April 20, 2011

1990: Colts Trade Rison & Hinton to Falcons to Draft Jeff George

On April 20, 1990, two days before the NFL draft commenced, the Atlanta Falcons (a 3-13 club in ’89) traded the first overall pick and a fourth-round draft choice to the Indianapolis Colts for OT Chris Hinton, WR Andre Rison, and two draft picks (fifth round in 1990, first round in ’91). The deal was contingent upon the Colts reaching a contract agreement with Illinois QB Jeff George, which they accomplished at 5:30 that morning following an all-night bargaining session.

George (pictured above), an Indianapolis native, signed a six-year, $15 million contract that included a $3.5 million signing bonus. The package made him the third-highest-paid quarterback in the league without playing a down as a pro, behind Buffalo’s Jim Kelly and Randall Cunningham of Philadelphia (and ahead of such notable veteran quarterbacks as Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and John Elway).

While many Colts fans objected to the deal, General Manager Jim Irsay made clear his commitment to it. “Obviously, we feel that this trade will prove to be very significant for this organization,” he said. “Our position is, let's let time decide.”

The price was very steep. Hinton had been selected to the Pro Bowl six times since joining the Colts in 1983 when they were still in Baltimore – ironically, they obtained him from the Broncos as part of the deal that sent the draft rights to QB John Elway to Denver. Rison was the team’s top draft choice in 1989 and showed great promise during his rookie season, catching 52 passes for 820 yards.

“I'm an action guy. This is just an ideal place for me. I expect a lot of great things are going to happen for me and Indianapolis in the next year,” the confident George said. He had passed for 2932 yards and 22 touchdowns in his last season at Illinois. His college career had started at Purdue, but when the head coach was fired, he transferred to Illinois (after initially committing to Miami). George passed up his last year of college eligibility to enter the draft. While he had ideal size at 6’4” and 218 pounds, and there was no question as to his athletic ability, the lack of stability during his college career raised some questions.

Indianapolis had two veteran quarterbacks on the roster, Chris Chandler, who started as a rookie in 1988 but went down with a knee injury in ’89, and Jack Trudeau, who also played collegiately at Illinois. Head Coach Ron Meyer indicated that one of them would likely be dealt (it was Chandler, to Tampa Bay).

It looked as though the Colts had made the right decision during the second half of the ’90 season. After getting off to a 2-6 start (not helped by star RB Eric Dickerson being suspended for the first five games), Indianapolis won five of the remaining eight games with George starting at quarterback and playing well. In the five wins, he threw for 1070 yards with 10 touchdowns and only one picked off, and overall for the year totaled 2152 yards with more TD passes (16) than interceptions (13).

However, it was all down hill from there. The team collapsed to 1-15 in 1991 and Meyer was replaced as head coach by Ted Marchibroda – a move that was anticipated as being one that would spur George’s progress. The team’s record improved, but for all of his ability, George was highly erratic (not helped by the lack of a strong ground game once Dickerson departed plus poor pass protection) as well as prone to complain, a poor leader, and resistant to being coached. By his fourth year (1993), he was at odds with Marchibroda, his teammates, and the fans and the offense often seemed more effective when Trudeau was behind center. George was traded after the season – ironically enough, to the Falcons.

As for Atlanta, trading the first overall pick in 1990 had worked out well. Rison (pictured at left) proved to be an excellent fit in new Head Coach Jerry Glanville’s run-and-shoot passing offense. He set a new team record with 82 pass receptions while accumulating 1208 yards and 10 touchdowns and was a consensus first-team All-Pro. Hinton started off slowly due to a contract holdout, but was back in good form by midseason and part of an improved offensive line. However, the fifth-round draft choice obtained from the Colts was used to take Reggie Redding, a tight end from Cal State-Fullerton who was converted to offensive tackle and had a short and inconsequential career.

The Falcons were back in the postseason in 1991 with a 10-6 record and Rison put together another Pro Bowl season (81 catches, 976 yards, 12 TDs). The first-round draft choice for ’91 that had been picked up from the Colts was used to take WR Mike Pritchard, who contributed 50 receptions for 624 yards as the Falcons boasted an exciting passing offense. Hinton was selected to his seventh Pro Bowl after the season.

The team’s fortunes ultimately declined again, but in five years in Atlanta, Rison caught 423 passes for 5633 yards and 56 touchdowns (he led the NFL in TD receptions with 15 in 1993, when he also gained a career-high 1242 yards; his high for catches was 93 in 1992). Hinton played four years with the Falcons and was a consensus first-team All-Pro selection in 1993. In three seasons before moving on to Denver, Pritchard caught 201 passes for 2187 yards (10.9 avg.) and 10 TDs.

Jeff George never achieved the level of success that was anticipated when he came into the NFL. Despite a strong arm and quick release, good performances were all-too-frequently followed by ineffectiveness and controversy, and the stops along the way over the course of his NFL career became progressively shorter. Two productive years in Atlanta were followed by his being suspended during the ’96 season after a nationally-televised tirade directed at Head Coach June Jones; from there it was on to two years in Oakland (where he led the NFL with 3917 passing yards in 1997, but didn’t fit into new Head Coach Jon Gruden’s West Coast-style offense in ‘98), a season with the Vikings, and two in Washington (where he became a source of friction between owner Dan Snyder and head coaches Norv Turner and Marty Schottenheimer). Efforts at staging a comeback in the ensuing years went nowhere.

To be sure, the quarterback crop in 1990 had not been a strong one – only one other was taken in the first round, and it was Heisman Trophy-winner Andre Ware out of Houston, chosen by Detroit with the seventh pick and a complete bust as a pro. The only signal-callers of consequence taken in that entire draft were Neil O’Donnell (chosen by Pittsburgh, third round), Scott Mitchell (fourth round by the Dolphins), and John Friesz (sixth round, San Diego). On the other hand, outstanding players at other positions selected in the first round that year included DT Cortez Kennedy (Seattle), LB Junior Seau (San Diego), and RB Emmitt Smith (Dallas). The fourth round draft pick that the Colts obtained from Atlanta went for WR Stacey Simmons out of Florida, who played just one year as a kick returner.