In today’s sports media world analysis has taken a backseat to hot takes and immediate opinions posing as news. Sports media giants like FOX Sports and ESPN have leaned into their viewers’ insatiable appetite for polarizing debate from the extremes of a topic. From dawn ’til dusk, “Two Men Yelling About Sports” can been seen on every major network. Sometimes those opinions and takes are spot on, other times…. well, we’ll be generous and say they can be downright painful.
The Indianapolis Colts Fifth-Overall Pick in 1994 Becomes Contentious
The Indianapolis Colts were bad.
Coming into the 1994 Draft, the Colts were not the picture of success. Since leaving their first home in Baltimore in the early morning hours of March 28, 1984, the Colts only had three winning seasons and a divisional-round playoff loss to show for their efforts. The Colts knew they needed to make some moves in the draft in order to finally right their ship and move in a better direction. With the second-overall pick already in their possession, the Colts wanted to double-dip in the first round, something they had done in 1992. But how do they get back into the top 10?
The Indianapolis Colts were Bad
The Colts were no strangers to having a top pick and knew the value of high-end draft selection. So GM Bill Tobin hatched a plan: trade with Atlanta for their first-round pick in 1994, as well as their third-rounder in ’94 and their 1996 first-round pick. However, making that deal would also require the Colts to part with 1990 first-overall pick and their quarterback, Jeff George.
George was good, but not quite the caliber of quarterback Tobin wanted under center in Indy. Instead, Tobin and the Colts signed free agent Jim Harbaugh in the offseason, creating an easy transfer between quarterbacks. Fun fact: Tobin was also the GM who drafted Jim Harbaugh when he was a member of the Chicago Bears front office.
So now the Colts have Harbaugh and two first-round top 10 draft picks, but that wasn’t quite the end of Tobin’s tinkering. Tobin wanted a linebacker, and knew he needed to get within the top 5 to select one of the two defensive prospects in Willie McGinnest and Trev Alberts. The New England Patriots also had their eyes on a linebacker and wouldn’t deal their pick to Tobin and the Colts. The Los Angeles Rams, on the other hand, they’d be willing to part with their fifth-overall pick, if they could have the Colts’ seventh-overall pick and their third-rounder.
That’s a long way of saying that the Colts have the second and fifth-overall picks in 1994.
Mel Kiper: ESPN’s Golden Boy of the NFL Draft
Mel Kiper Jr. didn’t plan on becoming an NFL Draft analyst. In fact, it was former Baltimore Colts GM Ernie Accorsi who told Kiper he should look into the profession, citing an untapped market for draft information and analysis. Beginning in 1984, Kiper would become the face of ESPN’s Draft coverage, becoming the industry’s go-to brain, an “armchair general manger” for all things NFL Draft.
When the Colts selected Marshall Faulk with the second-overall pick, the wunderkind draft expert opined that the Colts needed to come out of the draft with a quarterback. His reasoning was that with Jim Harbaugh as the sole sign-caller on the Colts roster, Indianapolis needed a backup, or at the very least, someone to take over for Harbaugh should things go south.
According to his mock drafts and analysis in the weeks leading up to draft night, Kiper specifically wanted the Colts to select quarterback Trent Dilfer out of Fresno State. Harbaugh was coming off two disappointing seasons for the Chicago Bears, but he had shown the ability to lead a team to the playoffs. So Kiper’s criticism was not completely off-base, but the Colts also had another pick in the top 5, so at the very least they could snag a QB there, right?
Not according to Kiper. After acknowledging that Faulk was a good player he reiterated his stance that the Colts needed a quarterback. “The Colts need to come out of the draft with a quarterback and if they don’t, then they’re ripe for some criticism.”
In their NFL Draft history leading up to 1994, the Colts have found their quarterbacks in the later rounds, with the exception of George who they had to take first-overall. Jack Trudeau was selected in the second round in 1986 and Chris Chandler was selected in the third, so it’s not like Indianapolis was deviating from their selection pattern. In fact, four of the nine quarterbacks selected in the 1994 Draft were taken in the seventh round, with three consecutive field generals being taken after Indianapolis’ final selection.
Back in the first round, the two top QBs on the board were Heath Shuler from Tennessee and Dilfer. Shuler, who by the way wound up being one of the worst quarterbacks in NFL history, would go third-overall to Washington, leaving Dilfer on the board. As New England selected McGinnest fourth-overall, the opinion was that the Colts would trade up to select Dilfer. Guess what happened next?
The Colts Select Nebraska Linebacker Trev Alberts Over Trent Dilfer
But as NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue read the pick, the crowd became silent. The Colts had selected Alberts out of Nebraska. On ESPN, legendary commentator Chris Berman asked Mel Kiper what he thought. Kiper did not hold back.
“I think it’s a typical Colts move. I mean, here’s a team that needs a franchise quarterback, to pass up on Trent Dilfer when all you have is Jim Harbaugh, gimme a break! That’s why the Colts are picking second every year in the draft, not battling for the Super Bowl like other clubs in the National Football League.”
Those fighting words from Kiper traveled all the way to Indianapolis and to Tobin who was about to sit down for an interview with ESPN’s Chris Mortensen. As the camera rolled, Mortensen asked about the criticism of not taking a quarterback. Tobin’s steamed rant is golden.
“Who in the hell is Mel Kiper anyway?’ Here’s a guy that criticizes everybody, whoever they take. He’s got the answers to who you should take and who you shouldn’t take. And my knowledge of him: he’s never ever put on a jock strap, he’s never been a coach, he’s never been a scout, he’s been an administrator and all of a sudden he’s an expert. We don’t have to take anyone Mel Kiper says we have to take. Mel Kiper has no more credentials to do what he’s doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor’s a postman, and he doesn’t even have season tickets to the NFL.”
Incredible. At that moment, 27 other general managers cheered, but one analyst in New York City remained hot.
“I’m secure in my position. Obviously, Bill Tobin is not secure in his position to have a response like that. To me, it’s a mistake. You cannot go with Jim Harbaugh and pass up Trent Dilfer, forget it. That’s why the Colts are the laughing stock of the league year in and year out.”
Chris Berman attempted to move on to another topic, but the look on his face was priceless.
The Aftermath of the Fifth-Overall Pick in 1994
So who was right? In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty even. Trev Alberts was out of the league after three years and only recorded one sack. Marshall Faulk became a Hall of Fame running back but is most known for his time as a member of the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams. Jim Harbaugh did lead the Colts to the AFC Championship in 1995, but that was the end of the successful runs he had with the Colts.
However, things did end up turning around. That 1996 first-round pick they acquired from the Atlanta Falcons for Jeff George? That pick became Colts legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison. Bill Tobin was fired after the Colts went 3-13 in 1997, but that horrible finish gave the Colts the first-overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. Who did the Colts select with that pick? Peyton Manning.
You could argue that if Tobin selects Dilfer fifth-overall, then he may have passed on the future Hall of Famer and Colts icon because Trent Dilfer would have led them to a more successful season in 1997. That’s the difficulty with Mel Kiper’s takes: they only stay fresh for a year.
All in all, the 1994 NFL Draft needed a bit of excitement and we are all lucky that we can relive the moment when two men let the veneer of civilized sports discourse drop and trade blows for a magical moment in time.
Celebrities are just like us.