Every year at draft time, the same broken record always plays the wrong tune. People crack jokes, mock Mike Ditka, and laugh about what a disgrace it was when the Saints traded away their entire draft (and two other picks) for the chance to draft the NCAA's all time leading rusher (at the time). These 'experts" always fall flat with me. They are playing an evil game of revisionist history ignoring the desperate state the franchise was clouded in. After the jump, I will try to convince you that the Ricky Williams trade was one of the most important moments in Saints history and why it was far from error.
As I said before the jump. I loved the trade at the time (like many people did) and still defend it to this day for a few reasons... Let me see if I can convince you...
1.) The 1999 season would prove to be the 10th straight season that the Saints failed to produce a 1,000 yard rusher. In 1989, Dalton Hillard recorded his last 1,000 yard season, and the last for a Saints running back until Ricky Williams did it in 2000. In a league where pundits claim that you find a 1,000 yard back working at Arby's, the Saints searched for a decade before they found one. Don't forget, for seven of those rush-less seasons Willie Roaf was playing the best left tackle the league had seen since Anthony Munoz retired. The cliché in the league was that you had to run the ball to win championships. We neeeeeeeeded a back.
2.) Since 1967, the team had screwed up most of their drafts. We had yet to win a playoff game and winning one in the foreseeable future seemed doubtful. Look, we needed a major shake up. The Saints needed to send a message to the league, to free agents, to fans. Sure, some might have thought it was nuts, but the message was sent, we have drafted the next Earl Campbell. Can you stop him?
Sure that first season was a bust, but consider these things,
1.) The ankle injury that Williams suffered in the pre-season against the Dolphins, is second to only an ACL tear for a running back. High ankle sprain means you can’t run. High ankle sprains linger on longer than Meet Joe Black. That injury killed us more than not having a couple of other "drafted" rookies on the field.
2.) The Saints played well during that long 3-13 1999 season, and a case could be made that instead of 1-6 they could have been 6-1. We beat Carolina opening day, lost 28-21 to the 49ers in week 2, 14-10 to Chicago in week 3 (we lead 10-0 at the 2:00 warning), 20-17 to Atlanta, 24-21 to the Titans (the AFC rep in the Super Bowl), got blown out by the Giants, and lost to the Browns 21-16 on a Hail-freaking- Mary, by Tim-freaking-Couch. At 1-6, the team lost their poise, pressure built up on a coach that took a risk that seemed to have failed, and they fell apart and ended 3-13. The 1999 Saints were way better than the 3-13 record indicated.
3.) Bill Joe Hobart was a good QB. Bill Joe Tolliver was BRUTAL. Hobart just could not stay on the field. QB incompetence KILLLED the 1999 Saints.
4.) The biggest mistake Ditka made was giving up a 1 and 3 the following year. He screamed way too loud and Cassidy took advantage of him and it cost us a 2nd overall pick. I am guessing if we had that pick we would have taken LaVar Arrington the top LB in the draft. The weakest part of the 2000 team was DB (ultimately killing us in the Vikings game) but the top drafted DB in the 2000 draft was Deltha O’Neal at 15. So you could argue that the player picked at 2 would not have had a huge impact on the 2000 team. Lets assume for a second that the Saints still select Darren Howard with the second pick in round two. The Redskins used our third round pick to select Lloyd Henderson, a DB. If we had picked LB in round 1, and DE in round two, DB would have made the most sense in round three. If the immortal, Lloyd Henderson would have been our guy, we wouldn't have missed out on much. My point here is that even the biggest error in the trade, in retrospect, didn't cost us much at all. It actually saved the Saints the several million dollars, and years of aggravation, that LaVar Arrington would have cost us.
A lot of the arguments I made above were confirmed by the 2000 Saints. Williams broke the 1,000 yard drought (and unfortunately his ankle), the team got improved QB play from Jeff Blake and then Aaron Brooks, and won 10 games. To back up a step, in the off-season before the 2000 season the Saints signed their best free agent class up to that point. Blake, Horn, and Hand were all key pick ups for the 2000 team. Would they have signed with the Saints if not for the Williams’s trade? Maybe, but the trade changed the team more than any other single move in team history. A few things happened that killed the 99 season, but not a lack of rookies. 2000 was one of the best seasons the Saints have EVER had. Ditka took the fall for the way 1999 played out, but as a result Randy Mueller and Jim Haslett were hired. Despite the lack of second year players, the 2000 season netted the Saints the franchises first playoff win. Then, they turned Williams into Deuce McAllister and another first round pick (in a small way getting back that extra one that Ditka probably could have kept).
That extra first round pick, in a round about way was used to draft Johnathan Lamar Sullivan. I once recall browsing a message board to find a thread called, "How fat is Johnathan Sullivan?" That kind of sums up his career, and furthers my major point that the draft is as big of a crapshoot as anything in football. If you grade a player to be at the level of Earl Campbell, your team hasn't had a good running back in over a decade, and your team hasn't won a playoff game in 32 years, maybe he is worth a risk.
Did I convince you?