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Rewind: Remembering the Ricky Williams trade

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Mike Beacom
Contributing writer

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Posted Oct. 20, 2010 @ 3:58 p.m. ET
By Mike Beacom

If he remains healthy this season and next, Miami's Ricky Williams will reach the 10,000-yard mark — a milestone only 24 backs have eclipsed in the history of the league. Not bad for a guy who essentially missed three seasons (2004, 2006-07) which should have produced the finest numbers of his career.

It begs the question: After all these years, has Williams finally proven Mike Ditka right? Was he worth all those picks back in 1999?

A little history …

At the winter meetings following the 1998 season, the then-Saints coach uttered, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" … or something to that effect.

Ditka made no bones about the fact that he would part with the Saints' entire draft (picks in Rounds one, three, four, five, six and seven) for an opportunity to select the University of Texas' Heisman Trophy-winning back. Like a lot of people at the time, Ditka believed Williams to be a rare talent — the second coming of Earl Campbell, only much quicker.

The Redskins were in a position to oblige. With Ditka already having thrown his cards on the table, general manager Charlie Casserly asked for more and got it — a first- and third-round pick in 2000.

Seems obscene, doesn't it? Eight picks (including two each in the first and third round) for the No. 5 pick. To add insult to injury, a majority of NFL general managers believed Miami's Edgerrin James, and not Williams, was the top-ranked running back on the board. Still, Ditka paid no attention. The trade went through, the Saints picked Williams, and Ditka closed down shop early.

The Saints' media ate it up, and for once there was genuine excitement in New Orleans over its football team. But a 3-13 finish — which turned that 2000 first-rounder into the No. 2 overall pick — angered fans and the Saints' brass, and Ditka was pushed out of town.

That trade lives in NFL infamy, and to this day hangs like a steel chain from Ditka's neck. It's a trade that has been chalked up to: Desperate times lead to desperate measures.

But historians are often unfair to New Orleans when evaluating this trade, placing potential Hall of Fame CB Champ Bailey on Washington's side of the balance sheet. It should be noted that Washington dealt a number of the picks it received from the Saints to other clubs. In its deal with Chicago, the Redskins moved back into the top 10 where the team grabbed Bailey at No. 7. But it can be argued that from New Orleans' perspective, it is fair only to judge the trade based on what became of the eight picks Ditka dealt in order to select Williams. Here is a look:

  • 1999 (Round One, pick No. 12) — The Redskins dealt this pick to Chicago, which used it to select UCLA QB Cade McNown. In 15 career starts, McNown was 3-12 with 16 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. He never played in the league after 2000.
  • 1999 (Round Three, pick No. 71) — Chicago also was given this pick, which it used on D'Wayne Bates. Other than the 50-catch season he had for Minnesota in 2002, Bates was a bust.
  • 1999 (Round Four, pick No. 107) — LB Nate Stimson didn't leave much of an imprint on the Nation's Capital — or anywhere, for that matter.
  • 1999 (Round Five, pick No. 144) — With its final pick from the trade it made with Washington, Chicago grabbed LB Khari Samuel. One start, three seasons.
  • 1999 (Round Six, pick No. 179) — Denver obtained the final two 1999 picks from Washington and used the first of which on TE Desmond Clark, who has collected more than 300 catches and 3,500 yards during his still-active career.
  • 1999 (Round Seven, pick No. 218) — With its other pick, Denver grabbed Billy Miller, who caught 200 passes during his nine-year career, most of them coming after he left the Broncos.
  • 2000 (Round One, pick No. 2) — The Redskins added Penn State's LaVar Arrington, who gave the club three Pro Bowl seasons (2001-03) before his play began to rapidly decline. Arrington was a solid player but failed to meet the lofty expectations that come with being a top-five linebacker pick.
  • 2000 (Round Three, pick No. 64) — Jamaican-born Lloyd Harrison spent three years in the NFL playing for three different clubs.

Still believe the deal was so one-sided? Of the picks New Orleans shipped out, only Arrington, Clark and Miller found success in the NFL, and only Clark has played in as many games as Williams.

We all remember the trade because of Ditka's bravado, and because he wore that ridiculous Rastafarian wig when introducing Williams to the New Orleans media. We remember how silly it was for a team to take early leave during draft weekend after making its lone pick at No. 5.

But, while it is ill advised to trade so much potential for any one prospect, on rare occasions trades like this one can work. What if Tampa Bay had traded all of its picks in 2001 to move up to No. 5 to draft LaDainian Tomlinson? Or if Green Bay had traded its 2007 draft for a chance to move up and take Adrian Peterson? If you examine what the Buccaneers and Packers ended up with in those years, either trade would have been welcome.

Williams will never measure up to Tomlinson or Peterson, but he has had a respectable career, and the longer Ricky runs, the lighter that chain feels for Ditka.

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse? Maybe. Just maybe. Depends on the draft. Depends on the horse.


Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).

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