(Photos courtesy of Indianapolis Colts)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
It was early in 1983 when then-Baltimore general manager Ernie Accorsi flew west to work out the best player in the draft, Stanford quarterback John Elway. When he returned, I asked him what he thought … and what he thought was that Elway was so accomplished, so charismatic, so multi-talented that he reminded him of another NFL quarterback.
Anyone who was from Baltimore or who watched Jones play could appreciate the comparison. Bert Jones wasn’t just a superior quarterback; he was a superior athlete – a guy who could run, who could make all the throws and who knew how to win. Moreover, he was someone who not only made others around him better, but could lift a franchise and carry it.
He did that in 1975, turning a 4-10 doormat and into a 10-4 division champion – the first of three successive AFC East titles. With Jones at quarterback, anything seemed possible. It didn’t matter who was in the lineup. As long as Bert Jones was standing, the Colts had a chance.
Nearly a decade later, the same was true of Elway. He wore the same number (7) as Jones and enjoyed similar success — winning three of four division championships after becoming the unchallenged starter in 1984. But that’s where the comparisons end.
John Elway had a long and productive career, won Super Bowls and wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bert Jones had a short and productive career, did not win Super Bowls and wound up out of football after 10 pro seasons.
Like Denver’s Terrell Davis … like Cincinnati’s Greg Cook … like Seattle’s Ken Easley … Jones was a magnificent talent who deserved much more from a career cut short by injury. He should have gone to a Super Bowl. He should have been a Hall-of-Fame candidate. He should have been someone we cite as a measuring stick for quarterbacks, much as Accorsi did in 1983.
Only he didn’t … he wasn’t … and we don’t … and I get it.
Bert Jones wasn’t an all-decade choice. He not only didn’t go to a Super Bowl; he didn’t win a playoff game. And he had a short shelf life – three years to be exact – before a shoulder injury that caused him to miss most of the 1978 and 1979 seasons ended what could have been … what should have been … a marvelous and long career.
But look what happened while he played. He was 31-11 in 1975-77 for a franchise that was 11-31 the previous three seasons. He threw twice as many touchdown passes (59) as interceptions (28) in an era where that was uncommon. He never missed a start. He produced a 102.6 passer rating in 1976, one of only three quarterbacks that decade to surpass 100, and was that year’s NFL Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year.
In short, Bert Jones was a load.
When New England coach Bill Belichick was asked prior to Super Bowl XLII which NFL quarterback was his favorite he started by talking about John Unitas … but then quickly moved on to Bert Jones. Belichick began his pro career in 1975 as a $25-per-week assistant with the Colts and saw the best of what Bert Jones had to offer. And what he saw made an indelible impression.
“As a pure passer,” he said, “I don’t think I’d put anybody ahead of Bert Jones. I know he had a short career and the shoulder injury, but when I was there and he was just starting his career, the success that he had and his ability throw the ball as a pure passer and as an athlete, it would be hard to put anybody ahead of Bert Jones at that point in time.”
Keep in mind that “at that point in time” Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and Bob Griese were in the NFL. All are Hall of Famers. Bert Jones is not, and you have to wonder what might have been had his career not ended prematurely. So I asked someone who knows. I asked Accorsi, finding him 32 years after he first compared Elway to the best quarterback time has forgotten.
“I totally agree with Belichick,” he said. “He had it all. Athletic, accurate, had a rifle for an arm and not only could run but was fast and powerful. He was smart, too, and could see the field and find the right receiver. He excelled under pressure, was a great leader and could carry a team on his back. Teddy (then coach Ted Marchibroda) did a great job with him in ’75.
“He was similar to Elway and had every attribute Elway had to the same degree. One of the most talented quarterbacks I’ve seen.”
The only thing missing from Bert Jones’ resume is longevity, and, like it has for Cook, Easley and others, it sabotaged his Hall-of-Fame chances. And that’s a shame. Because Bert Jones was more than a gifted quarterback. He was someone who not only resurrected a once dominant franchise but lifted a city, returning passion to Colts’ fans and Baltimore to the NFL map.
Three years ago, Cliff Christl – then Green Bay’s representative on the Hall-of-Fame’s board of selectors – asked me if Bert Jones was as good as some people say.
“No,” I told him. “He was better. He was John Elway, without the rings and without the longevity.”
And, of course, without the gold jacket. I understand why Bert Jones isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I understand why he will never be. I just wish his career had lasted long enough that he’d be considered.