The Dallas Cowboys’ trade of Herschel Walker is one of the most famous moves in NFL history. It spawned a dynasty and threw one team off the rails. But the winner and loser of the trade were not at all what people expected. This is why the transaction still resonates over 20 years later.
For a time, Herschel Walker looked unstoppable
Football fans and analysts all agreed that Walker’s trade was incredibly lopsided and one franchise got fleeced in the deal. This statement is both right and wrong. One team did get the better of the other. It just wasn’t the team everyone assumed.
Walker seemed formed for greatness. The three-time Heisman trophy candidate dominated as soon as he entered the pros. He joined the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League and twice led the league in rushing in a three-year span. The USFL, like every football league that tries to rival the NFL, did not last long.
Suspecting that the organization would go away soon, the Dallas Cowboys selected Walker in the fifth round of the 1985 NFL draft. Walker was Dallas’s primary running back for only one season. But the season was so spectacular — he became the 10th player in NFL history to have more than 2,000 combined rushing and receiving yards in a season — that he convinced everyone he was a can’t-miss superstar.
As great as Walker was, the Cowboys didn’t have enough talent to succeed with him on the team. They had a 17-30 record in his three full seasons. Dallas needed to do something drastic to improve. And Walker was the franchise’s prize asset.
So the team traded him to the Minnesota Vikings for five players and six draft picks. Everyone expected Walker to put the Vikings over the top in the playoffs. Dallas seemed to give away an elite running back for pennies on the dollar. The exact opposite was true, however.
The results of the trade shocked everyone
Walker stole the show in his debut for Minnesota against the Green Bay Packers. He had the best rushing game by a Viking running back since 1983, gaining 148 yards from only 18 carries.
But this ended up being the peak of Walker’s stint there. What the Vikings brass didn’t realize is that trading five players for one star can do a number on the chemistry of a locker room that grew together in previous seasons. Minnesota also made a strategic error that, in hindsight, was pretty obvious.
As NFL.com explains, Walker spent much of his career power running schemes that prioritized the I-formation. Minnesota used a system featuring split backs and no fullback. Rather than change the system to showcase the guy they traded so much to acquire, they stuck to their guns and then blamed Walker when it didn’t work out. After two and a half years, he left the team. The Vikings only made playoffs once during that time.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys took what onlookers assumed were lemons and turned them into dynasty-defining lemonade. Dallas used the picks to draft some of the best players in franchise history: Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, and star defensive tackle Russell Maryland.
All three players played a major role as Dallas won three championships in four years. It would be unfair to say trading Walker is the sole reason for the Cowboys’ era of dominance. But it certainly happened quicker because of what they did with the draft picks they received in exchange for Walker.
How this trade still affects the Cowboys and Vikings today
Over two decades later, the after-effects of the trade are still visible on both franchises. Minnesota put together a few very good teams since then, but they still haven’t made it to a Super Bowl, let alone won it, since 1976.
For Dallas, the trade’s upside is obvious, but all that winning is also a factor in Jerry Jones‘ gigantic ego. The team owner eventually fell out with Jimmie Johnson over who deserved more credit for the Cowboys’ success.
Dallas has largely underachieved since then, in part because Jones won’t allow anyone else to be the main decision-maker. His memories of the Walker trade, combined with his obscene wealth, convinced him that he should have all the power all the time. There are few trades that still deserve recognition years after they were made. This is definitely one of them.