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A history of blockbuster NFL trades

Why it’s “generally“ not a good idea to trade for a superstar

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

In digging through the internet, I came across this piece from Athlon sports detailing the five biggest blockbuster deals in NFL history that involved established NFL superstars. According to the author, of the five, only two involved quarterbacks and only one of those involved a QB still in his “prime”. So let’s dig into that trade specifically after a quick recap of other trades and who “won” each trade.

Poll

If the Texans asked for our 2021 and 2022 1st and 2nd round picks for Watson, would you take the deal?

This poll is closed

  • 45%
    Yes - no questions asked
    (620 votes)
  • 27%
    Yes - but they would have to send back a couple of day two picks with Watson
    (376 votes)
  • 26%
    No - Lock and our high 2021 and 2022 draft picks will be what we need
    (366 votes)
1362 votes total Vote Now
  1. Herschel Walker trade. Dallas gets four marginal players and 8 draft picks for Walker - three 1st round, three 2nd round, one 4th round and one 6th round. Dallas won this hands down and used the draft picks to become a dynasty in 90s winning three Super Bowls in four years.
  2. Eric Dickerson deal: involved three teams. Trade involved Colts, Rams and Bills. Hard to say who won.
  3. Bears get Khalil Mack from Raiders. September 1, 2018: Traded by Raiders with 2020 2nd round pick (43rd overall, Cole Kmet) and 2020 7th round pick (226th overall, Arlington Hambright) to Bears for 2019 1st round pick (24th overall, Josh Jacobs), 2019 6th round pick (196th overall subsequently traded, Blessuan Austin), 2020 1st round pick (19th overall, Damon Arnette) and 2020 3rd round pick (81st overall, Bryan Edwards). I’d call this one in the favor of the Bears right now since Jacobs is a key part of the Faiders, but Arnette and Edwards were disappointing as rookies. This could still tilt in the favor of Loss Vegas.
  4. Joe Montana traded to Chiefs at end of his career. I’m not sure how this counts as “blockbuster” since KC got Montana, Safety David Whitmore and a 3rd round pick for its 1993 first round pick. Montana was 35 when he was dealt and had missed two seasons with elbow problems. Much like Peyton Manning, there was concern that he would never be the same after missing that much time with injury. Montana did lead the Chiefs to a 17-8 record and two playoff appearances before he retired. SF got 3x pro-bowl DT Dana Stubblefield out of the deal. I’d say it was win-win.

Now on to the most comparable deal, at least in regards to the possible trade of DeShaun Watson.

The Packers believed that they were an elite QB away from getting back to the Super Bowl after dominating the NFL in the late 60s. John Hadl, who had spent most of his career in the AFL with the Chargers, had led the Rams to a 12-2 record in 1973 at the age of 33 (which was old for an NFL QB back then) winning the NFC offensive player of the year award in the process. His 22:11 TD:INT ratio was elite at the time (now it would be below average). The men who led the NFL in passing TDs, Roman Gabriel and Roger Staubach, did so with 23. The Packers had a 10-4 record in 1972, but they had altered in 1973 to finish 5-7-2. Head Coach, Dan Devine, ostensibly banked his career on trading for an elite QB. Hadl was that guy. The Packers traded their 1st, 2nd and 3rd round picks in 1975 along with their 1st and 2nd round picks in 1976 to the Rams for Hadl. The Rams used the picks to two pro-bowl players, Monte Jackson and Pat Thomas. Green Bay did not have the depth on its roster to handle this much loss of draft capital and it would flounder as a franchise through most of the 70s and 80s. Green Bay did not win 10 or more games from 1972 until 1989. During that timespan they would have a losing record ten times.

It would seem that this would be a cautionary to any team that wants to mortgage their drafts for an elite QB, but let’s put some caveats in here. Firstly, the draft was much more valuable then than it is now. There was no free agency back then. Players drafted by a team were essentially controlled by that team for their entire career if the team chose to do so.

Secondly, quarterbacks were much less an essential part of winning in the NFL than they are now. Look at the time progression from my tweet and you can see how the league now is almost unrecognizable relative to the early 70s.

Having an elite QB then was a luxury that you could do without. The Steelers won 4 Super Bowls in the 70s with Terry Bradshaw, who was far from elite. Relative to now, his numbers look terrible, but even relative to then, his numbers weren’t great. If you take a look at his adjusted passing data, you see that he was above average (average is 100), but rarely elite in anything other than throwing up 50/50 balls for his receivers deep down the field. Admittedly that was his role in the Steelers run-oriented offense - take deep shots.

So to recap, there is not much history of elite QBs getting traded for massive amounts of draft capital. The one real example we have, turned out very poorly for the team that got the elite QB.