Grading the Famed Quarterback Class of 1983
John Elway (No. 1 Pick, Colts): A+
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The 2013 NFL Draft marks 30 years since the famed “quarterback class of 1983,” when six signal-callers were selected in the first round — more than ever before or since. How did each member of that group fare at the NFL level? We grade each one based on expectations, length of career and number of accomplishments.
Assigning a grade other than A+ to Elway would be highway robbery. Mel Kiper recently named him the greatest QB prospect he has even seen, with a 9.9 grade out of 10 — making it even easier to forget that he never even led Stanford to a bowl game.
Originally drafted by the Baltimore Colts, Elway hijacked his way out of town by threatening to play baseball for the New York Yankees instead. Once in Denver, Elway threw for 51,475 yards while going to five Super Bowls (winning two) and nine Pro Bowls during his 16-year, Hall of Fame career.
Todd Blackledge (No. 7 Pick, Chiefs): D-
How badly did Kansas City miss by selecting the former Penn State star seventh overall? His failure in the pros led to the demotion of then team president Jack Steadman (to be replaced by Carl Peterson) and gave birth to the “Curse of Todd Blackledge,” in which Kansas City never again spent a high draft pick on another QB out of fear of a Blackledge reprise.
Widely panned for his inability to read NFL defenses, Blackledge — who won the Davey O’Brien Award en route to leading the Nittany Lions to the 1982 national title — never completed more than 50% of his passes in three seasons as KC’s starter (1984–1986). His TD-to-INT ratio in that time was an ugly 26-to-30.
Shipped out to Pittsburgh after the 1987 season, Blackledge was out of the league by 1989 — the shortest tenured NFL quarterback on this list.
Jim Kelly (No. 14 Pick, Bills): A
Two factors prevent Kelly from matching Elway’s A+ grade: 1) His delayed arrival in the NFL (he spent his first two professional seasons with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers) and 2) His failure to win a Super Bowl.
But for a first round pick, you couldn’t expect much more than what Kelly gave Buffalo for 11 seasons. While the Bills never won a Super Bowl, Kelly did lead them to four straight AFC titles (1990–1993) — the only NFL QB ever to do so. He also reached four Pro Bowls and finished his Bills career holding virtually every franchise passing mark on the way to the Hall of Fame.
No less notable was the panache with which Kelly led Buffalo’s “K-Gun” no-huddle offense — which, in retrospect, was a forebear to many of today’s pass-happy attacks.
Tony Eason (No. 15 Pick, Patriots): C
Somewhat unfairly, Eason’s name evokes thoughts of NFL quarterback ineptitude. Such is the fate of a signal-caller who holds the league record for times sacked in a season (59, in 1984) and is widely “credited” with the worst performance by a QB in Super Bowl history (0-for-6 passing — the first starting QB in the game’s history not to complete a pass — and a lost fumble vs. the Bears in 1986).
Overlooked amid all that was Eason’s role in making the once-laughable Patriots a competitive franchise again. In three years as New England’s starter (1984–1986), Eason was 23–14 as a starter, threw for 8,712 yards and 53 TDs and led the Pats to both to the ’86 Super Bowl and the following season’s AFC East championship.
Alas, Eason was relegated to back-up by the ’87 season and retired from the NFL after spending 1990 with the Jets.
Ken O’Brien (No. 24 Pick, Jets): B-
Jets fans still rue the day that their beloved franchise tabbed O’Brien three picks ahead of Dan Marino (more on him in a moment). Yet considering the rather dubious rate of success among first round QBs, maybe they should be thankful for the UC-Davis product’s performance.
In ten seasons with New York, O’Brien was a two-time Pro Bowler (1985 and 1991) and the 1985 AFC Player of the Year while throwing for 24,386 yards and 124 TDs over his Jets career. He also has the distinction of being the only QB to throw for more than 400 yards in a game and earn a perfect NFL 158.3 rating.
That being said ... with Marino in the same division as O’Brien for all but one of his NFL seasons, O’Brien was constantly overshadowed while his team was constantly reminded of who they once passed up.
Dan Marino (No. 27 Pick, Dolphins): A+
No, Marino never did deliver the Dolphins their long-awaited third Super Bowl title. But that pales in comparison to a Hall of Fame career that saw the former Pitt star hold almost every single major NFL passing record.
As of today, he is still the NFL record holder for number of 400-yard passing games in a season (4) and career (13), number of game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime (51) and number of seasons leading the league in pass attempts (5) and completions (6). He was also a nine-time Pro Bowler, a Hall of Famer and the first NFL QB to throw for 5,000 yards and 40 TDs in a single season.
More telling of Marino’s greatness is the well-documented struggles that the Dolphins have endured in trying to replace him since his retirement following the 1999 season.