Saturday, Oct. 12 marks the 30th anniversary of the biggest trade to take place during the NFL regular season in the league’s 100-season history. In 1989, the Dallas Cowboys shipped their star running back, Herschel Walker, to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for a bounty of players and draft picks that helped the Cowboys return to championship glory in a very short period of time under head coach Jimmy Johnson. It was a seismic event that tipped the balance of power in the NFL at the time.
However, meaningful in-season trades were rare for a long stretch in the NFL. Here we count down the greatest trades executed during the regular season.
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10. Raiders trade WR Amari Cooper to Cowboys
Date: Oct. 22, 2018
In the first year of Jon Gruden’s second stint as head coach in Oakland, the Raiders were all about trading key players for future draft picks. A week before the start of the regular season, the Raiders traded holdout pass rusher Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears for a first-round pick. Less than two months later, Cooper was dealt to Dallas. Cooper’s arrival helped spark a second-half surge for the Cowboys, who won seven of their last nine games to secure the NFC East. The Raiders, meanwhile, used the first-round picks acquired from the Bears and Cowboys on running back Josh Jacobs and safety Johnathan Abram, respectively. While Jacobs enters Week 6 as the leading rusher among rookies, Abram was lost for the season with a shoulder injury suffered in Week 1.
9. Patriots trade WR Deion Branch to Seahawks
Date: Sept. 11, 2006
Less than two years after Branch was the MVP in the Patriots’ win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, he was traded to Seattle after waging a holdout in training camp and the preseason. In return, the Patriots received a 2007 first-round pick, which was used on defensive back Brandon Meriweather. It was a startling move at the time for Bill Belichick, whose top two receivers from that Super Bowl-winning team were gone. David Givens — who started opposite of Branch in 2005 — signed as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans, tore his ACL in Week 10 of the 2006 season and never played in the NFL again. While Branch was a serviceable receiver for the Seahawks for four-plus seasons, Meriweather developed into a two-time Pro Bowl selection.
8. Browns trade RB Trent Richardson to Colts
Date: Sept. 18, 2013
In theory, putting Richardson into the same backfield as Andrew Luck should have been a boon for the Colts, who were re-emerging as a force in the AFC behind their young, talented quarterback. That didn’t happen. Richardson averaged just 2.9 yards a carry in 2013 for the Colts, who still managed to win the division and prevail in an epic playoff gameagainst the Kansas City Chiefs. By 2015, Richardson was no longer playing the NFL. In 2019, he resurfaced in the now-defunct AAFand is currently among the players in the draft pool for the XFL. The craziest part of this trade is that the Colts sacrificed a first-round pick to get Richardson. However, the Browns being the Browns, they couldn’t take advantage of that extra first-rounder. That second first-round pick turned into Johnny Manziel.
7. Bengals trade QB Carson Palmer to Raiders
Date: Oct. 18, 2011
After a 4-12 finish in 2010, it seemed Palmer had enough of the losing in Cincinnati. He requested to be traded, then threatened to retire after Bengals president Mike Brown denied his wish. The team picked Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 draft and appeared ready to move on. When the Raiders lost starting quarterback Jason Campbell to a season-ending injury, head coach Hue Jackson was ready to make a move for the quarterback he’s previously coached in Cincy. And, just 10 days after the death of principal owner/GM Al Davis, the Raiders executed a trade for Palmer. The price was steep — a 2012 first-rounder and a 2013 second-rounder. Palmer wasn’t the answer in Oakland, going 8-16 as a starter. In 2013, the Raiders traded Palmer to the Cardinals in exchange for sixth- and seven-round draft picks. The Bengals, meanwhile, got some return on those two picks from the Raiders: 2012 first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick and 2013 second-rounder Giovani Bernard still are with the team.
6. Bills trade RB Marshawn Lynch to Seahawks
Date: Oct. 5, 2010
Lynch was a two-time 1,000-yard rusher for Buffalo before being traded, but his arrival in Seattle turned the running back into a legend. Three months after the trade, Lynch went on his famous “Beast Quake” runin an NFC wild-card playoff game against the Saints. The play set off a seismic event in Seattle and “Beast Mode” became a force in the Pacific Northwest, helping the Seahawks win their first Super Bowl three seasons later. At the time of the trade, the Bills had a busy backfield, with Lynch, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller on the roster. From the Seahawks, the Bills got a 2011 fourth-round pick — used to draft OT Chris Hairston — and a 2012 fifth-rounder — used on LB Tank Carder.
5. Lions trade QB Bobby Layne to Steelers
Date: Oct. 7, 1958
This trade sparked the “Curse of Bobby Layne.”The NFL in the 1950s was dominated by the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions (yes, it’s true). The Lions won three NFL titles in the decade with Layne as the team’s quarterback. In 1958, the defending champions decided that they were good with Tobin Rote at quarterback and shipped Layne to the then-woeful Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for Earl Morrall and two draft picks. Layne was displeased and supposedly saidthe Lions wouldn’t win another championship for another 50 years. That “curse” expired a decade ago, and there have been no Lions championships — or even playoff wins — since 2008. The Lions have one playoff win since beating the Browns in the 1957 NFL Championship Game.
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4. Rams trade QB John Hadl to Packers
Date: Oct. 22, 1974
One of the worst trades in NFL history sent the once-proud Packers deeper into mediocrity. Head coach Dan Devine was desperate for help at quarterback. So desperate that he shipped two first-round picks, two second-round picks and a third-round pick to the L.A. Rams for the 34-year-old Hadl (clearly, teams didn’t value draft picks then as much as they do now). The Rams used those picks to maintain their dominance of the NFC West in the 1970s (the team won seven consecutive division titles from 1973-79). Hadl lasted a season and a half in Green Bay, chucking 29 interceptions in 22 games played. The silver lining for the Packers? In 1976, Hadl was dealt to the Houston Oilers and in exchange the Packers got quarterback Lynn Dickey, who set a team single-season passing yardage record that took 28 years to break when Aaron Rodgers did so in his MVP season of 2011.
3. Patriots trade CB Mike Haynes to Raiders
Date: Nov. 11, 1983
When the Los Angeles Raiders dump trucked the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII, it was the cornerback tandem of Haynes and Lester Hayes that was vital to shutting down an offense that had scored a record number of points in the 1983 season. A lengthy holdout in 1983 led to Haynes’ trade to the Raiders, but not after an antitrust suit initiated by Haynes and his agent. The Patriots received a first-round pick from the Raiders, which New England parlayed into a deal with the Cincinnati Bengalsto acquire the No. 1 overall selection in the 1984 NFL draft, which the team used to pick Irving Fryar.
2. Rams trade RB Eric Dickerson to Colts
Date: Oct. 31, 1987
This trade was quite the bonanza, involving three teams — the L.A. Rams, Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills — four players and six draft picks. Contract disputes pushed the Rams to deal Dickerson, who three years prior had rushed for an NFL-record 2,105 yards. The Colts needed a spark. In the three seasons since moving from Baltimore to Indianapolis, the Colts finished 4-12, 5-11 and 3-13. Dickerson was an immediate shot in the arm. Sitting at 3-3 at the time of the trade, the Colts went 6-3 after Dickerson’s arrival and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1977. The Rams, meanwhile, got running back Greg Bell from the Bills, as well as two first-round picks and three second-round picks. The Bills’ compensation was linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who became a star in Buffalo, helping the Bills reach four consecutive Super Bowls.
1. Cowboys trade RB Herschel Walker to Vikings
Date: Oct. 12, 1989
The Cowboys were in full-on rebuild mode with first-year head coach Jimmy Johnson; the Vikings felt like they were a blue-chip star awayfrom reaching the Super Bowl. After an 0-5 start, the Cowboys traded the team’s only sellable asset to the Vikings in a deal that resulted in a bounty of draft picks that would be the foundation for a dynasty. The Cowboys wound up with three first-round picks, three second-round picks, a third-rounder and a sixth-rounder. Those picks eventually — after further wheeling and dealing by the Cowboys — turned into players such as running back Emmitt Smith, defensive tackle Russell Maryland, and defensive backs Darren Woodson and Kevin Smith. While the Vikings won the NFC Central in 1989 (losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers in the divisional playoffs), the team finished 6-10 and 8-8 in the next two seasons with Walker in the backfield. By the time the Cowboys started their run of winning three Super Bowls in four seasons, Walker was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jim Reineking on Twitter @jimreineking.
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