Colts had miracle finish, too

Bill Tanton

January 05, 1993|By Bill Tanton

A lot of wild things have happened in the National Football League this season -- none of them wilder than the Buffalo-Houston playoff game Sunday -- but there's one thing that still has me shaking my head.

The Colts had a winning year.

The Indianapolis Colts, still owned by Bob Irsay, were 9-7.

They actually won nine games -- including one over the Dolphins (31-20) in Miami.

Since the night in 1984 when Irsay pulled the Colts out of Baltimore, I had said we weren't losing that much, that the team would never win anyway as long as that man owned it.

When Ted Marchibroda, one year ago, signed to coach the Indianapolis Colts, I thought the poor man had lost his mind.

Teddy was giving up a job as offensive coordinator of the Bills, with whom he had gone to two Super Bowls, working under head coach Marv Levy, one of the NFL's good guys.

Marchibroda, of all people, should have known about Bob Irsay. He had coached the Baltimore Colts for him from 1975 through 1979, when he was fired.

But Marchibroda knew what he was doing in going back. At 61, he thought he could still coach. This season he proved he was right as the Colts had an eight-game turnaround from their 1-15 season in '91, tying a league record shared by five teams. One of those, interestingly, is Marchibroda's 1975 Baltimore Colts, who went 10-4 after going 2-12 in '74.

"That's exactly why I came back, to prove I can still coach," Marchibroda was telling me yesterday. "I had sort of kept in touch with the Irsays since '79, with a phone call, maybe, or once in a while a dinner. Joe Thomas [the late Colts general manager] was the biggest reason for my troubles in Baltimore.

"Jimmy Irsay runs the team now and acts as a buffer between the coach and his father. The Irsays were easy to work with this year. They give you everything you need to win. We have a complete training complex now."

Marchibroda says he enjoyed this season "more than the other" -- meaning his time in Baltimore. Says Ted: "I don't remember that we had as many injuries to overcome in Baltimore as we did here."

Marchibroda, who has been in the NFL for all his adult life, didn't believe the Colts were going to be a playoff team this year. Even after beating Miami, he told people the team wasn't there yet.

"Jeff George [who missed six games this year due to injury] is going to be a great quarterback in this league," Marchibroda says, "but to make the next step we still need to add two or three more players, productive players who will provide some leadership. Then we'll be ready to play with the big boys."

One of the biggest boys, certainly, is the team Ted spent five years with before going back to the Colts: Buffalo.

"I think the Bills are the team to beat in the playoffs now, especially after that emotional win Sunday," Ted says. "They're the most talented team in the AFC. I think they have a mission to win the Super Bowl. They've been there twice and they haven't won.

"If Jim Kelly was healthy I'd feel more confident saying that, but Frank Reich is a great kid. He works hard. He prepares. He has so much class. You'd want a son like Frank."

Reich, of course, is the University of Maryland grad who filled in for Kelly Sunday and quarterbacked the Bills to their 41-38 overtime victory, which was the greatest comeback in NFL history. In 1984 Reich brought Maryland back from a 31-0 deficit at halftime at Miami to a 42-40 victory, the greatest comeback in NCAA Division I history.

If you know Ted Marchibroda, you have to be happy for him. Few in Baltimore know him like the Rev. Joe Ehrmann, who was a defensive tackle for Marchibroda in the '70s when the Colts won three straight divisional titles.

"Ted is a wonderful human being," says Ehrmann, who now operates The Door for underprivileged kids in East Baltimore.

In 1978 Ehrmann's younger brother, Billy, was dying of leukemia. Marchibroda was extraordinarily sensitive in dealing with Joe's needs.

"He treated me as a man, not as a football player," Joe says. "I'll never forget that."

I didn't think I would ever hear anyone in Baltimore say a good word about an Irsay but Ehrmann says some highly flattering things about Jimmy, Bob's son.

"I think," Joe says, "that Jimmy is going to wind up being one of the great owners in the NFL. He has a strong commitment to winning. That's what it takes. They're a great team -- Jimmy and Teddy."

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