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The Herschel Walker trade

One trade changed many things

Herschel Walker

We all picture Joe Douglas with a shrewd perception of talent and the intuitiveness to make roster changing trades to increase the aptitude of the Jets; at least I do. Still it is easier said than done, and Joe has a lot of work to do to make the Jets a competitive squad in the NFL. From a starting point Joe has 8 or 9 young building blocks from which to construct his team. Basically you just add to them and go from there.

Yet that is a long process that takes an astute knowledge of your own team’s abilities and a near perfect grading of Draft prospects as well. Even then you are only adding a few (3 or 4) quality players to your team. To build a 53 man roster with depth could take many years and injuries, and salary cap restrictions could destroy your plans.

What if you could make a big trade, one that gave you numerous picks, in a Draft with a tremendous amount of depth? What if it was something that would jumpstart a dormant franchise into a “Jetstream” of success?

Well that exact situation happened 30 years ago, and sadly will never be repeated. This trade happened before the salary cap and more importantly the rookie wage scale. Draft picks were not as widely cherished as they are now. Back 30 years ago teams were fighting (at times when the Draft had few elite prospects) to stay away from the top of the Draft.

To give an example, Andrew Luck (post salary cap) was the #1 pick and received a 4 year contract for $22.1 million. Two years earlier Sam Bradford was the first pick and received a contract with $50 million guaranteed. The contract was longer, but it still was a 6 year $78 million contract with a maximum value of $86 million. Sam Bradford was never considered near the talent that Andrew Luck was, but he somehow earned $129 million over his short career.

That said the greatest trade in NFL history is a story in and of itself.

On October 12, 1989, the Dallas Cowboys made one of the most prolific trades in NFL history. In fact no trade was ever as big before or after. It took a poorly constructed team and made them into a short term dynasty.

To set the scene you have to understand the participants, the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings.

The Dallas Cowboys are America’s team, rich in tradition and ripe with some of the greatest players in NFL history. Yet back in 1989 the Cowboys were in transition. They were coming off a 3 -13 season. It was a poor team and had just recently been purchased by oilman Jerry Jones in February of that year. The story goes that Jones ultimately made an offer to then-owner H.R. “Bum” Bright, a number scrawled on a piece of hotel stationery after days of negotiation. “It was instinctive,” Jones has said of the offer. “It didn’t reflect the value of the team.” But the two men couldn’t agree on a final price and were just $100,000 apart, or as Jones now describes it, “down to circumcising mosquitoes.” So a coin flip decided things. “I lost the flip, but I won the Dallas Cowboys.” He paid $140 million for the Cowboys, then a record for a sports franchise.

It is not widely known, but Jerry Jones had major worries about the deal he made to buy the Cowboys. The Cowboys today are worth an estimated $5 billion (the most valuable sports franchise on the planet), and Jerry Jones comes off as a super confident alpha male, wheeler-dealer, gambling businessman. Yet back in 1989, $140 million was an unheard of amount of money to pay for anything. Also when Jones bought the Cowboys they were reportedly losing about $1 million every month. They were a money pit of a franchise.

The world as we know it today just has a lot more money floating around than it did 30 years ago. Those of us who are old enough to be even considered able to buy a car in 1989 know the hassle. You pretty much had to put your first born or your kidney up as collateral. Today you can buy a car from an app on your phone.

Jones wanted the Cowboys bad. He had to have them. He stated that he was “blindly intoxicated with the idea of being involved with sports and the NFL.” Yet giving another man $140 million (most of which you borrowed) and putting your entire fortune on the line was a huge gamble. The banks at anytime (if they got cold feet) could recall the loan (ask for their money back), and Jones would have been ruined. Now that was a minimal risk as the banks would have lost a fortune as well. Yet that didn’t stop Jones from worrying, which led to a near breakdown. Jones would get cold sweats when he thought about the $140 million he paid for the Cowboys. He would even cry when alone; wondering if he had destroyed his family’s future because of a boyhood fascination. “I’ve talked to doctors about it,” Jones said. “They all said it was normal because I was suffering from tremendous stress in those days. It’s my own version of post-traumatic stress syndrome and that I can talk about it now without tearing up shows how far I’ve come.”

The trepidation didn’t stop Jones from doing what he thought was the right way to proceed. It was a whirlwind. As Jones took over the Cowboys he fired coach Tom Landry, the only coach the team had ever known and the reason the franchise was so successful. He then hired and placed all his faith in his college team mate from Arkansas Jimmy Johnson who was a very successful coach of the University of Miami It was another huge gamble to bring in a college coach (who had never coached in the NFL at all) to run his newly bought franchise when numerous other college coaches had failed miserably.

Add to that the Cowboys were a terrible football team with little talent.

Herschel Walker was by far the Cowboys’ best player, a physical freak who was quick, fast, and strong with a rugged build to break tackles. To show you how much better Walker was than any other Dallas player the security code at the facility was 3412 -- 34 for Herschel, 12 for Roger Staubach. On a poor team in 1988 Walker had 1,514 rushing yards and another 505 yards receiving. He was nearly the entire offense for the 3-13 team.

To give you a better idea how dominant Herschel Walker was (for those of you who have never seen him play) here is a clip of Walker beating the Patriots in overtime.

At the time Walker was the prototypical workhorse running back. He was a one cut runner with exceptional power, a quick burst to get through the line, and the speed to outrun defensive backs to the end zone. He was also a hard worker, a great teammate and had a Boy Scout persona that was a hit with the fans.

Johnson felt the Cowboys were so terrible that only a blockbuster trade could help them. “The Rams tried to do the same thing when they traded Eric Dickerson to the Colts two years before,” Johnson says. “But that didn’t work out for them because they chose the wrong players.”

Johnson briefly considered trading wide receiver Michael Irvin to the Oakland Raiders, but Raiders owner Al Davis (as the story goes) essentially talked Johnson out of the trade by saying, “You sure you want to do that? Who is going to catch passes for you?”

Jimmy Johnson had a superior ability to judge football talent and felt the Cowboys lacked any talent to compete in the NFL. To show you Johnson’s football scouting acumen remember that he was hired to replace Tom Landry 56 days prior to the 1989 NFL Draft. With no scouting department he felt confident in, Johnson ran the entire Draft.

The only advantage Johnson had going for him was he had seen firsthand many of the players he was considering selecting. Add to that his relationship with numerous college coaches. He didn’t need a scouting department. He had an honest assessment of each player’s talents from the coaches who actually coached them.

In his first Draft he selected (Hall of famer) QB Troy Aikman, FB Daryl “Moose” Johnston, OC Mark Stepnoski, OG Steve Wisniewski and DE Tony Tolbert who all would make the Pro-Bowl.

“Here’s the 1989 Dallas Cowboys for you,” Johnson says. “I remember a defensive lineman out of Tulsa named [Kevin] Lilly. He tried out on a Tuesday, we signed him on Wednesday, he got into the team photo on Thursday, he played on Sunday, and we cut him on Monday.”

Johnson came up with the idea to trade Walker while on a morning jog with his staff. The jog every morning was Johnson along with OC David Shula, OL coach Tony Wise, DC Dave Wannstedt, trainer Kevin O’Neill and the administrative assistant Bruce Mays.

“Six blocks from the finish,” Johnson says, “I told them the only way to fix this thing was to trade our best player. I told them we had to trade Herschel Walker.”

The reaction to the idea did not go over well with the staff. “What was my reaction?” Wannstedt says. “I asked Jimmy, ‘After you do that, do you think you could get the Texas A&M job and take us with you?’”

“We were already 0-5 with him, the worst team in the league, “ Johnson says. “We were old and slow, and we needed to jump-start the rebuilding process. I had to figure out a way to parlay our best asset into a whole team.”

Jerry Jones was not overly enthusiastic to say the least as Johnson tells it, “When I told Jerry that we were gonna trade Herschel Walker he was kind of … astonished. He said, “Really? You can’t get rid of Herschel Walker! We won’t score a point if we don’t have Herschel Walker!”

You could only imagine what Jones was thinking. He was already having repentance from the Cowboys purchase and now Johnson wants to trade away their best, most marketable player. Jones was having agita from his huge debt, and remember Johnson was 0-5 as an NFL coach. He hadn’t even won a game at this point. It was an amazing amount of faith that Jones put in Johnson to allow him to make the trade. Jones basically gave the keys to the kingdom to Johnson along with his family’s future and his legacy, on a hope and a prayer.

I can’t emphasize enough how much guts and faith it took Jerry Jones to allow the trade of his best player for a handful of picks. Like the Jack and the Beanstalk story Jones had a handful of beans with no proof that any of those players would grow to become anything in the NFL. Jones bet the family farm on a Jimmy Johnson roll of the dice.

Numerous teams contacted the Cowboys when they announced that they would trade Walker. The New York Giants expressed interest, but the trade would have been unfavorable for Dallas since both teams shared the same division. The Falcons were interested but negotiations bogged down. Eventually the Falcons pulled out over fear of Walker’s future contract demands. The most serious offer came from the Browns.

Johnson stated, “The Browns offered us a player, a couple of future number one draft picks and three number two draft picks.” The Cowboys felt this was a favorable offer, but they also felt that if another team were to enter the discussion, then they could generate a bidding war and thereby get even more compensation.

Jimmy Johnson along with Jerry Jones decided to contact other clubs to generate buzz and create leverage. Johnson contacted Minnesota and GM Mike Lynn. Johnson told Lynn that he was going to trade Walker to Cleveland that afternoon, and that if Minnesota would like to trade for Walker, then it would cost them “players, draft picks, conditional picks, and provisions,” giving Lynn a deadline of 6:30 p.m. Lynn, feeling Walker was the missing piece to a championship run, faxed Johnson that he was interested, and soon after negotiations ensued. In order to get Walker to agree to a trade, the Cowboys paid him a $1.25 million bonus to agree to the trade plus the Vikings promised a free house in Minneapolis comparable to his home in Dallas, and the Mercedes-Benz of his choice.

This was a well thought out trade by the Cowboys as Johnson played the Vikings and GM Mike Lynn for fools. Johnson asked for specific players from the Vikings to make GM Lynn think they really wanted those players. It was a ruse by Johnson who had a bigger interest in the Draft picks rather than those players even though they were decent football players. Johnson wanted the Draft picks most of all.

The trade was made, a wildly complex deal that was complicated by a refusal of Darrin Nelson to report to the Cowboys. He was quickly traded to the San Diego Chargers for their 5th round pick in the 1990 draft which was sent to the Vikings as compensation.

The Cowboys received

LB Jesse Solomon , LB David Howard, CB Issiac Holt, DE and Alex Stewart yet each player had a conditional draft pick associated with him that the Cowboys would receive if they were cut before Feb 1, 1990.

Minnesota’s 1st round pick in 1990, Minnesota’s 2nd round pick in 1990

Minnesota’s 6th round pick in 1990, Minnesota’s 1st round pick in 1991

Minnesota’s 2nd round pick in 1991 , Minnesota’s 1st round pick in 1992

Minnesota’s 2nd round pick in 1992, Minnesota’s 3rd round pick in 1992

The Vikings assumed that the Cowboys wanted the players and not the draft picks because those players were better than the players in the same position of the Cowboys.

Even Dave Wannstedt said “I told him, ‘Jimmy, these guys are better than we what we’ve got.’” Johnson’s response was telling: “I know, but I’ve got something else in mind.” Johnson told his assistant not to play any of the players the Cowboys got in the trade. Johnson considered DE Alex Stewart lazy and cut him and claimed the 2nd round pick that was tied to him.

For the other three players “I actually wanted to keep them,” Johnson says, “but Mike wasn’t answering my calls. Finally, I had to notify the league of my intentions to cut them all before he called me back.” Lynn and Johnson worked out another deal that lessened the Draft cost for the Vikings and allowed the Cowboys to keep Solomon, Howard and Holt.

Johnson was now sure he was headed in the right direction. The rest of the world was not as sure. The Dallas Morning News wrote, “The Cowboys got nothing more than a huge handful of Minnesota smoke. And who knows if there’ll ever be another fire.” The Dallas Times Herald concurred saying the Cowboys’ took, “a bag of beans and a cow to be named later.”

Walker for his part went to the Vikings, and 3 days later he ran for 148 yards on only 18 carries; he didn’t have another 100 yard game for the Vikings until Week 2 of the 1991 season. He played through the 1991 season before being released.

Now getting Draft picks was the first part of the equation but Johnson didn’t have enough picks to make a difference against all the other teams in the NFL. Yet he did if he used his picks wisely while using his own brand of scouting prospects and wheeling and dealing during the draft to get “his type guys.”

Johnson changed the way most teams Draft now by the way he valued players. First he wanted players that were fast and quick rather than big and strong. Second he reaped rewards from selecting players from smaller schools with NFL physical talents.

He traded up 4 spots in the 1990 NFL Draft to select future Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith. He also drafted Pro-Bowl players DE Tony Tolbert (UTEP), OT Erik Williams (Central State OH) DT Leon Lett (Emporia State), WR Jimmy Smith (Jackson State), and Brock Marion (Nevada). He also selected LB Robert Jones in the first round (East Carolina) who was NFC Rookie of the Year but somehow didn’t make the Pro-Bowl. He also selected Super Bowl MVP Larry Brown (TCU) in the 12th round.

Johnson only spent 5 years in Dallas (winning two Super Bowls) because the egos of Johnson and Jones could not get along. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl again in 1995 with pretty much all of Johnson’s players. “I really think if Jimmy had stayed,” Wannstedt says, “he would’ve won five Super Bowls.”

The experience of building something great is always special, and teams know when they are headed in the right direction. “Those were the best times,” Wannstedt says. “We weren’t winning, but even then, we knew we were headed somewhere.”

“You know,” Wise says, “if Jimmy knocked on my door tomorrow and said, ‘Let’s go for a jog,’ I would.”

Maybe Joe Douglas should take up jogging this offseason!

What do you think?