New Orleans Saints head coach Mike Ditka came to the 1999 NFL Owners Meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz. declaring he would trade all of his draft picks for the opportunity to select Heisman Trophy winner Texas running back Ricky Williams. By the way, something he says he would still do.
A proclamation of this nature didn’t give the Saints much leverage in conducting trade talks with other teams, but a deal was finally consummated that rocked the NFL Draft. The Saints traded away eight draft picks, including two first-round selections, to the Washington Redskins for the fifth-overall pick. I’m glad we had plenty of draft picks this year to restock the team.
It was the biggest trade to acquire one player since the Dallas Cowboys traded running back Herschel Walker and four draft choices to the Minnesota Vikings for five players and eight draft picks in 1989. The package included three first-round choices, three second-round picks and one third-round selection, all of which solidified the roster for the Cowboys dominance in the 90s.
Ditka was getting frustrated with the entire rebuilding process, as the Saints suffered through back-to-back disappointing 6-10 seasons. Which is not much better than we see this year going after last year’s 7-9 campaign. He envisioned Williams becoming the centerpiece for his rushing attack, and felt a trade of this nature would be the final piece in the puzzle to getting the Saints back to respectability.
What was not to like about Williams, as he was the NCAA career rushing leader and the first Heisman Trophy winner to call Austin home since Earl Campbell in 1977. However, NFL franchises questioned his passion to play professional football and ranked Edgerrin James ahead of him as the top collegiate running back heading into the draft.
Ditka’s natural tendency was to give the proverbial “finger” if another front office questioned his evaluation of a player. He felt so confident about this trade that Ditka showed up to a team’s function in a dreadlock wig, which was identical to Williams’ hairstyle at the time.
It’s hard to judge Williams as a certifiable draft bust, but it’s correct to state that he didn’t exceed expectations during his time in New Orleans. It’s not like he’s one of the best ever. Some in the local media thought Williams had a quirky personality, as he often conducted interviews with his helmet and visor on. It later came out that Williams battled a social anxiety disorder all throughout his professional career.
He was far more famous for his pot-smoking exploits than his actions on the football field, but Williams did rush for over 3,000 yards in his three seasons with the Saints. Despite all of the impressive offensive numbers, many fans felt Williams was a sheer disappointment for the amount of picks given up to acquire him. You cannot disagree with this argument, as injuries to his ankles and elbow limited Williams time on the field. He rushed for only 884 yards and scored four touchdowns in his rookie campaign.
Ultimately, the failure of the Williams trade defined Ditka’s tenure in New Orleans. Saints team owner Tom Benson couldn’t continue going down this path with the franchise and relieved him of his duties following 3-13 season. The immediate turnaround shown by the Saints was largely due to Benson finally handing the reins of running the franchise over to a football personnel guy, as Randy Mueller did an excellent job of rebuilding the roster through the draft and key free agent acquisitions.
You can’t argue with success, the Saints were 42-38 under Mueller, while the team was 15-33 in the three seasons under the helm of Mike Ditka. The highlight of Mueller’s brief tenure as Saints GM was the team’s first-ever playoff win over the St. Louis Rams 31-28 in 2000. His final act was trading Williams to the Miami Dolphins for two first-round draft picks following the conclusion of the 2001 season.