Was The Herschel Walker Trade Really That Bad?

March 4, 2014

For nearly 25 years, the Minnesota Vikings organization has been mocked and ridiculed for making the worst trade in the history of professional sports.

Yesterday was Herschel Walker’s 52nd birthday, which inevitably led to numerous mentions of the deal that brought him to Minnesota for five players and eight draft picks. It has grown in legend over the years — primarily because Walker never lived up to over-sized expectations and the fact that the Cowboys went from being the worst team in the league to winning three Super Bowls within seven years of the deal.

We’ll probably never see another trade like it since every executive is so afraid of being on the wrong end of a “Herschel Walker Trade,” but perhaps it wasn’t actually as bad as it seems on the surface. This may be the most preposterous thing ever written on the Peepshow, but I’m going to go with it anyway. Hear me out.

There’s no arguing the fact that Dallas got the better of the deal. However, if you break it down and put actual names to the draft picks, it’s not the most lopsided of all time. First, let’s look at the players the Vikings gave up:

  • LBs Jesse Solomon and David Howard — played fewer than two seasons for Dallas and didn’t make a big impact
  • CB Issiac Holt — played three seasons for Dallas and was a solid contributor, but nothing more
  • RB Darrin Nelson — never played for Dallas, was traded to San Diego for a fifth round pick and returned to the Vikings two years later
  • DE Alex Stewart — was cut by the Cowboys almost immediately

There’s not a lot of impact there and only Holt played on one of the Super Bowl teams.

Next, something that very few people remember is that Dallas sent four draft picks back to the Vikings, including two third rounders. One of those became wide receiver Jake Reed, who had a very good career with the team.

Finally, let’s take a peek at the players actually drafted with the Vikings’ picks (none of them by the Cowboys):

  • 1990 First Round (#21) — TE Eric Green by the Steelers
  • 1990 Second Round (#47) — DT Dennis Brown by the 49ers
  • 1990 Sixth Round (#158) — LB James Williams by the Saints
  • 1991 First Round (#11) — OT Patrick Harlow by the Patriots
  • 1991 Second Round (#38) — DB Darryl Lewis by the Oilers
  • 1992 First Round (#13) — OL Eugene Chung by the Patriots
  • 1992 Second Round (#40) — QB Matt Blundin by the Chiefs
  • 1992 Third Round (#71) — RB Kevin Turner by the Patriots

Of course, there’s no telling who the Vikings would’ve selected if they had kept those choices, but I suspect their fortunes don’t change much if you put that underwhelming cast of characters on the team. However, Dallas was able to package Minnesota’s picks with their own selections to maneuver around quite a bit in the draft. And they made some shrewd choices, including Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and five-time Pro Bowl Safety Darren Woodson.

Dallas already had a great young foundation in place with the likes of quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin and many other rising stars. And Smith had the luxury of running behind the best offensive line in football. The combination of Walker and a decent backup may have been productive enough in the short term to win multiple championships even if the trade never happened.

Meanwhile, the Vikings still made seven trips to the playoffs in the ’90s, so the trade definitely did not cripple the franchise. Remember, the Vikings couldn’t have duplicated what the Cowboys managed to pull off with just their own picks. And they thought they were one player away from being a Super Bowl contender of their own. I actually give them credit for going for it — something we rarely see in this town.

Bottom line: the Cowboys made a genius move to trade up and select Emmitt Smith. Give them any other player in the 1990 draft selected after that point and we wouldn’t be talking about the Herschel Walker trade anymore.

And people like me with too much time on their hands certainly wouldn’t be writing 700 words about it nearly a quarter of a century after it happened.