Broncos offered him a free agent contract and now he stands as pro football's all-time leading free agent wide receiver in career catches, yards, and touchdowns.  And he has two Super Bowl rings.

But every team has stories like this—that is what scouting is all about.  And, on the negative side, every team has missed on guys as well.  Nobody gets them all right.

But after all the scouts have crossed the country time and again by plane and mostly by car, early mornings leading to late nights, looking at practice and video ad infinitum—handling the remote controls of video machines even more than the most addicted television watching couch potato, the serious draft prep for 2012 is upon us.

And as I have written many times, players come from lots of places, and teams have lots of different success stories.

How about the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts franchise and the quarterback position?  Let's take a look.

In 1956 the Colts signed Johnny Unitas as a free agent camp quarterback.  He had been playing semi-pro football for six bucks a game for the Bloomfield Rams.  Johnny U is still regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever played the game, and you can find many veteran scouts who still have him at the very top of the food chain.  Unitas virtually invented the two-minute drill all by himself, and called his own plays as well.

The Colts had Unitas until 1972, then they drafted Bert Jones from LSU with the second overall pick in the entire draft in 1973.  Jones, whose dad Dub was a great wide receiver for Otto Graham on the championship Cleveland Browns teams, was the Colts signal caller from 1973 through 1981 and led Baltimore to three consecutive division titles, 1975-77.  One of the greatest Broncos games ever was a home win against Jones and the Colts that helped determine home field advantage for Denver in that magical first Mile High Super Bowl season of 1977.

Jones sustained some injuries in his career, and after nine years with him as an original second overall draft selection, Baltimore had the very first pick in 1983 and of course drafted John Elway.  But their bad luck with Elway was Denver's good luck and they traded maybe the only real peer Unitas has had to the Broncos a week after the draft.

I have blogged before about the trade for Elway—it is an archive item and I won't recount it here now, but it was like A Tale of Two Cities, NFL style.  Denver up, and Baltimore down.

Not only did the franchise relocate to Indianapolis, but in the next 15 years the Colts had 15 different starting quarterbacks.

It sure helps when you have "The Guy."

Indianapolis again used the first pick in the draft in selecting Peyton Manning in 1998, and he remains the Colts starter, even though he missed the 2011 campaign due to a neck injury.

We won't try to predict the future for Manning, the Colts or any other team, but once again Indianapolis has the first pick in the draft this year.

Some work out, some do not.

But from 1956 to the present that franchise had Unitas (free agent), Jones (second pick overall), Elway (first pick, traded away), 15 guys, Manning (first pick in the draft), and now a blank slate.

Woody Hayes once say his only superstition is that it is bad luck when you do not have great players. 

A lot of teams this week are in the process of evaluating players with the idea of matching the best of what the Colts did, not the worst, and the whole process is underway in Mobile.

You might take a peek at the Senior Bowl game Saturday afternoon—you might be watching somebody who will be a future Bronco three months from now!

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