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Wednesday, February 26, 2014
What if: Vikings didn't make Walker trade?

By Ben Goessling

MINNEAPOLIS -- Welcome to the start of our "What If?" Wednesday offseason feature, where we'll take a weekly trip down the rabbit hole of Minnesota Vikings history and imagine how things might have been different if a pivotal moment in Vikings history had gone another way.

Now, with this team, the possibilities are vast and rich for this type of series, and I know there are plenty of you who will make a habit of averting your eyes on Wednesday solely for reasons of self-preservation. Not to fear -- we've heard your cries, and we promise this feature won't just be a weekly re-hashing of Drew Pearson catching a Hail Mary, Gary Anderson yanking a field goal wide left or Brett Favre throwing across his body. We know you've been through enough, and while we'll get to those moments in time, we'll also mix in some more positive moments.

Hershel Walker
Vikings coach Jerry Burns welcomes running back Herschel Walker to Minnesota in October 1989.
But in the interest of starting off with a bang, this first one won't be quite so positive. Hopefully enough time has gone by that we can all laugh about it now. I'm referring, of course, to the infamous Herschel Walker trade:

The date: Oct. 12, 1989

The event: Vikings general manager Mike Lynn strikes a deal to send five players and eight draft picks to the Dallas Cowboys in exchange for Walker and four future draft picks.

The aftermath: Walker lasts just 2 1/2 seasons in Minnesota, never breaking the 200-carry mark in a season, and spends three seasons in Philadelphia and another one with the Giants before ending his career back in Dallas. By the time Walker returns to Dallas, of course, the Cowboys have built a dynasty, largely with the help of the Walker trade. The Cowboys used many of the picks to make trades in subsequent drafts, but the end result of the trade left the Cowboys with five players and four starters on their Super Bowl teams. Two of those starters were five-time Pro Bowl safety Darren Woodson and running back Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

Now, let's say the trade didn't happen. Maybe Lynn balks at the price for Walker, or maybe he doesn't make up his mind before Jimmy Johnson's self-imposed deadline. How different would things have been?

Obviously, the effect for the Cowboys would have been profound. Without all those extra picks, they might not have acquired the pieces to build a roster that won three Super Bowls in four years from 1992-95. They wouldn't have had a first-round pick in 1990 -- in a striking example of how different things were back then, they'd already spent what would've been the No. 1 overall pick on quarterback Steve Walsh in the supplemental draft -- so they might never have ended up with Smith. If that doesn't happen, all the other effects of the deal are effectively rendered moot. Put simply, without Smith, there is no Cowboys dynasty.

But how would things have played out for the Vikings? Let's say they kept the 21st overall pick in the 1990 draft. That's where things get really interesting. You'll recall Smith went 17th overall in 1990 after the Cowboys traded up to get him, but if the Cowboys don't have the 21st pick to ship to the Pittsburgh Steelers, maybe Smith doesn't go at No. 17. Well, sitting there with the 18th and 19th overall picks were the Green Bay Packers.

Green Bay took University of Minnesota running back Darrell Thompson 19th overall, and it's entirely possible the Packers would've taken Thompson over Smith anyway. But if the Vikings had never made the Walker trade, it's possible Smith would have wound up in Green Bay, not Dallas. It's also possible the Packers would've taken Thompson, the Atlanta Falcons would've taken running back Steve Broussard at No. 20 and Smith would have been sitting there for the Vikings at No. 21.

There are plenty of other effects that came from the Walker deal, but on the basis of Smith's involvement alone, it's not a stretch to say the trade changed the entire complexion of the NFC in the 1990s. The Cowboys won three Super Bowls, and while the Packers played in two and won one anyway, they lost three consecutive playoff games in Dallas before they got there. The San Francisco 49ers might have had a chance to collect even more hardware if not for the trade, while the Vikings wouldn't have been hamstrung in the draft for the first part of the decade. Considering the Vikings made seven trips to the NFC playoffs in the 1990s anyway, it's tempting to think how much better they could have been if they'd had the picks from the Walker trade -- like if they'd managed to draft Smith, pair him with Cris Carter and still wind up with Randy Moss in 1998.

We'll leave you there for the week, with promises of happier memories to come. If you've got suggestions for our future What-If Wednesdays, send them to me on Twitter at @GoesslingESPN.