Hope you all enjoy this little trip down memory lane. It's kind of long, but worth it if you are interested in early Indianapolis Colts lore.
Recently, former-Colts quarterback Mark Herrmann was named to the College Football Hall of Fame for his outstanding play at Purdue University in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For you youngsters out there who don't remember him, Herrmann is one of the very rare athletes to have success in high school, college, and the pros all within his home state.
Now, while some would not equate his five year career with the Baltimore and Indianapolis Colts as "successful," what with his 2 TDs and 13 INTs over that career, all one has to do is ask a local Indianapolis Colts fans their opinions on Herrmann. More often than not, those opinions will be positive. So, for someone like Herrmann, who despite a fabulous college career was never viewed as anything more than a back-up QB in the pros, a positive opinion of his career by a local fanbase is indeed a measure of success.
Herrmann is a native of Carmel, IN, which is where I spent much of my adolescent life. He played quarterback for Carmel High School, which is where I went as well. Recently, I've been a bit embarrassed to admit that fact, but that is a separate story.
Herrmann had a very impressive college career at Purdue, a school with a long and storied tradition for pumping out great quarterbacks. Eventually, after getting drafted in the 4th round by the Denver Broncos in 1982, Herrmann's professional football career would lead him back home to Indiana, with his final season being the most memorable. Indeed, his connection to the both the Baltimore and the Indianapolis Colts is the kind of stuff they write books about, especially his final game in a Colts uniform.
After the jump, take a trip with me down memory lane as I recall Mark Herrmann's final season as a player in pro football, and the one game we "old-time" Colts fans will forever remember him for.
In 1992, the Colts entered a new season after suffering through a terrible 1-15 train wreck the year before. Jim Irsay was not the owner back then. He was the General Manager. His dad, the infamous Robert Irsay, still held the ownership reigns along with the baggage of several losing seasons in Indy. With the #1 and #2 overall picks in the 1992 NFL Draft, Jim Irsay picked up defensive studs Steve Emtman and Quentin Coryatt. Ted Marchibroda was back in his second stint as the head coach of the Colts (his first was in Baltimore in the 1970s with his star QB Bert Jones). Marchibroda had just completed a turn as offensive coordinator for the powerful Buffalo Bills, which, at that time, had current Colts president Bill Polian calling the shots for them. With Marchibroda, two stud draft picks, and free agents acquisitions like left tackle Will Wolford, the feeling all around was positive about the upcoming season.
Then, in an August pre-season game, man-child Colts quarterback Jeff George injured his thumb. The back-up at that time, Jack Trudeau, was holding out of training camp and pre-season because he wanted to be paid $1.5 million dollars annually to hold a clip board. This meant that entering their Week One match-up, the Colts only had third string QB Mark Herrmann and punter Tom Tupa available to take snaps under center.
Yep, back in the early 1990s, it was fun times for Colts fans.
Jeff George exuding confidence, mullet
Elway, as you all know, would go on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Broncos, helping them to five Super Bowls and winning two of them. For the Baltimore Colts, their fate could not have been more different.
Mark Herrmann was now a back-up QB on his new team in Baltimore. The Colts that season, after starting out at a promising 6-4, lost five games in a row in November and December of 1983. They finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. For Baltimore, that 7-9 season would be the last that their city would see of the Colts. In March 1984, after years of rumors, public spectacles, and finger-pointing between politicans and the Irsay, the Colts packed up their franchise and moved in the dead of night. However, instead of putting up their stakes in Phoenix, where everyone thought they were going to go, the Colts and their Mayflower trucks set up shop in Indianapolis.
Along for the ride, because he was still part of the team roster, was Indiana native Mark Herrmann.
Back in 1992, the man pictured above was the Eric Mangini of the NFL
And again, they had Kosar. who was in year eight of his career in Cleveland. He'd been part of some fairly successful Browns teams over that time, including the team that had their hearts ripped out of them in 1986, when the before-mentioned John Elway lead a 98 yard drive in the final seconds to help the Broncos win the AFC Championship Game in Cleveland. Kosar, unlike his counterpart in Herrmann, was a first overall pick in the 1985 Draft out of Miami, and had thrown 103 TDs going into the Week One 1992 game against the Colts.
With veteran talent on defense, a superstar quarterback, a dangerous special teams returner, and future coaching stars like Belichick and his then-defensive coordinator Nick Saban, the Browns seemed to o much for the Colts to handle.
But this game was unlike most other Colts games fans were used to seeing.
In the 1991 season, fans were used to seeing nothing but offensive ineptness. Jeff George was sacked a then-record 56 times. Erik Dickerson was the team's leading rusher (536 yards), and he only played in 10 games. Would they see more of the same to open 1992?
Right off the bat, no. The first quarter of the 1992 opener ended with a surprising 7-0 Colts lead, the result of a one-yard TD from then-rookie Rodney Culver. That 7-0 lead would remain all the way to halftime, with the Colts defense dominating Cleveland's offense. In the third quarter, second year kicker Matt Stover knocked in a 20-yarder, cutting Indy's lead to 4.
What happened next was what Colts fans remember Herrmann for.
In a defensive struggle, it was the third string quarterback you helped his team rise up a bit and overcome any potential Cleveland comeback. In the third, Herrmann helped the Colts get close to the red zone. Then, he threw a 26-yard TD pass to Reggie Langhorne. Dean Biasucci tacked on the extra point, and the Colts had a 14-3 lead.
Any thoughts of Cleveland and Bernie Kosar mounting some kind of comeback were dashed by the Colts defense. Kosar was sacked 11 times in the game, with 4 of those sacks via linebacker Chip Banks. First overall pick Steve Emtman registered a sack while the second overall pick, Quentin Coryatt, logged two in the stat sheet. The Colts also grabbed two INTs on the day. The Browns running game was stuffed, generating only 42 yards on 16 carries. Also bottled up was Eric Metcalf, who returned four punts for only 23 yards.
Coryatt and Emtman
Offensively, the Colts surrendered only one sack after giving up 56 the year before. Herrmann was intercepted once. While the running game was not dominant (33 carries for 64 yards and 1 TD), the Colts stuck with the run and the short pass. With a 14-3 lead going into the fourth, they played field position and, for the game, controlled time of possession (32.11 minutes).
The 1992 opening day win was the kind of football the Colts had not been known for: Tough, physical, opportunistic, and very few mistakes. Much of the credit for this was attributed to Herrmann who, unlike Jeff George, did not hold onto the ball long and take sacks. Also, unlike George, Herrmann knew the offense and was able to use it to maximize opportunities while avoiding, for the most part, mistakes. In the end, Herrmann's stats were not flashy (15-24, 177 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), but his high competition percentage (62%) and his yards per pass (7.2) were a major factor in the Colts victory.
After the game, Colts fans were flying high. The team played with toughness and resolve. The rookies looked impressive, and the free agent offensive line pick-ups were doing their job. There was also a feeling of local pride that a Hoosier had lead the Indianapolis Colts to a big opening day victory. Oh, and when I say big, I mean BIG for the people of Indianapolis.
Prior to the 1992 opener, the Colts had NEVER won an opening day game since the move from Baltimore.
So, the story had the makings of a real PR boost for a Colts franchise that was struggling to connect to its new fanbase. The team had won its first opening day game. A local guy, with ties to north side Indianapolis, Carmel, and West Lafayette was the winning quarterback. Prior to the game, this same quarterback (through no fault of his own) had connections to just about every ugly memory associated with the Colts. Now, Mark Herrmann was a part of one of the biggest wins in Indianapolis Colts history. In addition, the rookies impressed, the o-line looked solid, and the team had a "tough guy" demeanor thanks in large part to the excellent play of the defense.
For the first time, it looked like there was going to be good things in store for the Colts.
Now, we'll pause a bit and whip this back to the present. As you all are very aware of, I am not a fan of current Colts president Bill Polian when he has to work the PR side of his job. Polian's reputation in media and league circles is terrible. However, as bad as Bill Polian is at interacting with fans and the press, he has never, EVER made a move as dumb as Robert Irsay did following the Colts 1992 opening day win. Week Sixteen of the 2009 season was close for Polian, when he seemingly ordered the team to rest starters despite having an undefeated record at the time. Had the Colts lost in their first playoff game, the loss coupled with the PR disaster that was Week Sixteen could have cost Polian his either his job or he might have had his overall influence over the organization diminished. But, as ugly as Week Sixteen in 2009 was, it was nothing compared to the utter stupidity exhibited by the Irsays after the 1992 win.
There are moments in a franchise's life were an event, or a circumstance, can turn a fanbase on that franchise. Some fanbases will always root for a team no matter how badly they are managed (see Chicago Cubs). However, in 1992, the Indianapolis fanbase was very lukewarm to the Colts, much like the Jacksonville community is to the Jaguars right now. Now, for a brief moment, pretend that the Jaguars ended up drafting Flordia phenom Tim Tebow during the 2010 NFL Draft. Tebow is damn near a saint in the Sunshine State, and the University of Florida in Gainesville is only an hour-and-a-half by car from Jacksonville.
Imagine, if you will, the Jaguars naming Tebow the starter for Week One of the 2010 season, and in that Week One game he helps the Jaguars win! Pretty big PR boost for the team and Floridians, right? OK, now imagine that two days after that game the Jaguars cut Tim Tebow for seemingly no reason whatsoever. The words "PR Nightmare" do not even begin to describe the kind of adversarial situation between the team and fans if management made such a decision.
A similar situation happened in 1992 following the Colts opening day win, and it's a decision that still haunts Jim Irsay.
Two days after local hero Mark Herrmann quarterbacked the Colts to their first opening day win since the move from Baltimore, the Colts cut him.
No real explanation was given for why Herrmann was cut. Speculation was always that when Jeff George and Jack Trudeau returned, it made it impossible for Herrmann to stick around. And if Herrmann had quarterbacked the Colts to a 2-1 or 3-0 record when by the time the other QBs were ready, how could management and the coaches sit Herrmann?
Adding to this was the perception that both George and Trudeau were prima donnas, and both felt they were entitled to the starting QB job. While George was clearly the most talented player, he was, by most accounts, a dumb one. He never had a strong work ethic and had a reputation for simply not caring what play was being run. Instead, he'd just chuck the ball up looking to make big plays down the field. He was Rex Grossman, but with a stronger arm and a much bigger ego. The other guy, Trudeau, was the only Indianapolis Colts quarterback at that time to lead the team to a playoff game, which they lost to Cleveland in the strike-shortened 1987 season. Because of this, and because he very likely was a "smarter" player than George, Jack Trudeau seemed to feel that he was the best for the job. Hence, his demands for $1.5 million, annually.
The Colts had invested millions in both George and Trudeau. For the always money-conscious Robert Irsay, it made no sense to have the guys you are paying big money to sitting while the cheap guy (Herrmann) starts. This kind of thinking is one of many reasons why Robert Irsay was a terrible sports owner. Again, for all the crap I give Polian as a press bully and being a general jerk to fans, I really feel that his football decisions are based solely on football performance; not the size of a player's contract. Fans respond well to this because, obviously, we want the best people to play.
In 1992, the best person seemed to be Herrmann. Unlike Trudeau and George, Herrmann had played well in an opener and had delivered in the clutch. Unlike George, Herrmann didn't take unnecessary sacks. Unlike Trudeau, Herrmann had enough arm strength to make the throws needed to move chains. Plus, with Herrmann there was a distinct lack of entitlement. Whatever job he was going to get would be a job he'd earned. He'd been a journeyman player his whole career, unwanted by pretty much everyone but still kept around as a "just in case player." For a guy like that to win a home opener was big for Colts fans.
For the first time, there was a connection between the fans and their quarterback.
The fan backlash against Herrmann's contract termination was intense; almost as intense as Week Sixteen in 2009. I'd call the benching starters situation more heated simply because there are more Colts fans now than in 1992. The Irsays pathetically tried to spin it as a football-related decision, but that didn't hold water for the simple reason that Herrmann had done what Trudeau and George had failed to do for years. And, any football-related decision not pertaining to performance on the field is one fans, in general, will not accept. Fans saw the decision as a betrayal; a move to pinch pennies by dumping an unnecessary "third quarterback" because he was not getting paid as much as the other two guys. And if the cheap third quarterback performed better than the two high paid guys, than Robert Irsay was wasting his money, and in Robert Irsay's world wasting money was worse than losing.
Robert Irsay, right, with his son Jim
But, the damage was done.
However, throughout his college and professional career in and near the state of Indiana, the general sense was that George felt entitled to certain things. Such an attitude does not rub off well on Hoosiers. Thus, despite his strong roots in the Indiana and Indianapolis community, Hoosiers just didn't like Jeff. On the flip side, current Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is everything Jeff George isn't, which is why fans respond so well to him. Manning has all of George's talent, but added to that is an unrivaled work ethic that borders on the obsessive.
If you want a primer on Indiana fans, here it is: They will always root for lesser-talented players who work hard than very talented players who don't. It is literally that simple.
Today, Mark Herrmann does pre-game radio shows for the Colts at WFBQ in Indianapolis. His ten-year gameday radio job was given to former lineman (and 1992 Colts free agent acquisition) Will Wolford. For many, Herrmann will be remembered as a great college quarterback. However, for Colts fans, he will always be remembered for that one game in 1992. Head over to Purude blog Hammer and Rails and you will see that even when a Boilermaker fan is discussing how wonderful it is for Herrmann to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, most Indiana fans still have a tingle of anger towards the Colts for cutting Herrmann:
What an honor for one of the greats in the Cradle of Quarterbacks. Hopefully he extends a middle finger towards the Colts during his induction speech for screwing him over in 1992.
For me, Herrmann always struck me as the model for how most careers in the NFL go. Most players are not Dan Marino or Peyton Manning. Their careers last, if they are lucky, 2-4 years. They bounce around from team to team, making small contributions along the way, and maybe a little money to store in a shoebox. Their openly hope for a legacy is to, somehow, make a difference in one or two games so that a local fanbase can remember them long after they've retired.
For Herrmann, after that 1992 win, he achieved such a legacy.