Jerry Rice might be the greatest player in the history of professional football. He might also be the greatest professional football player to ever be traded at the NFL trade deadline in the modern era.
This year, the NFL trade deadline date is October 19. Six years ago to the day, on October 19, 2004, Rice - who had turned 42 years old just a week earlier - was flipped from the Raiders to the Seahawks for a lowly seventh-round pick. Rice would play in eleven games for Seattle that season, catching 25 passes for 362 yards and three touchdowns as a sub-package target. He was held without a catch in his final professional appearance, a Wild Card playoff loss to the Rams.
As great as Rice was, the fact that he was in the twilight of his career makes his deadline deal barely blip-worthy on the historical radar of deadline deals. But it does serve as a useful launching point for a larger issue: are high-profile trades even worth making at the trading deadline? A survey of some blockbuster deals reveals a mixed bag of successes and failures for teams that acquired star talent, as well as for teams that let it go.
The Days Of The Mega-Deals
Back on October 12, 1989, the Vikings and Cowboys completed the biggest trade in NFL history when the Vikings acquired star running back Herschel Walker in a trade that would eventually involve 18 players.
Things did not work out very well for Minnesota. Walker played in 42 games over parts of three seasons for the Vikings, and never once eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in a season with his new team. Minnesota made one playoff appearance - getting bounced in their first game - with Walker at running back. He put up respectable numbers (2,264 rushing yards, 20 touchdowns), but given the tremendous level of expectation upon his arrival, his Vikings career is best described as a monumental disappointment.
Minnesota would also eventually land four more players in the deal via draft picks sent to them from Dallas. The team found a nice player in 1991 third-round pick receiver Jake Reed, who would play in Minnesota over ten seasons, appear in 134 games, and score 33 touchdowns on some fairly prolific Vikings teams. Three 1990 draft picks - tight end Mike Jones and receivers Reggie Thornton and Pat Newman - never played a down for the Vikings, however.
Dallas, meanwhile, made out like bandits, though it took them a while to get a return on their investments. In return for Walker and the aforementioned draft picks, the Cowboys received four veteran players and eight draft picks. The team got limited service out of veteran linebackers Jesse Solomon and, but the real win for Dallas came over the next several NFL drafts. Jimmy Johnson would use those draft picks to move easily up and down draft boards over the next four years as he built his Cowboys into a Super Bowl dynasty.
Receiver Alvin Harper, safety Darren Woodson and linebacker Dixon Edwards were drafted directly with picks acquired in the Walker trade, while other picks were packaged in a trade that eventually landed the NFL's all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith. Using his now-revered trade value chart, Johnson made the most of Dallas' willingness to ship out a veteran player at the trade deadline, and would eventually win two Super Bowls with his squad.
Perhaps Minnesota was intrigued by the idea of the mega-deal due to a three-team blockbuster deal made just two years prior, and the successes each team had experienced. On Halloween in 1987, the Colts, Bills and Rams completed a deal that would pay nice dividends for each team involved.
The Colts, of course, acquired running back Eric Dickerson in that trade. While the bold move didn't lead to much team success - the Colts made just one playoff appearance with Dickerson on board, and finished 1-15 in his final season there - Dickerson's presence made them relevant. In 61 games with the Colts, Dickerson ran for 5,194 yards and 32 touchdowns.
Buffalo, led by GM Bill Polian, got in on the deal in order to acquire rookie outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who had been holding out rather than suiting up for the team that drafted him (the Colts). Bennett was a mainstay defensively for a Bills team that would win four consecutive AFC championships; he appeared in 129 games for the Bills, accumulating 52.5 sacks, seven interceptions, 22 forced fumbles and two scores during his illustrious career. The Bills made seven playoff appearances with Bennett at linebacker, winning 11 playoff games in that time frame. Bennett's impact was immediate; he had 8.5 sacks in his first eight games with the Bills in '87.
For shipping away Dickerson, the Rams received six draft picks - three of them first-rounders, the other three second-rounders - as well as running back Greg Bell, whom they got from Buffalo. Bell was with the Rams through two playoff appearances, one of which ended with an NFC Championship Game appearance. He ran for 2,375 yards and 31 touchdowns in 34 games with the Rams. Their impact, like the Bills' and the Colts', was immediate, but they suffered in the long-term, as their six draft picks failed to yield much lasting impact. Two more running backs, Gaston Green and Cleveland Gary, were added with those picks, as were receiver Aaron Cox, linebackers Fred Strickland and Frank Stams, and cornerback Darryl Henley.
Recent Deadline Deals
For a time, the trade deadline was barely worth mentioning amongst NFL fans, and indeed, trades with the type of shock and awe factor of the two aforementioned deals simply didn't happen anymore. The advent of free agency had changed the landscape of the league, as teams now had a new - and much simpler - way of acquiring veteran talent for their rosters.
Trade deadline deals never completely died out, however, and in recent seasons, we've begun to see some fairly significant moves being made in the month of October. The Colts acquired defensive tackle Booger McFarland from Tampa Bay in 2006; McFarland would help Indianapolis shore up their run defense through a playoff push that ended in a championship. A year later, the Chargers made ripples when they acquired receiver Chris Chambers from Miami, and rewarded San Diego's investment with 16 post-season receptions and a touchdown as the Chargers made a run to the AFC title game.
In 2008, the Cowboys traded three 2009 NFL Draft picks to the Lions for the rights to wide receiver Roy Williams. Though he's off to a nice start in Big D in 2010, Williams was awful in Dallas the two years prior, both after his acquisition in 2008 (19 catches, 1 TD in 10 games) and in his first full season in 2009 (38 catches, 7 TD in 15 games). It may be too early to judge the return on investment the Lions got from Dallas, but just for the record, they used those three picks to select tight end Brandon Pettigrew (26 receptions through five games this season), receiver Derrick Williams (eight career receptions) and running back Aaron Brown (30 career rushes).
Less than a year later, the Jets made a move for another flashy receiver when they acquired Braylon Edwards from the Browns for two veteran players (receiver Chansi Stuckey, linebacker Jason Trusnik) and two 2010 NFL Draft picks. Edwards was dealt after he allegedly punched a friend of then-Cleveland icon LeBron James, one of several off-field incidents. This trade, for the Jets, was what the Williams trade was supposed to be for the Cowboys; Edwards was a consistent performer for then-rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, catching 35 passes and four touchdowns in his 12 games with the team a year ago. He then added six post-season receptions and a touchdown as the Jets surprised their way to the AFC title game, and Edwards already has three scores for a 4-1 Jets team that looks like it might be the best in the league in 2010. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Stuckey has been a bit player in a bad offense, Trusnik is a special teams mainstay, and two rookies - Shawn Lauvao and Larry Asante - are still trying to earn their keep. The move was one of necessity for Cleveland, and Edwards' legal issues have followed him to his new team.
Three teams have already made trades this season. Randy Moss was flipped from the Patriots to the Vikings in exchange for a mere third-round pick, and may be the highest-profile player to make a move at or near the NFL trade deadline since Rice himself. New England tried to off-set the loss of Moss by swapping a fourth-round pick to Seattle for Deion Branch. The Seahawks, meanwhile, sent their original fourth-round pick and a conditional sixth-round pick in 2010 to the Bills for running back Marshawn Lynch. Time will tell if any of those players have a significant impact on their new teams.
So... Do These Deals Work?
The bottom line with the NFL trade deadline is that no matter how good a trade looks on paper, nothing is guaranteed. Herschel Walker was an incredibly talented football player, and even while he produced in Minnesota, he fell short of lofty expectations as the Vikings floundered behind quarterbacks Rich Gannon and Wade Wilson. Eric Dickerson had a great deal of individual success with the Colts, but the team did not perform well. More recently, Williams has been a flop in Dallas, while Edwards has done good things amidst off-field troubles with the Jets. The Colts and Chargers got nice short-term investments that fizzled out in the long-term.
Teams rolling the dice on the future have come away with mediocre draft picks (Rams), or they've hit the jackpot numerous times (Cowboys). Any time you're making a move of this magnitude, circumstances such as scheme fit, the culture of a team, and the true talents of the players themselves play a much bigger role than most are willing to admit.
That said, teams shouldn't be afraid of trying to make trade deadline deals. If there's a certain amount of calculation, and if extenuating circumstances work out favorably, the gains a team can make are tremendous.