ALAMEDA, Calif. -- It’s true. The Oakland Raiders could have had Calvin Johnson instead of JaMarcus Russell in 2007.
Fact is, the Raiders, who did not have a winning season from 2003 through 2015, could have had a lot of future star players in the draft, but the above recognizes first-round picks that went one choice after the Raiders chose in those respective player selection meetings.
Sure, current Raiders history might be different, if say, the Raiders had Rodgers throwing the ball to Fitzgerald, or Johnson running routes for, say, Trent Edwards.
An assignment this week for all 32 ESPN NFL Nation reporters had us play that ultimate game of what if? As in... What if the team you cover had chosen differently in the draft? Any draft.
Sure, recent Raiders vintage suggests much could have been different. But I went deeper into the franchise’s past, to 1983.
The Raiders were in the second year of their 13-year sojourn in Los Angeles and held the No. 26 overall pick, the third to last pick of the first round.
Earlier in the day, the Raiders thought they had a deal in place to acquire the rights to John Elway. The way the Raiders saw it, they were going to get the Chicago Bears’ No. 6 overall pick and flip it as part of a package to the then-Baltimore Colts for Elway, who went first overall but was threatening to play baseball for the New York Yankees instead of playing for the moribund Colts.
The Bears would have parted with their first-rounder in exchange for a player from one of two lists, either Howie Long or Ted Watts from List A, or Mike Davis, Vann McElroy, Kenny Hill or Jeff Barnes from List B.
The agent for both Elway and Dan Marino, Marvin Demoff, said on the ESPN 30 for 30 film "Elway to Marino" that the Raiders told him they had a deal in place for Chicago’s No. 6 overall selection.
“The next thing I know, I'm being told [that] Don Weiss of the NFL office called the Bears to confirm whether this was true,” Demoff said. “And then the deal vanished. I always found it strange that the league office was calling the Bears, rather than let the teams do their business, whatever way they were going to do it.”
Demoff said the Bears told him there was a “misunderstanding” between the teams, that Chicago “needed both Watts and Long” from the first list.
“Which didn't make a lot of sense why there was Group A and Group B if you only wanted players from Group A,” Demoff said. “The Bears backed out. There was no trade and would not re-engage the Raiders. Period.”
Joe Browne, the NFL director of information, later said the Bears told him the deal fell through because Raiders owner Al Davis would not trade Long.
“No, I think that what happened was, I think there was a fella in New York City that put the kibosh on that, by the name of [Pete] Rozelle,” said Ron Wolf, then the Raiders' director of player personnel. “I mean, I can't prove that.”
Long, meanwhile, laughed it up.
“Ron Wolf told me, ‘That’s [bulls---]. You might have been on the Bears’ list, but not ours. You were never going to be traded,’” Long told me for my book, “100 Things Raiders Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.”
“Hell, I would have traded me for John Elway.”
By the time the Raiders’ choice came up at No. 26, though, they still had a shot at another future Hall of Famer in Marino, and they wouldn't have had to part with any talent already on the roster.
Elway was already gone. So, too, were Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason and Ken O’Brien.
Marino, dogged by drug rumors coming out of Pitt, was free-falling right into the Raiders’ lap. Except...
The Raiders had already spent a first-round pick three years earlier on what Davis saw as his quarterback of the future in Marc Wilson, who was waiting in the wings behind Jim Plunkett, the Super Bowl MVP two years earlier.
As Wolf put it in that special, Marino was not even on the Raiders’ minds.
“Boy, that's a bad deal that he wasn't in there,” Wolf said. “He wasn't in [our draft board] because we had all these rumors coming in. It was bogus. None of it was true. [We] made a bad, bad mistake in relationship to Marino.”
Even if they did get a three-time Pro Bowl selection in USC’s Don Mosebar, who would anchor the Raiders’ offensive line for more than a decade?
“To this day I call him 'Dan, Dan Mosebar,'" Wolf laughed. “Because [we] blew [it on] Marino. And he knows that.”
Added Demoff: “If Al Davis had not been in the trial with the NFL and had spent the time he usually spent on the draft, Dan Marino might have been a Raider.
“Al liked to throw the ball down the field; Marino could throw the ball down the field. Al liked charismatic quarterbacks; he was a charismatic quarterback. Al liked confidence; nobody had more than Dan.”
Instead, those attributes all went to the Miami Dolphins one pick after the Raiders chose. Yes, one pick later.
Marino actually made his NFL debut against the Raiders, on Monday Night Football at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 19, 1983, throwing the first two of his then-record 420 career touchdown passes in the Raiders’ 27-14 win. He was 5-5 against the Raiders in his career, passing for 2,356 yards, 18 TDs and 11 interceptions with a passer rating of 81.5.
Then there’s this: From 1984 through 1999, six players besides Marino combined to start 24 of a possible 256 games at quarterback for the Dolphins. The Raiders had 13 different starters under center in that same time frame in Plunkett, Wilson, Rusty Hilger, Vince Evans, Steve Beuerlein, Jay Schroeder, Todd Marinovich, Jeff Hostetler, Billy Joe Hobert, Jeff George, Donald Hollas, Wade Wilson and Rich Gannon.
And no, Marino never won a Super Bowl in Miami, appearing in just one, in his second NFL season. But how much continuity and offensive firepower would Marino have provided the Raiders, especially in the mid-80s with that dominant defense?
Would the Raiders have won Super Bowl XVIII (still their most recent title) with a rookie QB in Marino, or is the tradeoff perhaps more Lombardi Trophies later in the decade? And if so, would the Raiders have so ingrained themselves in Southern California that the domino effect meant they wouldn't have returned to Oakland, let alone prepared for a move to Las Vegas? Would the Rams or Chargers moved back to L.A.?