Time waits for no man or completion of famous football trades, so it is here that we pause after a year to examine the great Halloween caper of 1987, the deal that sent Eric Dickerson packing for Indianapolis, the Rams getting a healthy chunk of football’s free world.
First off, the Rams, despite their dramatic turnaround, would insist that analysis of the trade is premature until the payoff is complete. That won’t happen until next April, when they cash in Buffalo’s first- and second-round choices and a second-round pick from Indianapolis.
In the risky trade business, you gloat when you can.
“I know none of you guys said it,” Coach John Robinson wryly told reporters this week. “But some said it was one of the worst trades in the history of the game and it may set this franchise back from 3 to 5 years. . . . It’ll be 5 years before the Rams are ever heard from. I heard a brilliant sportscaster say that on TV.
“All I’m saying is, yeah, it turned the franchise around. It was a big trade. I’m hesitant to say something because I know those who said it was the worst trade in history regret it and probably don’t sleep at night thinking about it.”
Now, a quick review:
Dickerson, you remember, was the greatest tailback the team ever underpaid. He had become so disturbed with his contract that he was literally forced to bad-mouth his way out of town; first by insulting Ram management and then tearing into the head coach himself (See trade Genesis: 10-87: “Let him run 47-Gap.”)
A resolution was sought. Ill winds quickly swept eastward across the plains to Indianapolis, where Colt General Manager Jimmy Irsay took a healthy whiff. He first offered the Rams unsigned Alabama linebacker Cornelius Bennett straight up for Dickerson.
Ram Vice President John Shaw scoffed, becoming interested only when draft choices and a third team joined in.
Voila, a blockbuster was born!
The Colts sent Bennett to Buffalo for the Bills’ first-round pick in 1988, first- and second-round choices in 1989, and running back Greg Bell, a throw-in who would be heard from later.
The Colts took that package, tossed in their own first- and second-round picks in 1988, plus a second in 1989 and Owen Gill, and shipped it to the Rams for Dickerson.
If you toss out Gill, which the Rams soon did, they ended up with three first-round picks, three seconds and Greg Bell.
Now, a quick update:
Since the trade last Halloween, the Rams and Bills have gone 11-6. The Colts won the division title in the AFC East with Dickerson last year but are only 9-9 overall since the trade, counting a playoff loss.
OK, what about run production? How much have the Rams lost from the tailback position?
Since the trade, Dickerson has carried 427 times for 1,890 yards, 10 touchdowns and a 4.4-yard average.
The Rams’ tailback position, which here includes only the statistics of Charles White and Greg Bell as starters since the trade, has rushed 389 times for 1,684 yards, 18 touchdowns and a 4.32-yard average.
“We’re satisfied with the people we picked and the state of our franchise,” Robinson said. “One of the best things that happened to this franchise was to have to make the decision, which was gut-wrenching; to pick up the pieces and move ahead. Internally, there has been a great positive created here in the aftermath. I’m not talking so much players, I’m talking about the franchise.”
Now, a look at the 1-year winners and losers.
The biggest winner? Bell insists he wasn’t a throw-in, although those close to the trade remember that Bell’s reputation as a malingerer in Buffalo reduced a former No. 1 pick to middle-round fodder with few takers.
The Rams reluctantly took Bell in the package because the Dickerson trade left them with just one tailback, White. They first asked for Ronnie Harmon, not Bell, and even when they accepted Bell, asked that the Bills pay half of Bell’s $400,000 salary in 1987. Buffalo agreed.
You know the rest of the story. Bell stepped in after White’s suspension earlier this year and went wild. Though a shoulder injury has slowed him in recent weeks, he is still the NFC’s third-leading rusher, with 694 yards, and leads the NFL in touchdowns with 11.
Oddly, Bell credits Robert Kerlan, the Rams’ team physician, for his comeback. It was Kerlan, Bell said, who diagnosed the pelvic injury that others could not find in Buffalo. It was Kerlan who restored Bell’s faith in himself and his abilities.
As for Buffalo, well, Bell has his memories.
“I have no ill feelings for the guys,” he said. “But do I ever want to see (owner) Ralph Wilson get in the championship? No. I hope he holds the team for 100 years and doesn’t get a ring on his finger.”
Bell could add that the Bills, despite their 7-1 record, rank just 19th in rushing.
“The only way I’d ever say (trading him) was the worst decision they ever made is if I walked back to Buffalo with a big, fat Super Bowl ring on my finger,” he said. “Then I could do that.”
What about the draft picks? With the Colts’ first pick this year, the Rams chose Aaron Cox, a wide receiver from Arizona State who moved right in as a starter. Cox has just 15 catches this season, but 4 have gone for touchdowns and he’s averaging 25 yards a catch.
With Buffalo’s first-round choice, the Rams selected Gaston Green, the tailback from UCLA. Green hasn’t made much of an impact yet--29 rushes, 97 yards--but figures to be the tailback of the future.
With the Colts’ second-round choice, the Rams took Purdue linebacker Fred Strickland, who is playing more and better each week.
Bell’s career, which returned from nowhere, seems to have made the trade worthwhile already.
“I want to say yes,” Bell said. “But the only way you can say we’re the big winner is if we can take the team into the playoffs. If we win it all, then we’d have accomplished all the (next) draft could accomplish.”
The Bills gave up a lot for one player, Bennett, but have a 7-1 record and a great defense to show for it. Bennett moved into an already tough defense that includes end Bruce Smith and linebacker Shane Conlan.
Bell, though, still has his doubts.
“I still don’t feel they can win the big one,” he said. “They’ve got a great defense. But if Jim (quarterback Kelly) is not on, that’s it. And they know it. They’re going to have to change over the next few years.”
The Colts are 3-5, and it’s easy to say they mortgaged the future for the present. And this present came wrapped in bow tie and goggles. Dickerson is again leading the league in rushing, and represents about 50% of his team’s offense.
But what’s left in the cupboard? The Colts recently traded two more No. 1 picks to Seattle for linebacker Fredd Young. Dickerson’s yearly salary of $1.4 million has also resulted in other Colts fighting for their share.
“They may have given up too much to continue to build with,” Bell said. "(Robert) Irsay’s son, I don’t know how much knowledge of this game he’s got other than from his father. But I think he’s given up a great deal. I don’t see anything coming to help the team grow.”
Bell said the only way to tell which team made out best in the trade is through direct competition.
“I wish we played Buffalo every year,” Bell said. “Next year, Indianapolis, Buffalo and L.A. should all play each other, just to see how we all made out. I think we could beat both clubs.”