Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton has been around a lot of trades in his time, so he knows a good deal when he sees one. Over the course of NFL history, trades have been made that teams undoubtedly regret for one reason or another, and the most regrettable trade for one team might be the biggest stroke of good fortune for the team on the other end of the deal.
Back in 1983, John Elway was the top prospect coming up from the college ranks at Stanford. The Baltimore Colts held the number one overall pick at the time, while the Denver Broncos held the fourth overall pick. At the time, Elway had some leverage regarding where he would play in the NFL. Knowing that he would be the top pick in the NFL Draft, Elway decided he didn't want to play for the Baltimore Colts and said he would have rather played baseball for the New York Yankees.
That would normally be a rather hollow threat, but at the time, Elway was not just a late-round flyer for publicity by the Yankees. He was a second-round pick by that organization in 1981. He was actually selected a handful of picks ahead of legendary MLB hitter Tony Gwynn. Elway could have legitimately forsaken the NFL and played baseball instead, but he obviously wanted to play in the NFL for the right team.
So the Baltimore Colts obliged, trading Elway to the Denver Broncos in exchange for 4th overall pick Chris Hinton (offensive tackle), quarterback Mark Herrmann, and a 1984 first-round pick which ended up becoming offensive guard Ron Solt.
It was this precise trade which current Denver Broncos head coach said he told John Elway himself was the worst in NFL history.
"Of course, [Pro Football Hall of Fame QB] John Elway was out here. In the same draft that Elway was picked No. 1 overall, I always said I would have never made that trade. I would have forced him to play with the Yankees. I’ve gotten to know John really well. I think it was the 40th anniversary recently of that trade. I texted him [it is] the worst trade in the history of football."- Sean Payton (via Broncos PR)
And although Payton said it a little tongue in cheek there, I think he's being serious when he says he would have forced Elway to play for the Yankees. Go ahead and do it, John, I'm not going to go down as the guy who traded John Elway...
It's a fascinating look back into history. Payton was coming up from the college ranks right on the heels of Elway, and his coaching career started just as Elway's was really taking off into superstardom.
Looking back on that John Elway trade with the Colts, it's hard to imagine a worse trade in NFL history, but it's really not generally perceived that way for two main reasons. First of all, Elway forced the issue, so it wasn't negligence on the part of the Colts. They actually did the right thing by selecting Elway despite his wishes.
Second, it's not always considered one of the worst trades in NFL history because it's typically considered one of the best trades in Denver Broncos history. But Sean Payton did not grow up a Broncos fan. He wasn't looking at that trade through orange and blue lenses. He's looking at it from the outside looking in.
And it's hard to deny, when you look at it from that vantage point, you can see why someone in charge of doing everything it takes to win, from building the roster to coaching the team, would deem it the worst trade in league history.