April 17, 2010

1999: Saints Trade All Picks to Draft Ricky Williams

The first round of the 1999 NFL draft was held on April 17, and it was eventful. Early speculation had been that RB Ricky Williams, who had won the Heisman Trophy at Texas while accumulating an NCAA Division I-A-record 6279 yards, would be the hottest commodity. But doubts began to arise as draft weekend approached - there were questions about the 6’0”, 225-pound power runner’s conditioning, attitude, dreadlocked appearance, and introverted nature.

In addition, the quarterback class was considered to be a strong one and the first three teams all went for that position. The newly-reconstituted Cleveland Browns, as an expansion team for the ’99 season, had the first pick and took Tim Couch, a 6’5”, 225-pound signal caller from Kentucky. The Philadelphia Eagles, coming off of a 3-13 season and with a new offense-minded head coach in Andy Reid, chose Donovan McNabb from Syracuse. Cincinnati completed the quarterback trifecta by taking Oregon’s Akili Smith.

Choosing fourth in the first round were the Indianapolis Colts, and having just drafted Peyton Manning the year before, their interest was in a running back (they had also just traded veteran Marshall Faulk to the Rams). However, they passed Williams over for Edgerrin James of Miami, who they felt was a better fit for their offense.

The fifth choice belonged to the Washington Redskins (picked up from Carolina thanks to a trade for DE Sean Gilbert the previous year). In a stunning move, the New Orleans Saints traded their entire draft allotment of six picks in 1999 plus their first and third round choices in 2000 to the Redskins in order to draft Williams. It was a controversial deal from the moment it was announced, and spurred debate for years afterward.

The Saints had gone 6-10 in ’98 and, moreover, had the league’s worst running attack. Mike Ditka, going into the third year of his head coaching comeback in New Orleans, viewed Williams as the centerpiece of his conservative offense and had made clear well in advance of the draft that he considered the Texas back worth the price of the club’s entire draft slate. GM Bill Kuharich went ahead with the deal, despite the misgivings of some in the organization.

Ditka was ecstatic. The day after the draft, he appeared before a group of Saints fans in a Hawaiian shirt and dreadlock wig and shouted, “We are going to win the Super Bowl…We got Ricky, and he’s the final piece of the puzzle. I really believe that.” Ditka and Williams later appeared on the cover of ESPN magazine as a bride and groom, emphasizing the degree to which the coach had gambled his future on the prize running back.

Meanwhile, the Redskins turned around and dealt some of their draft bounty to the Chicago Bears in order to move up to the seventh spot in the first round and select CB Champ Bailey from Georgia. The Bears, trading down in the first round to stockpile picks, took QB Cade McNown of UCLA in the 12th slot (the original draft position of the Saints), just after another quarterback, Daunte Culpepper from Central Florida, was taken by Minnesota in the 11th spot.

Williams signed a comparatively cheap and insentive-laden contract (he made $3.8 million as a rookie, compared with James’ $14.8 million in Indianapolis) and proceeded to have a miserable season. He gained just 884 yards on 253 carries for a paltry 3.5-yard average with two touchdowns as a result of ankle, elbow, and toe injuries. He also alienated teammates and fans alike with his behavior and critical media quotes.

The Saints finished in last place in the NFC West with a 3-13 record, and owner Tom Benson fired Ditka and the rest of the coaching staff, as well as GM Kuharich.

The other teams involved in the deal didn’t fare all that well either. The Redskins ended up trading all but three of the draft picks away, and those three turned out to be LB Nate Stimson in the fourth round of the ’99 draft, LB LaVar Arrington in the first round in 2000, and DB Lloyd Harrison in the third round in 2000. Arrington had a solid career, but Stimson failed to catch on and Harrison bounced from Washington to the Chargers and Dolphins without distinguishing himself over a three-year career.

The deal with the Bears brought the opportunity to draft an outstanding performer in Bailey, but he and Arrington proved to be the only players of value from the dealmaking. The Redskins made the playoffs in 1999 with a 10-6 record, but were mediocre over the course of the ensuing five seasons. GM Charley Casserly was fired following the ’99 campaign, and Head Coach Norv Turner didn’t complete the 2000 season.

McNown was a huge disappointment for the Bears (as was the case with most of the highly-touted 1999 quarterback class), lasting just two mediocre seasons. The other players that Chicago drafted in ‘99 with the Saints picks that had come by way of Washington were WR D’Wayne Bates (third round) and LB Khari Samuel (fifth round). Bates caught a total of 15 passes over three years in Chicago before moving on to Minnesota (he caught 50 passes for 689 yards in 2002, but lasted just one more season). Samuel started one game for the Bears in 1999.

Mark Hatley, the director of player personnel, was fired in 2001 after Chicago, last place finishers in the NFC Central in 1997 and ’98, continued to land at the bottom of the standings in ’99 and 2000.

Washington traded two of the ’99 draft choices to Denver, and the Broncos used them on TE Desmond Clark (sixth round) and WR Billy Miller (seventh round). Ironically, Miller ended up being a reserve with the Saints.

Things did improve for Ricky Williams in New Orleans, where he had back-to-back thousand-yard seasons in 2000 and ’01. However, he never came close to meeting expectations and was dealt to Miami. He led the NFL with 1853 rushing yards in ’02, but drug and behavioral issues hampered his career thereafter.

The all-for-one deal of 1999 proved poisonous to the three teams most significantly involved. Almost all of the general managers and coaches who had been part of the trade and its related transactions were fired within two seasons. The Saints suffered most of all, in particular Ditka (pictured below), although he steadfastly defended the trade long afterward.