Revisiting Saints trading entire draft for Ricky Williams and the deals that almost happened

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“Twenty years ago—that’s crazy,” the Washington coach at the time, Norv Turner, said Friday. As was the deal. At the time, so much about it was revolutionary. The noted draft-value trade chart, invented by the Cowboys a few years earlier, had the Saints trading away 4,441 points of draft value in exchange for 1,700 points—the value of the fifth overall pick. “When the coaches were told about it that day,” Turner said, “we looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t real. You gotta do that.’ “ And GM Charley Casserly, negotiating with Saints GM Billy Kuharich, agreed to it eagerly.

Ditka was smitten with Williams after his 2,124-yard, 27-TD senior year at Texas, and he proclaimed at the league meetings a month before the draft that he’d trade his entire draft for Williams. “Put us in line,” Casserly told Kuharich. Except New Orleans didn’t have a second-round pick that year. So Casserly said he’d have to have a first and third in 2000 to make up for the lack of a second-rounder. The Saints did it. (Man, why not ask for Ditka’s first-born too?) “A generational trade,” Casserly called it.

From the moment the deal happened, there were problems. Big problems. Williams was intensely shy. The Saints flew him to New Orleans for a post-draft press conference. On the plane, he was given a Saints cap to wear. “I’m not wearing that,” Williams said. He was told he’d be doing the press conference from a podium. “I’m not doing that,” he said.

Uh-oh.

When the dreadlocked Williams got to the Saints offices, Ditka greeted him wearing a wig with dreadlocks, and a flowered shirt and shorts. Williams did the press conference, standing to the side of the podium, not behind it. There was a fan fest with maybe 5,000 fans there on the property, fans going crazy because they got the best player in college football, and they chanted for Williams. Someone with Williams that day said, “Ricky looked around, and he was in shock. This was not what he thought the NFL would be. The look on his face was, ‘What the f— is this?’ “

Ricky-mania was in full swing. Williams dressed in a wedding gown and Ditka in a wedding tux, and they posed as bride and groom for an August 1999 cover of ESPN The Magazine. Heaven knows why Williams did that, but the season started bad and got worse. Williams’ shyness bordered on the weird. I went into New Orleans to interview him, and though pleasant enough, he insisted on doing the interview with his helmet on, with the dark shield covering his face. The Saints went 3-13, and Ditka was fired.

Williams lasted three seasons with the Saints before being traded to Miami in 2002. Other than helping New Orleans win a division title in 2000, Williams’ tenure in New Orleans was more circus than football. I texted Ditka on Friday and would have loved to speak with him about the trade and the weird year, but he didn’t get back to me.

“Oh my God,” his assistant head coach, Rick Venturi, said the other day. “That trade was a sugar rush for the franchise. We were at a low ebb. Everyone makes fun of the deal, because we gave up the farm to get Ricky, but we really trusted Mike. He’d won before, and he gave us faith we’d win with him.”

Postscript I: The Bengals, picking third, had a chance to make the same deal Washington made. Eight picks to move from three to 12 with New Orleans. Nope, the Bengals said. We’re staying. We’re picking the guy we want badly. Akili Smith.

Postscript II: Casserly thought he had a deal with Chicago, picking seventh, to move from 12 to seven if the player Washington wanted was available. That player: Champ Bailey. So after the deal with the Saints went through, Casserly called the Bears back, ready to move up five slots in exchange for third, fourth and fifth-round picks. “We had a deal, but they upped the ante on me when I called back,” he said. The Bears wanted Washington’s third-rounder in 2000, or there’d be no deal. Casserly, fuming, took a deep breath and agreed to the ransom. “If you really want the player, you’ve got to take a step back and take the emotion out of it,” he said. Washington got Bailey at seven.

Postscript III: I didn’t ask Casserly if he got any satisfaction from the quarterback Chicago took to be its long-term QB solution at 12—Cade McNown, who won three games in two years for the Bears. McNown was a disaster, and was out of football after two seasons.

Postscript IV: Casserly’s reward for getting those eight picks and maneuvering to pick up Bailey, and following that with Washington winning the NFC East? He got fired at the end of the year after new owner Dan Snyder took over.

Postscript V: Bailey lasted only five years in Washington before a contract dispute prompted the team to trade him to Denver for Clinton Portis. Bailey played 10 of his 15 seasons in a 15-year career for Denver. After being elected to the Hall last February, Bailey got a call from Casserly. “You realize I never would have traded you,” Casserly said.

Postscript VI: Williams had a good NFL career, in between missing two years for a “retirement” and a marijuana suspension. He finished with 10,009 rushing yards in 11 seasons, 31st on the all-time rushing list. Interesting who is 32nd: Clinton Portis.

They don’t make trades like they used to. 

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