Sometimes team-building comes down to a single brilliant personnel move—like these 10 most influential trades in NFL history
This is an article from the Dec. 6, 2010 issue
1. The 49ers swap draft spots with the Patriots and pick Jerry Rice.
On draft day 1985, Niners architect Bill Walsh sent the 28th and the 56th pick to the Patriots for New England's pick, No. 16. San Francisco took a receiver out of little Mississippi Valley State; with the choice from the Niners, New England drafted center Trevor Matich of BYU and Auburn defensive end Ben Thomas. Result: Rice played 20 seasons, retiring as the most productive pass catcher in NFL history and a three-time Super Bowl winner. Matich started 22 games in 12 years; Thomas had 3½ sacks in five seasons with five teams. Ouch.
2. The Lions get Bobby Layne; the Yanks get nothing.
Layne had spent one season as a backup quarterback for the Bears and another as an unspectacular starter for the New York Yanks when Detroit sent end Bob Mann to New York for the former Texas Longhorns star in 1950. New York couldn't work out a contract for Mann and cut him loose. Layne went on to lead the Lions to three championships in the '50s—the last three they've won.
3. The 49ers steal Steve Young from the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay was going nowhere with Young, who was 3--16 as a starting QB in 1985 and '86. After the Bucs drafted Miami's Vinny Testaverde with the first pick in '87, they happily handed Young to Bill Walsh for a second- and a fourth-round pick. Linebacker Winston Moss and wideout Bruce Hill, the players the Bucs drafted, were long, long gone from Tampa by the time Young won Super Bowl XXIX with San Francisco. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.
4. The Cowboys hit the Herschel Walker motherlode.
A bizarre trade if there ever was one: Walker had rushed for 1,514 yards for Dallas in 1988, but in the midst of the '89 season the Cowboys sent him and four draft picks to the Vikings for five players and eight future choices, including three first-rounders. Dallas used one of those picks to trade up and take Florida running back Emmitt Smith at No. 17 in '90. The Walker deal provided the bedrock for the Cowboys' three Super Bowl--winning teams in the '90s; Smith became the NFL's alltime leading rusher.
5. All-purpose star Les Richter goes to the Rams for 11 players.
One of the great prospects of the postwar era, Richter, a linebacker, kicker and guard out of Cal, was drafted second in 1952 but spent two years in the Army. In '54 the ill-fated Dallas Texans, desperate for warm bodies, traded Richter to the Rams for 11 players, mostly roster fillers. Richter made eight Pro Bowls in Los Angeles and is among the candidates for the Hall of Fame this year.
6. The Packers snag Brett Favre off the Falcons' bench.
Favre languished as an Atlanta rookie in 1991, but in February '92 first-year Packers G.M. Ron Wolf dealt Green Bay's first-round pick for him. Atlanta got the forgettable running back Tony Smith—and the rest is passing history.
7. The Colts draft John Elway—for Denver.
This wasn't a horrible trade, but it was historic. The top prospect in '83, Stanford QB Elway said he didn't want to play in Baltimore. The Colts drafted him No. 1, then swung a deal with the Broncos. Baltimore got two Pro Bowl offensive linemen, tackle Chris Hinton and guard Ron Solt, and a serviceable quarterback in Mark Herrmann. Elway became an all-timer.
8. The Patriots gather Moss ...
For a fourth-round pick! Safety John Bowie, whom the Raiders took with the choice they acquired for Randy Moss in 2007, never started a game. Moss in '07 had a record 23 receiving touchdowns on a team that went 18--0 before losing in Super Bowl XLII.
9. Drew Bledsoe goes to the Bills—and that's not the headline.
When the Patriots traded their quarterback to Buffalo in 2002, they not only got a first-round pick—which they used to draft defensive-line centerpiece Ty Warren in '03—but also cleared the way for Tom Brady to become the starter and win two more Super Bowls.
10. Bill Belichick bounces from New York to New England.
Let's complete this Pats subsection: When Bill Parcells quit as Jets coach, Belichick refused to honor his contract and succeed him. The Patriots then signed Belichick, but the league forced New England to surrender first-, fourth- and seventh-round picks (defensive end Shaun Ellis, cornerback Jamie Hendersonm, defensive tackle James Reed, respectively)—small price to pay for the coach of the decade.