The Indianapolis colts bring to mind Mike Campbell in The Sun Also Rises, who, when asked how he lost his fortune, said, "Gradually and then suddenly." That's just how the Colts have regained theirs. While losing 67 of 89 games from 1981 through '86 and finishing far back in the pack every year, Indianapolis built up a store of high draft choices who, this season, are beginning to come into their own. Now, after orchestrating perhaps the biggest trade in NFL history, the Colts also have Eric Dickerson, the best running back in football. Suddenly, last year's laughingstock seems awfully well stocked.
Three teams were in on the Dickerson deal, which involved a damnably confusing realignment of talent, the repercussions of which are sure to affect the league for years and years, or at least until Mark Gastineau's next sack. The mastermind behind the blockbuster was Jim Irsay, the 28-year-old general manager of the Colts, who also happens to be the son of owner Robert Irsay. Follow this: Indianapolis traded the rights to rookie linebacker Cornelius Bennett, a No. 1 draft choice out of Alabama whom it had not been able to sign, to Buffalo for running back Greg Bell and the Bills' first-round draft picks in 1988 and '89 and their second-round pick in '89. The Colts then sent all they'd received from Buffalo, along with their own first-round draft pick in '88, their second-round choices in '88 and '89 and running back Owen Gill, to the Los Angeles Rams, who in turn packed Dickerson off to Indianapolis.
Counting the draft picks as bodies, eight players were traded for Dickerson. The NFL hadn't seen a deal approaching this since '59, when the general manager of the Rams, a rash youngster named Pete Rozelle, sent the rights to nine players to the Chicago Cardinals for Ollie Matson, a future Hall of Famer.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the trade is that Indianapolis hasn't really needed Dickerson lately. The Colts beat the New York Jets 19-14 on Sunday, after having thumped the New England Patriots 30-16 the week before. Now Indianapolis is tied with the Pats for the lead in the AFC East. The Colts are 4-3, their first winning record since the franchise left Baltimore in 1984. To be sure, it was great fun seeing Dickerson take flight on Sunday with blue horseshoes on his helmet, rather than yellow horns. He teased the 60,863 fans at Giants Stadium with glimpses of brilliance, carrying 10 times for 38 yards and catching a pass for 28 more. But the truth is, Indianapolis would have beaten the Jets without him.
Five first-round picks are among the Colts' front seven on defense: linebackers Duane Bickett (1985), Johnie Cooks ('82) and Barry Krauss ('79), plus linemen Jon Hand ('86) and Donnell Thompson ('81). Each helped make New York look inept. Ask Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien, who was sacked seven times. Or ask Roger Vick, the Jets fullback. Vick was supposed to block Bickett whenever he rushed the passer. Vick might as well have brandished a red cape and shouted !Ol�! Bickett had four sacks.
True, the Colts could use a corner-back or two, they're quite ordinary at tight end, and the offense tends to sputter around the goal line. Indy got four field goals from Dean Biasucci on Sunday. But who's complaining? These are mostly the same Colts—just older and better—who were outscored 63-13 before they played a home game last season and who were 0-13 when the Colts fired coach Rod Dowhower and brought in Ron Meyer on Dec. 1. Meyer promptly guided Indianapolis to three victories in its final three games. Under Meyer—whose five-year contract states that if he wins at least half his games in any of the first three seasons, the last two will be guaranteed—Indianapolis is 7-3.
Despite his success, whenever Meyer would mention the Colts in the same sentence with the Super Bowl, as he has been wont to do, he always sounded a tad ludicrous. With No. 29 in his back-field, no m�s. The seeds for the Dickerson deal had been germinating since last summer, when Dickerson began sulking in earnest about the money he wasn't making. The Rams weren't willing to pay Dickerson, the world's best running back—just ask him—what he calls "quarterback money." The Colts were, but they were having a deuce of a time signing Bennett, who was demanding Bosworth money. (Buffalo signed Bennett to a five-year contract worth a reported $4 million; in August, Brian Bosworth reportedly signed a deal with the Seattle Seahawks that pays him $11 million over 10 years.) The Nov. 3 trade deadline loomed.
After Robert Irsay had discussed Dickerson with Rams owner Georgia Frontiere at the NFL owners' meetings in Kansas City early last week, Jim Irsay called Meyer on Friday morning. "Do you want to take a run at Eric Dickerson?" he asked.
"I love it!" blurted Meyer. Indeed, other than the price (a reported $5.3 million over four years), what's not to love? Dickerson, whom Meyer coached at SMU, ran for 1,808 yards as a rookie in 1983. The next year, he broke the NFL single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards. In 1985 he had 1,234 yards, and last season, 1,821. He is 6'3", 218 pounds, durable and, at 27, in his prime.
Jim Irsay had a tentative agreement with the Rams by Friday afternoon. But he had yet to come to terms with a third team, one that would give a king's ransom for Bennett so Indianapolis could send two king's ransoms to L.A. "We opened it up to the entire league," says the younger Irsay. Actually, he ruled out playoff-caliber teams because their draft picks would be lower. Houston and Buffalo were the finalists, with the Bills winning the Bennett derby.