Saturday is generally the slowest day of the week in the National Football League. It’s a day where some teams travel and others rest. News seldom breaks.
Even if a bombshell were to drop, it probably wouldn’t come close to the magnitude of what occurred on Oct. 12, 1989.
That was the day the most famous — or infamous NFL trade, depending on your point of view — took place, as the Dallas Cowboys traded running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings. It seemed like a good deal for both teams at the time. The Vikings thought they were a stud running back away from a Super Bowl. The Cowboys were in full rebuild mode and just wanted to accumulate as many draft picks as possible.
In hindsight, the transaction was a massive flop for the Vikings. Walker wasn’t enough to get them to the Super Bowl. The bounty the Cowboys received paved the foundation for three Super Bowl championships.
With that anniversary in mind, let’s count down the 13 most lopsided trades in NFL history.
13. Packers panic to acquire QB John Hadl
Entering the 1974 season, the Packers had high hopes. They thought they had a talented roster and could get to the playoffs. They had Jerry Tagge as their starting quarterback. But they came out of the gate slowly, starting 3-3. At that point, there was a knee-jerk reaction, and the Packers traded for veteran QB John Hadl. He had a successful track record with the Chargers and Rams. But he was 34 at the time and on the downside of his career. Still, the Packers traded two first-round picks, two second-round picks and a third-round choice to the Rams for Hadl. He won only seven games over two seasons, and the Packers didn’t solve their quarterback problems until they brought in Brett Favre almost two decades later.
12. Bucs make wrong call on Booker Reese — twice
If this weren’t so sad, it would almost be funny. Outside of two good years with coach John McKay and one good stretch with Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden, the Bucs have been perhaps the most dysfunctional franchise in NFL history. Never was that more obvious than in the 1982 draft. The Bucs sent one of their equipment managers to New York to man the phones during the draft. Poised to pick at No. 17, the equipment manager got instructions from headquarters in Tampa ahead of time. He was told to write down two names – Penn State offensive lineman Sean Farrell and Bethune-Cookman defensive end Booker Reese.
He did as instructed. But when it came time to hand in the pick, there reportedly was so much static on the phone that the equipment man couldn’t hear what was being said. He thought he heard that he was supposed to turn in the card for Farrell and he did. When the pick was announced, the brain trust at One Buc Place, led by McKay, went nuts. They actually wanted Reese. The Bucs were so infatuated with Reese that they quickly turned around and traded a 1983 first-round pick and drafted Reese in the second round. Reese turned out to be the biggest draft bust in the history of a franchise that has had plenty of them. Reese lasted only two seasons before the Bucs traded him to the Rams for a 12th-round pick.
11. Bears miscalculate on Rick Mirer
Seattle used the No. 2 overall pick in 1993 on the former Notre Dame quarterback — and he was a flop with the Seahawks, going 20-31 as a starter over four seasons. So why did he get another chance? Only because the Bears made a severe miscalculation. They sent a first-round pick to Seattle for Mirer and a fourth-round selection. The Seahawks parlayed the first-round pick into Shawn Springs, a Pro Bowl cornerback. Mirer started only three games for the Bears.
10. Patriots could have had Jerry Rice
In the Bill Belichick era, it’s difficult to question any personnel move New England has made while building a dynasty. But, long before Belichick arrived, the Patriots made a trade they’ll always regret. In 1985, the Patriots were sitting with the No. 16 overall pick — and on the board was Jerry Rice, who would go on to become the greatest wide receiver ever. Instead, the Patriots traded the pick and the No. 75 selection to San Francisco. In return, the Patriots got picks No. 28, 56 and 84. The Patriots turned those picks into Trevor Matich, Ben Thomas and Audray McMillian. No Hall of Famers there. Imagine what could have been if the Patriots stayed put and drafted Rice?
9. Oilers hand Steve Largent to Seahawks
In 1976, the Houston Oilers took a shot on Largent and drafted the wide receiver in the fourth round. Houston’s scouts saw something, but the coaching staff didn’t see the same potential when Largent got to training camp. The Oilers were ready to simply cut Largent. But the front office shopped the University of Tulsa standout and settled for an eighth-round pick in exchange. Largent proved the Oilers wrong. He turned out to be the best player in Seattle history (at least until Russell Wilson came along) and earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
8. Rams give up on Jerome Bettis
In 1993, the Los Angeles Rams drafted Jerome Bettis at No. 10 overall. Good move. Bettis was Offensive Rookie of the Year with 1,429 rushing yards, and he had two more good seasons with the Rams. But here is where the Rams made one of the worst moves in football history. After moving to St. Louis, they drafted troubled Nebraska tailback Lawrence Phillips at No. 6 overall in 1996 with the intention of moving Bettis to fullback. But that plan didn’t last. The Rams traded Bettis and a third-round pick to the Steelers for a second- and fourth-round pick. Bettis had a great career in Pittsburgh. He won a Super Bowl and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Phillips was a huge flop for the Rams.
7. Raiders gamble, lose on Antonio Brown
The biggest trade of the 2019 offseason was supposed to be wide receiver Antonio Brown going from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Oakland Raiders for a third- and fifth-round pick. Brown was a great wide receiver in Pittsburgh, but he had worn out his welcome while clashing with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and making his desire to be traded well known. Oakland seemed like the perfect situation for Brown. The Raiders have a long tradition of taking on renegades and getting production. But the problems started immediately.
He suffered severe frostbite on both feet while undergoing cryotherapy treatment. He bickered with the NFL because he wanted to use an outdated helmet. He got into an altercation with general manager Mike Mayock. He behaved bizarrely on social media and asked for his release. Before the regular season even began, the Raiders accommodated Brown, and he signed hours later with New England — where many thought he wanted to be all along. But he was released 11 days later after more off-the-field issues. So, the Raiders got nothing out of Brown and gave up two draft picks.
6. Falcons can’t wait to get rid of Brett Favre
The Falcons used the No. 33 overall pick to draft Favre out of Southern Mississippi in 1991. But his behavior was too much for coach Jerry Glanville. Favre was notorious for his partying lifestyle. The Falcons used to put a security guard at his door to make sure he didn’t sneak out the night before games. There was an incident where Favre was late to practice. He told Glanville he was delayed by a car wreck. Glanville apparently responded with, “You ARE a car wreck.” In one season in Atlanta, Favre attempted only four passes, without a completion. Glanville had enough. The next year, he dealt Favre to Green Bay for the No. 19 overall pick, which was used on running back Tony Smith. Favre went to Green Bay, eventually got treatment for substance abuse and went on to become a Super Bowl champion and an all-time great.
5. Chargers give up the farm for Ryan Leaf
In 1998, the Chargers held the No. 3 overall draft pick. The Indianapolis Colts had the No. 1 pick, and the Arizona Cardinals were set at No. 2. But the Chargers saw two surefire successes in quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. The Chargers would’ve been happy to take either one. But they were worried that Arizona would deal the second pick to another team. So, San Diego sent two first-round picks, a second-round choice, Eric Metcalf and Patrick Sapp to the Cardinals to move up one spot and select Leaf. Manning turned out to be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Leaf turned out to be one of the biggest busts in NFL history.
4. Short honeymoon for Mike Ditka, Ricky Williams
Mike Ditka was an icon as head coach of the Chicago Bears. But from his time with the Saints, Ditka is remembered for setting the team back for years. In 1999, Ditka gave up eight draft picks to Washington to acquire University of Texas running back Ricky Williams, the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner. Ditka and the Saints where so convinced that they hit a grand slam that they allowed Williams and Ditka, dressed as bride and groom, to appear on the cover of a national magazine. The marriage lasted one year, as the Saints went 3-13 and Ditka was fired. Williams went on to lead the NFL in rushing yards in 2002 — with the Miami Dolphins. He registered 10,009 career rushing yards, but only 3,129 of those came in a Saints uniform.
3. Bucs hand 49ers a Hall of Famer for two draft picks
Let’s be fair to the Bucs here, at least as fair as you can be to a team that was beyond dysfunctional in the 1980s. Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse was one of the most frugal owners of a pro sports franchise in history. He simply took his cut of the television deals and was content to make millions. In fact, he was so cheap, he didn’t allow his scouts to travel west of the Mississippi River and made his players pay for game balls.
With that culture in place, quarterback Steve Young never stood a fair chance in Tampa Bay. After coming from the United States Football League, Young spent two seasons running for his life behind a terrible offensive line. The Bucs went 2-14 in both of those seasons. Culverhouse then decided to unload Young to San Francisco for a second- and fourth-round draft pick. In San Francisco, Young had time to sit behind Joe Montana and recover from shell shock. Young eventually supplanted Montana, earned two Most Valuable Player awards and made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2. John Elway was destined to play for Broncos
In 1983, Elway was the consensus top quarterback in the best quarterback draft ever. The Baltimore Colts held the first overall pick. But Elway and his father, Jack, made it abundantly clear that there was no way John would ever play for the Colts. Elway had other options and told the Colts that if they drafted him, he would go play baseball in the New York Yankees’ system. Colts owner Robert Irsay still drafted Elway. The Colts soon realized Elway’s threat was serious. Irsay finally relented and sent Elway to Denver for a first-round pick, offensive lineman Chris Hinton and quarterback Mark Herrmann. Elway went on to enjoy a 16-year career in Denver, where he won two Super Bowls and earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But fans in Baltimore always will wonder if the Colts might have stayed in town if Elway had come there.
1. Herschel Walker deal creates ripples, waves
All the other trades mentioned previously were lopsided, but none of them came close to what happened on Oct. 12, 1989, the day the Dallas Cowboys sent running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for a price tag that has never been seen before or since. You have to think back to the culture of both teams at the time to fully understand this one. The Vikings were good, and Mike Lynn, who headed their personnel department at the time, thought the only thing missing was a dominant running back. Walker fit the bill in his eyes. Ordinarily, no team would trade Walker. But it was an exceptional time in Dallas.
Jerry Jones had just bought the Cowboys, and Jimmy Johnson had been brought in as head coach. The days of Tom Landry’s dynasty were long gone. Jones and Johnson were still seeing eye to eye at the time, and they agreed they needed players – lots of them – and Walker was their only marketable commodity. So, they shopped him. When Lynn heard Walker was available, he concocted a deal that offered three draft picks and five active players (with the possibility of conditional picks tied to each of the five active players). Jones has repeatedly said he literally ran to the fax machine to accept the deal before Lynn had a chance to get cold feet.
With that package, the Cowboys went on to wheel and deal. They parlayed the Walker trade into 18 players, including future stars Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson, building the foundation of a team that won three Super Bowls in the 1990s. Johnson later described the deal as “The Great Train Robbery.”
Pat Yasinskas has covered the NFL since 1993. He has worked for The Tampa Tribune, The Charlotte Observer and ESPN.com and writes for numerous national magazines and websites. He also has served as a voter for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.