October 31, 2009

1987: Eric Dickerson Traded to Colts

As the trick-or-treaters made their way around America’s neighborhoods on the night of October 31, 1987, the news broke of a blockbuster three-team trade that sent Eric Dickerson, the NFL’s leading rusher in three of the past four seasons, from the Los Angeles Rams to the Indianapolis Colts. As befitting a player of Dickerson’s stature, the deal was a large one that involved a total of 10 players and draft picks.

Dickerson had been a sensation from his first season in the league, leading the NFL as a rookie with 1808 yards rushing (still the record for a first-year back) in 1983. He followed that up in ’84 by breaking O.J. Simpson’s single-season rushing record with 2105 yards. By the end of the 1986 season he had run for a total of 6968 yards on 1465 carries for a 4.8 average gain per carry and 55 touchdowns – staggering numbers for just four years.

However, by 1987 all was not well between the star running back and the Rams front office. Dickerson had held out in 1985, missing the first two games of the season, and now was asking to renegotiate a contract that was paying him $682,000. Tired of the constant contract bickering and concerned that Dickerson’s attitude was having a bad effect on the team, the Rams decided to swing a deal – provided, of course, that they could receive ample compensation in a trade. The team was off to a dreadful 1-5 start (the only win was registered by replacement players during the players’ 24-day strike) and was looking to re-stock for the future.

The complex deal that was hammered out started off with the Buffalo Bills trading RB Greg Bell along with two number one draft picks (1988 and ’89) and a second round pick in 1989 to the Colts for the rights to LB Cornelius Bennett, who had been their #1 draft pick in ’87 (second overall in the entire draft) but who was holding out for more money than the team was willing to pay. Indianapolis turned around and dealt Bell, RB Owen Gill, all three Buffalo draft choices, plus their own #1 pick in 1988 and #2 choices for 1988 and ’89 for Dickerson.

How did it all turn out? Well, for Dickerson it resulted in a four-year contract worth $5.6 million dollars and being reunited with his college coach at Southern Methodist, Ron Meyer, who was now head coach in Indianapolis. He was in uniform the next day with the Colts and proceeded to run for 1011 yards in the remaining nine games. The Colts won the AFC East with a 9-6 record, making it to the postseason for the first time since they were the Baltimore Colts in 1977.

Buffalo also received an immediate boost from the addition of Bennett, who started the last seven games at outside linebacker and recorded 8.5 sacks. He would go on to be selected to five Pro Bowls with the Bills.

As for the Rams, they rallied to finish the season at 6-9. RB Charles White, a Heisman-winning disappointment in Cleveland, stepped into Dickerson’s position and led the league in rushing (1374 yards to Dickerson’s combined total of 1288). Greg Bell didn’t contribute much the rest of the way in ’87, but had thousand-yard rushing seasons in 1988 and ’89 and scored a total of 31 touchdowns. Owen Gill, on the other hand, appeared in one game and was gone for good. The two #1 draft choices that they picked up in the deal turned out to be RB Gaston Green (did little with the Rams but had a couple of good years with Denver) and WR Aaron Cox (showed promise as a rookie but regressed thereafter), and the #1 draft choice for 1989 was RB Cleveland Gary (led the NFL with 14 rushing TDs in 1990, but was inconsistent and prone to fumbling). The extra #2 choice in 1988 went for LB Fred Strickland (started 27 games in 5 years with LA), and the two second round choices in ’89 were used for LB Frank Stams (16 starts in 3 years with the Rams) and DB Darryl Henley (decent player who started 54 games over 6 seasons and returned punts).

Moreover, the Rams rebounded to return to the postseason in 1988 and ’89, getting all the way to the NFC Championship game in the latter season, before falling into a steep decline that wouldn’t be reversed until the franchise was in St. Louis. The cache of draft choices obtained in the Dickerson deal failed to translate into longer-term success.