To this day, there has never been a bigger NFL trade than the one the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings struck in 1989. A total of 18 picks and players were exchanged, revolving around Pro Bowl running back Herschel Walker.
It’s widely viewed as the greatest trade in league history, and also one of the most lopsided. Dallas came out on the winning end of the deal, landing a boatload of picks and players who would be part of one of the most dominant squads the game has ever seen.
The Vikings, on the other hand, believed they won out in a big way. They thought they had landed a franchise-altering player who could put them over the top as a Super Bowl contender. Walker didn’t do that, staying in Minnesota for only three seasons.
In the final part of our 10-day series dissecting the biggest trades in NFL history, we look back at this monumental deal, shedding light on a few facts you might not have known about it.
Walker had four 100-yard games with the Vikings; Emmitt Smith had five in his first 18 games
Everyone knows Walker struggled with the Vikings. After racking up 1,514 rushing yards and 505 receiving yards in 1988, he appeared to be on track to stardom. The trade to Minnesota, where he didn’t fit the team’s scheme, derailed that trajectory and essentially turned him into a mediocre player.
Walker played 42 games with the Vikings and eclipsed 100 yards rushing in just four of them. It was a shocking development for a player who seemed to be the next big thing at running back.
On the flip side, the Cowboys replaced Walker with the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith. Dallas used Minnesota’s first-round pick in 1990 to move up to No. 17 and draft Smith, giving Johnson the shifty back he coveted. Smith impact, unlike Walker’s in Minnesota, was felt immediately.
In Smith’s first 18 games with the Cowboys, he totaled more 100-yard rushing performances than Walker had in three years with the Vikings. By the same token, Smith had nearly twice as many 100-yard games in the postseason (seven) as Walker had in Minnesota (four).
Needless to say, replacing Walker with Smith was one of the best things the Cowboys could have done as he helped them win three Super Bowls.
Jimmy Johnson had no interest in the players Minnesota gave the Cowboys
The Cowboys received five players in exchange for Walker: Jesse Solomon, David Howard, Issiac Holt, Darrin Nelson and Alex Stewart. None of them was a true standout, but Johnson never believed they were before acquiring them. He had other plans.
Johnson didn’t want those players on his team. He wanted the conditional picks attached to them. As part of the trade, if Johnson released or traded any of the players before 1990, he would receive draft pick compensation. And so, Johnson did exactly that. He traded Nelson to the Chargers after he refused to report for camp, turning him into two late-round picks. He cut Stewart to receive the second-round pick attached to him. The rest were benched, per Johnson’s instructions.
In all, the Cowboys received 13 players or picks in return for Walker. It was one of the truly brilliant trades ever made for the simple reason that Johnson led the Vikings to believe those players had value, when in reality they were merely draft picks.
The Vikings and Cowboys were both more successful without Walker
In the three-plus seasons Walker was in Dallas, the Cowboys were 17-35. Quite frankly, they weren’t good. It wasn’t his fault, but the Cowboys knew he wasn’t a player who could turn them into a Super Bowl team.
In the three years before the Vikings acquired Walker, they were solid. From 1986-88, they were 28-19, finishing second in the division each year. After trading for Walker, the Vikings went downhill. They were 7-4 in 1989 after the trade, but they were just 6-10 and 8-8 in the next two seasons.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, got significantly better following Walker's departure. Part of that had to do with the emergence of Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, but the turnaround was drastic. Dallas went from 1-15 in 1989 to 7-9 in 1990 before making the playoffs in 1991 thanks to an 11-5 record. Dallas won at least 10 games each season from 1991-96, winning three Super Bowls in that span.
Again, the picks received for Walker had a lot to do with that, but it was clear Dallas was better without him, as were the Vikings. Minnesota returned to the playoffs in 1992 – the year Walker left – beginning a run of eight playoffs appearances in nine years.
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Walker refused to go to Minnesota unless Jerry Jones gave him everything he wanted
Walker was happy in Dallas – it was warm, he was playing well. So when the Cowboys told him they were going to trade him to the Vikings, he was not amused. He was angry, actually.
“I wasn’t going to Minnesota. I was like, ‘Crap, I’m not going to Minnesota. It’s cold in Minnesota. I’m not going to Minnesota.’ And Jerry was like, ‘What does he want to go to Minnesota? What does he need?’ And we were not going. ‘If you want to know what we want, we got this list of stuff written out.’ All this crazy stuff, but we were going to let Jerry know we weren’t going. … Jerry agreed to it. He called our bluff.”
Walker required an exit bonus, a free house in Minneapolis similar to the one he had in Dallas and a Mercedes-Benz. Jones wound up paying Walker $1.25 million to go and agreed to the other terms on Walker’s list, clearing the path for him to play for the Vikings.
It was pretty obvious Walker didn’t want to go regardless of his demands. He was just trying to get Jones to drop the subject and give up on dealing him to the Vikings. Unfortunately for the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner, it didn’t work out that way.
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Jerry Jones didn’t want to trade Walker initially
Johnson and Jones obviously had a tumultuous relationship in which they feuded and were seemingly never on the same page. So as it goes, there are differing stories when it comes to who came up with the idea to trade Walker. Johnson believes it was him, while Jones tends to disagree.
"When I told Jerry that we were gonna trade Herschel Walker he was kind of … astonished. He said, 'Really? You can't get rid of Herschel Walker! We won't score a point if we don't have Herschel Walker!’ And that’s what Minnesota thought. ‘This college guy, hey, we’ll pull one over on him. We’re gonna give him these five guys and they’ll fall in love with him and we won’t have to give up anything until the No. 1 pick a couple years down the road.’ ”
Legend has it that the idea to trade Walker was cooked up during an afternoon jog with several coaches and trainers – Jones not included. It would seem as though Johnson was the brains behind the deal as a result of this story, despite the fact that Jones said he “was visiting about trading Herschel Walker weeks before we ever started directly talking about it.”
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The Browns made a significant offer for Walker, but it wasn’t enough
Among the teams that were interested in Walker, including the Giants and Falcons, were the Browns. They actually made a formal offer to the Cowboys, one that would have been fair compensation.
It included one player, two future first-round picks and three second-rounders. The Browns were competitive back then, making the playoffs in five straight seasons, and believed Walker was the type of player who could take them to the next level.
Johnson thought it was a decent, fair offer, but he wanted more. And so, he used Cleveland’s pitch as leverage to extract more from another team. Not surprisingly, it worked. Johnson called Vikings GM Mike Lynn to tell him what Cleveland had offered, giving him a 6:30 p.m. deadline to one-up it.
Lynn caved and blew away Johnson by meeting his requirements with picks, players and conditions that would allow those players to turn into additional selections. If the Vikings hadn’t bettered the Browns’ offer, Walker could have ended up in Cleveland. In turn, the Cowboys would have received less compensation, and the dynasty may not have been born.
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Al Davis talked the Cowboys out of trading Michael Irvin to the Raiders before Walker deal
Before the idea to trade Walker came about, Johnson had another plan: Trade his star receiver, Michael Irvin. That was a possibility that Johnson and Jones considered, knowing the team was aging and needed a complete rebuild. Irvin was in his second NFL season, but his production wasn’t nearly as strong as Walker’s. As a rookie, he caught just 32 passes for 654 yards.
In his second season, before an injury sent him to the sidelines in Week 7, Irvin had 26 catches for 378 yards. An improvement, but still not eye-popping numbers. As a result, the Cowboys didn’t think they could get as much for him as they could for Walker, but they explored a trade nonetheless.
Raiders owner Al Davis was interested in Irvin at the time, but he gave Jones and Johnson some advice: Don’t trade him.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” Davis asked. “I’d be happy to trade for him, but you need to keep Michael Irvin. He can smell the end zone.”
Alas, the Cowboys kept Irvin, and he went on to make five Pro Bowls and get inducted into the Hall of Fame. Had Davis agreed to trade for Irvin, the Walker trade likely would have never happened.