On Oct. 12, 1989, former Dallas Cowboys running back Herschel Walker holds up his new jersey at a news conference after being traded to the Minnesota Vikings.
By Jaime Aron
The Associated Press
Jimmy Johnson has a challenge for anyone who believes the Herschel Walker trade singlehandedly turned the Dallas Cowboys into the dominant team of the 1990s.
“Trace it,” the former Cowboys coach said. “You can’t do it.”
Twenty years ago today, the Cowboys sent Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for a bundle of players and draft picks in what is widely considered one of the biggest steals in NFL history, if not all of pro sports.
The legend has grown because Dallas went from 1-15 to three-time Super Bowl champions in just a few years. Sure there was a lot more to the turnaround, but there’s no doubt this deal was the catalyst.
But this trade wasn’t just a big-time swindle.
The strange truth is that the Cowboys didn’t use a single one of the Vikings’ picks — except to parlay them into more or higher picks.
Johnson made 51 trades in his five years in Dallas, “more than the entire league put together,” he proudly noted. That’s how the Cowboys built the crux of their championship
rosters. Emmitt Smith came on a pick from Pittsburgh, Darren Woodson and Russell Maryland on picks from New England, Dixon Edwards and Clayton Holmes on picks from Washington, Kevin Smith on a pick from Atlanta, and Godfrey Myles on a pick from San Diego.
See why tracing the trade is nearly impossible? And it explains why so many teams now go into the draft looking to move up, down or both. The Cowboys didn’t invent the concept, but they sure helped make it popular.
This trade changed a lot of things for a lot of people the last two decades, all because some NFL newcomers were willing to do things differently and they wound up doing it better than it had ever been done before.
October 1989 was a weird time for the Cowboys and Vikings.
In Dallas, Arkansas oil man Jerry Jones had bought the Cowboys that February, fired Tom Landry and hired Johnson, a successful college coach with no pro experience but who’d been his college teammate at Arkansas.
They took Troy Aikman out of UCLA with the first overall pick in
the draft, then hedged their bets by using a supplemental pick on Steve Walsh, who’d helped Johnson win a national championship at Miami. That move cost Dallas its first-round pick in 1990 and triggered a quarterback controversy.
Aikman started the opener, went 0-4 and broke a finger. Walsh’s first start happened to be the Cowboys’ first game at Lambeau Field since the Ice Bowl in 1967. With Walker joining him in the backfield, Dallas lost again.
The Vikings, meanwhile, were trying to regain the optimism they had at the start of the season — before they lost two games, their quarterback broke a hand and their All-Pro safety accused general manager Mike Lynn of being a racist.
Both teams needed to do something. Something drastic.
Johnson and Lynn had talked about a trade during training camp. For Walsh.
“I might be interested in that Herschel Walker guy,” the Minnesota GM said.
“No,” Johnson said. “That’s the only Pro Bowl player that we’ve got.”
Once Johnson realized how terrible his team was, he was ready to trade his only Pro Bowl player. Walker was 27, coming off his best season and still had a year left on his contract.
Johnson wanted three first-round picks, three second-rounders and three thirds. He almost had a deal with the Browns, but they lacked a first-rounder in ’90, so the Cowboys kept shopping.
Lynn swooped in with an intriguing proposition: Five players, each with a first-, second- or third-round pick attached. The Cowboys could enjoy the talent upgrade for the rest of the season, then take either the player or the attached pick.
Johnson finagled an extra first-rounder. All along, he planned to keep both the players he liked and the picks.
“That’s why at the press conference I said ‘This is a great train robbery,’” he said recently. “Everybody looked at me like I was a complete fool, including Jerry, because they weren’t sure we could pull this thing off.”
Johnson limited the playing time of the ex-Vikings to keep coaches and fans from getting too attached. After the season, he told Lynn the Cowboys wanted a few of the players, but was cutting them all anyway. Lynn hung up.
It took a certified letter sent to the league office, with a copy to the Vikings, for Lynn to call back and work things out. Johnson gave him some other picks, which is how the trade grew to 18 players and picks, still the largest in league history.
“When we heard about the Herschel Walker trade, we were like, ‘Wait a minute? Are we sure this is right? Is it true?’” said Casserly, now an analyst for CBS Sports. “We knew right then it was a hell of a bonanza.”
Walker didn’t want to go, but didn’t have a no-trade clause. Fearing that Walker could mess everything up, Jones gave him a $1.25 million going-away gift, essentially paying his best player to leave.
Walker dazzled in his Minnesota debut. Lynn was happiest of all.
“We felt that the last piece of the puzzle, the last spoke on the wheel, was a running back — and not just a running back, but a marquee running back,” he said at the time. “If we don’t get to the Super Bowl while Herschel Walker is a member of the Minnesota Vikings, then we have not made a good trade.”
Uh, no, they didn’t.
The Vikings made the playoffs in ’89, lost right away, and didn’t make it back in 1990 or
’91. Walker was cut the following summer; by then, Lynn had resigned and coach Jerry Burns retired.
“Herschel was basically an I-back and we were a two-back, sweeping, trapping team,” Burns said this week. “He made every accommodation. On at least two or three occasions, he told me he’d cover kickoffs or punts. Things just didn’t work out real well. … You know how it is in pro football, your team reaches a peak then levels off and goes down the tubes.”
The Cowboys weren’t the first to use draft-day maneuvers to fortify their roster with young talent and lots of it. The model was right in front of everyone.
San Francisco was coming off a Super Bowl title in 1988 and was headed to another in ’89. What put them over the top was their 1986 draft, when Bill Walsh kept trading down until he had 14 picks. He selected eight future starters, including Charles Haley, John Taylor and Tom Rathman.
Dallas dabbled with a similar strategy in 1989, then the Walker trade changed everything for years to come. Whatever move they made, they had the luxury of knowing that if it didn’t pan out, they had the firepower to do something else.
“I’ve had times in my life when I wouldn’t take risks because if I lost, I would’ve busted,” Jones said. “When you have the dynamic of a pocket full of picks, you can gamble. … As much as the picks themselves brought us players, that attitude of risk-taking made a big difference in how we built the team.”
It also helped that they picked wisely, which wasn’t the case with other teams that gave up running backs in blockbuster trades.
The Rams dealt Eric Dickerson for three first-rounders and three second-rounders over the ’88 and ’89 drafts. They used all six and had a losing record every year from 1990-98.
In 1999, Casserly and the Redskins sent the right to draft Ricky Williams to New Orleans for six picks that year, plus first- and third-rounders the following year. Washington made the playoffs in ’99, then didn’t have a winning record for five straight years.
Dallas went 1-15 in 1989, then soon launched the greatest four-year run in NFL history, winning the Super Bowl in 1992, ’93 and ’95, and reaching the NFC championship game in ’94.
That surge from the bottom of the bottom to the top of the top makes their run even more amazing. It’s also why the Walker trade is so inflated — well, by everyone except Johnson.
Earlier this year, Aikman asked Johnson whether the Cowboys would’ve won the Super Bowl without making that deal.
“Yeah,” Johnson told him, “because if we hadn’t made the Herschel Walker trade we’d have done something else. We might not have gotten good as fast as we did, but we would’ve eventually been there.”