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Where are your former Browns now? GM Ernie Accorsi

25 questions with the man who drafted John Elway, Bernie Kosar and traded for Eli Manning  

NFL: NOV 14 Bengals at Giants Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Quite a bit goes into the formation of any NFL club’s draft board. All year, scouts are assigned regions and it’s their job to see as many college games in there area as possible, to watch tape of the games they miss, to talk to head coaches and begin to compile a database of the college players in their region.

This information is critical when the draft board is being constructed. The coaches see very little college games because they are completely immersed into the season at hand. And if they do have some time away from the facilities, they have families that need their attention.

Most NFL clubs are set up for the head coach to perform those duties strictly on the field and for the General Manager to handle other functions such as player acquisitions, contracts, the salary cap, waiver pickups, trades, coaching hiring and firings, free agency, bonus structures, and generally have the main responsibilities of these financial aspects on behalf of the franchise.

Ernie Accorsi has been the GM of three NFL clubs: Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and New York Football Giants.

He grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Theses were the days before rigid emission regulations and while growing up Accorsi’s neighborhood would sometimes smell like chocolate. After high school he attended Wake Forest University before serving in the U.S. Army Reserves for six years. He then switched from the Army to the Air Force in the middle of his reserves requirement which extended him a bit. The requirement meant one weekend a month was set aside for Reserve duty.

Accorsi began as a sports reporter. His first gig was with the Charlotte News. From there he went to the Baltimore Sun as a golf correspondent and then some local sports events. From there he was offered to work for the Philadelphia Inquirer to cover football and basketball including the job of beat writer for the Philadelphia 76ers. He broke the story of Wilt Chamberlain being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.

What was strange would be one weekend Accorsi would be covering The Masters prestigious golf tournament and with him still being in the Reserves, the next weekend he would be holed up somewhere in a tent.

He became employed by the athletic departments of St. Joseph’s University as the Sports Information Director where he made $6,000 a year. From there he served as Penn State’s Assistant Sports Publicity Director. This job landed him an opportunity to become employed by the Baltimore Colts as its director of public relations.

In 2016, the Football Giants added Accorsi into their Ring of Honor, the highest accolade for that franchise.

Accorsi is a devout Roman Catholic. He has three grown children and one grandchild.

DBN caught up with the successful GM between his home in Hershey and his office in New York City to find out why he has an affection for pass rushers, for him to tell us all how a draft board is set up, and the story of Eli Manning almost becoming a Cleveland Brown and Ben Roethlisberger was assuredly a New York Football Giant.

DBN: You grew up a Baltimore Colts fan. What do you remember about the 1964 NFL Championship Game where they were heavily-favored against the hometown Browns yet lost 27-0?

Accorsi: Every road game there is an edge for the home team. I was with the Sun at that time and saw the game on television. I knew there was going to be 80,000 people there and knew how great Jim Brown was. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Browns won, but the Colts tore through the league that year. It was nothing-nothing at the half. The fact that they lost 27-0 was astonishing to me.

DBN: In 1983, a generational QB was available in the draft by the name of John Elway from Stanford. You were the GM of the Colts who had the first overall pick. He came out publicly and stated he wasn’t going to play for Baltimore, yet you selected him first overall anyway. What were your thoughts on taking him with the first pick knowing you probably couldn’t sign him?

Accorsi: I didn’t believe I couldn’t sign him number one. He was the best football player in the draft and if I didn’t take him I thought it would destroy my career. I was very influenced by Pittsburgh drafting then cutting Johnny Unitas, and he never let them forget it. I said I am not going to do that. This is the best prospect I have ever seen, and to this day he still is. I felt there was a chance and I had two options: 1) ultimately he would sign, and 2) if he didn’t I could trade him before the next draft. People were trying to steal him. But I had in mind not to trade him unless I got the best trade scenario there was for a club core player. And I wouldn’t trade him into the division and play him twice a year or even in the same conference. The whole league was pressuring me to trade him because they were afraid he was going to play baseball. And it was going to cost one million a year for five years which was unheard of back then. That is what precipitated (Colts owner Robert) Mr. Irsay to trade him. But I was not going to sell the franchise down the river. I found out on ESPN.

DBN: As GM of the Browns, you experienced both “The Drive” and “The Fumble.” There is no way anyone can prepare for one if not both of these situations. And it just so happened it was against Denver and your former draft pick John Elway. Did it ever occur to you that this was Elway coming back to haunt you?

Accorsi: You don’t think that way. He is just one of the great players in the game. I never gave that a thought for a second.

DBN: During “The Drive” in the 1986 AFC Championship Game against the Browns Elway converted a key third-and-18 with 1:47 left. What do you remember most about that play?

Accorsi: I remember that play vividly. The plan for Denver was to get about eight or nine yards and then try to get the first on fourth down. Clarence Kay, their tight end, went into motion. The snap in shotgun was low and Elway caught it on his hip. It wasn’t that cold but it was windy. Somehow Mark Jackson got free with us playing in the prevent defense and Elway fired that ball as the corner was coming up. It came on recently on TV and before I could get the remote it gave me a hollow feeling in my stomach.

DBN: While you were GM of the Browns you helped build a very good franchise that went to three AFC Championship Games yet lost all three. What could have turned around any of those games, and why did head coach Marty Schottenheimer leave?

Accorsi: We turned it around in 1985 with an 8-8 season. The second most important thing we did was bring quarterback Gary Danielson in there. I didn’t want Bernie (Kosar) to get exposure right away. I wanted a veteran quarterback to help groom him. He did a great job for us. The two backs, (Kevin) Mack and (Earnest) Byner, were marvelous. We got better and better and by the end of the year we were a good team. In 1987, I thought we were peaking and were one of the best teams in the league. The strike might have cost us in ‘87. As far as Schottenheimer leaving, that was the strangest coaching change I have ever been involved in. Art Modell didn’t fire Marty and Marty didn’t quit. It was just a divorce. The biggest problem involved Art wanted to make changes to the coaching staff which you know is sacred territory. And one of the changes was Marty’s brother. So that became a sensitive issue. We lost by one point in the playoffs on Christmas Eve without Kosar. That year we had six quarterback injuries. I thought Marty had done his best coaching job that year. Marty and his wife Patty were leaving on a vacation the day after Christmas since they lost. Art insisted on a meeting with Marty on the 26th, the day Marty was taking his family somewhere warm like Jamaica. Now, where I failed was not getting Marty on that vacation where the situation would have cooled down. So in the meeting Art insisted on coaching changes and Marty wasn’t going to make them, and then they just decided to part ways. Marty had two job offers in 24 hours: San Diego and Kansas City.

DBN: During your tenure in Cleveland you drafted some very good players in the mid-to-later rounds such as WR Reggie Langhorne (7), C Frank Winters (10), DE Anthony Pleasant (3), WR Michael Jackson (6), DE Rob Burnett (5) and LB Gerald Dixon (3). How important is it for a club to get guys that contribute in the later rounds?

Accorsi: Back then we didn’t have free agency yet, but we had “Plan B.” And we lost a few good players. There were several years when we didn’t have any first rounders so you had to hit on those later round guys.

Buffalo Bills v Cleveland Browns
Quarterback Bernie Kosar #19
Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

DBN: The Browns went from Brian Sipe to Paul McDonald to Bernie Kosar at quarterback. Why is this position so critical to an offense?

Accorsi: I grew up on Johnny Unitas and knew how important the quarterback position was. You can be as nervous as anyone during a game, and then you look over there under center and see Unitas and you know everything will be okay. That premier quarterback always will give you a chance. They’re not always going to do it, but they bring that high percentage into the mix. I knew I had to get a young premier guy in here. And at first the only one available was Doug Flutie until I researched that Kosar would be available in the supplemental draft later in the year. And I knew we had to get Kosar somehow. Jim Houston was a former linebacker with the Browns and is now in the Browns Legends. He called me and said to look into Kosar and that he might be able to graduate in three years. This was a time period before juniors were allowed to be drafted. I checked the rules and I checked the league office and back then you had to graduate. But when he came out early and graduated early that gave me a chance to pull that off.

DBN: You resigned from the Browns in 1992. Were there just too many chiefs in the building with head coach Bill Belichick and player personnel director Mike Lombardi?

Accorsi: Lombardi was not a chief then, but as far as Belichick and I – no. I wanted to leave for two reasons. I was an only child and my mother was starting to fade. I had been away from Baltimore for nine years and I wanted to get back east. Secondly, I got the opportunity to work with the governor of Maryland about Baltimore getting an expansion team. The NFL was going to expand into two markets to begin play in 1995 and with all of my research it looked like Baltimore and Charlotte were the favorites. I figured if I have the ability to pick the owner I have a very good chance at being the General Manager. And I would be going home.

DBN: Where were you when you heard Art Modell was moving the Browns to Baltimore, and what was your first thoughts?

Accorsi: There were rumors. Whoever broke the story it was a Saturday. And I was scouting a cornerback in a game in Nevada. I was in the car driving from the airport to the game and a report came on the radio that they were going to move. That was the day before the famous hollow game where it broke and the fans where in shock. I think that was the first game Modell missed. When Modell moved the team he called the Irsay’s with the Colts to see if he would be able to buy the name “Baltimore Colts” from them, but their attorney asked for too much money and they really didn’t want to relinquish the name. Jimmy Irsay grew up a Colts fan and didn’t want to give up the name.

DBN: At the time the Browns were considered the lifeblood of the city. The Indians had gotten a new stadium. The Cavs as well. In your opinion, would Modell have kept the Browns in Cleveland if he had gotten the stadium that is there now?

Accorsi: I have no way of knowing but I believe he would have. I never believed he wanted to leave. When you think about the circumstances beyond football, he had a beautiful home and packed up and left and never came back. He loved it there especially since he came from New York. When I came to the Browns Cleveland was like another world, but Modell told me “you’re going to love this city.” He loved Cleveland.

Cleveland Browns vs Baltimore Colts, 1964 NFL Championship
1964 NFL Championship team

DBN: You attended the 20th Anniversary of the 1964 NFL Championship team, the Browns last title. What was that function like, and why have the Browns taken so long to get another championship?

Accorsi: That was a banquet in the ballroom at the Hotel Cleveland Terminal Tower. You have to understand – I did not like that team and was pulling for the other guys. And most of them were still alive. So they are introducing the players one-by-one down this staircase, I was basically simmering especially Frank Ryan. We had Unitas and yet it was Ryan who tossed those three touchdown passes. It was not a pleasant experience for me at all. You know what it is like being a fan of a team – you never get over those things. Why the Browns haven’t gotten a championship team since I don’t know. We were in overtime in one of them, we were in the last minute of another one, competitive in that ‘89 game, were in the ‘65 NFL Championship Game and also the last NFL title game in 1969 that sent the winner to meet the Chiefs. With the new Browns, they obviously have made a lot of mistakes and draft picks that just haven’t panned out. And a lot of coaching hires. I really like Stefanski and think they got it right finally.

DBN: You ended up as the assistant GM under Giants GM George Young who is considered the greatest GM for that franchise. How did you get hired, how difficult is it to come in as an assistant when you had great success being the GM of the Browns, and what was working with George like?

Accorsi: George and I had worked with the Colts and were best friends. I was staying at a motel for $8 a night that was right next to a Rustler Steak House. I go in and George and his wife Lovey are sitting in the back and I go over and say hi and George asks me to sit down and eat a steak with them. And we talked and talked and talked and finally Lovey asked me if I had a car and I said yes. She took the car and went home, and George and I stayed there and talked for hours. From that first day, we got along. When I was in Cleveland and he was with the Giants we talked at least four times a week. And any move I made professionally I did not make a move without consulting with him about it. I was working with the Baltimore Orioles and was very happy. He got Joel Bussert to call me who had a long career as player personnel. And Joel asks me over the phone, “George wants to know if you would be interested in going up there to the Giants.” And I said, “Did George lose my number?” George knew how happy I was in my current job. I told him I would consider it. George later called me and said, “I don’t want to ruin your life.” This was the beginning of salary caps and free agency which I had never dealt with before. He said that he was going to put me in the pressure cooker right away if I took the job. After a meeting I took it because it was the New York Giants and because it was George Young. I was making $120,000 with the Orioles and he offered me a little bit more. I settled in Manhattan.

DBN: What were your thoughts when George Young was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020?

Accorsi: That felt bittersweet because he was no longer alive. He had come so close conventionally six or seven years earlier without the senior stuff. He had said that the only people who need to be in the Hall of Fame are players and coaches. But I know this would have meant the world to him. It was emotional for me when I heard he got in.

DBN: One of the first things you had to deal with when you became the full time GM in 1998 was to release the offense’s workhorse running back Rodney Hampton after he had a few years of some lingering injuries. How do you separate the personal feelings for a longtime player from the business side of football?

Accorsi: You have to learn that early on. You have to understand your Number 1 obligation is to the franchise. There is a thing that is in every NFL office called the “Certificate of Membership.” Every team has one framed in their main lobby. That is what you have to be loyal to. There were two moves that had gotten us in a problem area. One was the second contract for quarterback Dave Brown. And the other one was the 49ers had signed Hampton to an offer sheet, and George matched it to keep him with the Giants. Rodney was the heart and soul of our running game and a great back. If you were over the cap after the deadline, the fine was a million dollars a day. I had to get the Giants under the cap and had a heck of a time. I had to renegotiate contracts all over the place. You can prorate signing bonuses but can’t prorate salary. I would take 90% of their salary away and give it to them in a signing bonus which gave me cap room but I would have to pay the piper later. So when the time comes, you do what must be done. I had to cut Kerry Collins who was still very productive. Hampton was one of those cap situations that I could not overcome.

DBN: The Giants had Michael Strahan along the defensive line and you found Osi Umenyira in the second round and drafted Justin Tuck in Round 3, DT William Joseph in the first-round then drafted DE Mathias Kiwanuka late in the first-round. How did you justify the ability to keep taking defensive linemen?

Accorsi: Because you never have enough pass rushers. I drafted Kiwanuka as a defensive end and they moved him to linebacker. There was also a narrative at that time that they wanted to rotate their defensive linemen. We got lucky with Justin Tuck in a draft that we only drafted four players. Corey Webster was in that class and ended up being a good one along with a key running back Brandon Jacobs.

NFL - 2006 Annual Meeting - March 29 - Orlando
New York Giants GM Ernie Accorsi and head coach Tom Coughlin
Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

DBN: As the assistant and the GM, you had Hampton as the starter and drafted Tyrone Wheatley, then Wheatley as the starter and drafted Tiki Barber, then Barber as the starter and drafted Ron Dayne. All were taken in the first or second-rounds. Was the thought process there to begin a running back by committee approach or was it simply taking best player available?

Accorsi: The best player available, but I thought Tiki was better than people gave him credit for and we had talked about him in the first-round and he was still there in the second. There was two different styles in all those guys. It was not like the old days when you gave it to one guy and you pound and pound. With Tiki and Dayne that gave us a big back and a smaller back. For that one year they called them “Thunder and Lightning” and worked well. Hampton was declining and hurt and Wheatley had a great college career.

DBN: Let’s get straight to you working out a deal for Eli Manning. Like Elway, he came out and said he wasn’t going to play for San Diego who had the first overall pick. Then they took him. The Giants had the fourth pick and the word is that you were about to draft Ben Roethlisberger. How did you get the trade worked out for Manning instead?

Accorsi: I didn’t even know A.J. Smith the Chargers GM from the scouting world until he introduced himself to me. We had spoken in March and I had told him if they were going to draft Eli no matter what then power to you, but if you are interested in trading him I am interested. I had checked in with him a few times leading up to the draft. There was no question we were picking Roethlisberger at four. We had Oakland and the Cardinals ahead of us. We talked the week of the draft on Monday and A.J. had mentioned if a trade went down he would want Osi Umenyira as part of any trade, and then he told me he was going to call me Friday. Back then the draft was on Saturday and Sunday. He didn’t call Friday. So I just thought there was no chance of a trade. Then I got a call from a member of the media who told me that A.J. was going to hold my feet to the fire. I asked what he meant. He told me that A.J. kept asking for Umenyira before any more trade talks would continue. I told that guy that I was not trading a pass rusher. I needed a quarterback but I could get another quarterback and not have to give up a pass rusher. So this member of the national media told me that A.J. was going to call seven-and-a-half minutes into the 15 minutes allotted for each first-round draft pick while we were on the clock about trading for Eli and Umenyira.

Eli Manning Announces Retirement
Ernie Accorsi, Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

DBN: Didn’t the Browns call you about trading up?

Accorsi: During the third pick, Cleveland calls me and offers me a second-round pick and then switch spots which would put us at seven. I had at this time assumed we weren’t getting Eli who the Chargers did draft first overall. And I felt we would definitely get Roethlisberger at four, but was nervous at whether he would be there at seven. Plus, I had heard a rumor that Cleveland wanted Eli and might pay more than I was willing to pay. And if that happened in my spot, that would haunt me forever. So, I turned down Cleveland’s offer. I came close, but I backed off. I wait and am sitting in my office with both owners Well Mara and Bob Tisch, I told the intern who was manning our spot at the draft to write down Roethlisberger’s name down on our card but hold it in your hand so that I can wait until the last second. As predicted, seven-and-a-half minutes into our 15 minutes A.J. calls. As an organization, we had already gone over a trade scenario and were willing to offer next year’s one. He asked for Osi and I told him I wasn’t going to do that. Then he asked if I was willing to give up next year’s one and I said “Yes I will.” Now, here’s the risk. You can’t draft a player for another team. You can draft him – he’s yours. We were on the clock so I asked him, “Who do you want?” He said, “Rivers.” So we orally verbalized the trade parameters which included a third-round pick that year and a one and a five the following year. I took quarterback Phillip Rivers. I held my breath and had some nervous moments. But A.J. could have backed out and in that case I would have had Rivers instead of Eli or Roethlisberger.

DBN: Tell us something we don’t know about the draft board. (How it is set up, if the team stays true to the order, input from scouts, coaches, owner)

Accorsi: There are two boards. One has players at each position with vital information. Right up against the player’s name is the rank that you have graded each player in order from who is the best player first and on-and-on. The other board is right next to the first board so that you can look at them at the same time. That board is staggered by grade. For example, if Eli grades out at an 8.5 and Roethlisberger is an 8.0, then you look across at Eli parallel at every other 8.5 players at every position. So that you can look at the draft board so you can see how your quarterback rating rates against other positions, such as a left tackle. This helps you decide which position is more pivotal to your team’s needs if there are a number that grade out the same, or simply which is the best player available. Very few decisions are made on draft day. You have meetings that begin halfway through the college season. Then meetings in December and January then the Senior Bowl, next the combine and then meetings in March. You have compiled all that research from your college scouts and have digested it and incorporate everything, then come up with a final grade. Where you make mistakes is when you start to fall in love late in the draft and deviate from all the work that your scouting department has put in.

DBN: In 2000, you were GM of the Giants who went to the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens who used to be the Cleveland Browns. Nobody on the planet had that many coincidences on that day except you.

Accorsi: That was ironic. The Ravens had one of the greatest defenses I had ever seen in my life. They were awful good.

DBN: Today, both the Giants and Browns have young quarterbacks. You have acquired or been associated with many QB’s who ended up with great careers such as Eli, Kosar and even Johnny Unitas. What is the key ingredient to a young guy having long-term success?

Accorsi: The key ingredient is protection which is out of his control. He has to have time. What he does control is all of the characteristics that we all study that are important: quick release, poise, size, height. There are three key ingredients that can be put into a box: third down, fourth quarter, and the quarterback’s hands on the ball on the last drive to win the game. I don’t care what your quarterback rating is or how many thousands of yards you have thrown, you have got to do those things.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
Linebacker Mike Junkin #54
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

DBN: LB Mike Junkin of the Browns and RB Ron Dayne with the Giants. You drafted each of these guys in the first-round when you were the GM. Which one do you most regret taking and why?

Accorsi: The one whose career I regret the most was Ron Dayne because he had a chance to be a better player and I don’t think he came in at the perfect weight. Junkin, I wanted Jerome Brown and I was overruled in the draft process. We didn’t have a great defensive lineman and he would have been it. Dayne had some good games but he never hardly touched the ball in the Super Bowl.

DBN: What are the main differences in the NFL today than when you were GM of the Browns and Giants?

Accorsi: Complexity. Long ago there were two backs and two receivers. And players just stayed on the field no matter the down and distance. And there were no more than four defensive backs. Coach George Allen with the Rams really started the nickel defense. Now, there are so many substitutions. I don’t know how a modern quarterback could call his own plays today. He wouldn’t have enough time to have to decide what players he has for that play. Formations today may have just one slight change and then an army comes in. If you want to call certain plays you have to make sure that a certain player has come into the game. It is so complicated now and so high-tech with so much expertise. The other thing is that players today are bigger and faster. The violence they play with. Everybody knows that.

DBN: If you could be the commissioner of the NFL for one day, what changes would you make?

Accorsi: I think the league has suffered because they don’t give enough time to practice. That’s a CBA thing. I am not in favor of extra games either. Attrition takes place late in the season and then you have to find players.

DBN: What are your fondest memories while with the Browns, and your fondest memories while with the Giants?

Accorsi: With the Browns it was the Jets playoff game in ‘86 after going 12-4 during the season. We were down by 10, and Kosar had just been sacked and they got a roughing the passer penalty. And we got a new life and then hit Reggie Langhorne down the leftside. Then missed a field goal in overtime and then won in double overtime. I went to eat afterwards with Modell on Christmas Eve. Ozzie Newsome came into the restaurant and the entire place stood up and gave him a standing ovation. The other event was the day we were awarded Kosar. I would like to live long enough to see the Browns win another championship. With the Giants I remember most was standing on the sidelines as the clock was winding down as we had beaten the Vikings 41-0 in the NFC Championship Game. I remember we were up 24-0 at the half and Paul Schwartz of the New York Post, and he looks at me and I said, “Don’t you say a word.” Games can slip away so fast.