NFC North: Herschel Walker

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.

[+] EnlargeHershel Walker
AP Photo/Jim MoneVikings 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.
Examining the most crucial event in the history of every team in the division.

The most important moment in Green Bay Packers history was nearly scuttled by an unlikely source. Shortly after Vince Lombardi accepted the Packers' job as head coach/general manager in 1959, his wife was "distraught," according to historian David Maraniss.

Marie Lombardi approached New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, who owned Lombardi's contract as a Giants assistant coach. As Maraniss writes in "When Pride Still Mattered," Marie begged Mara to block her husband's move.

[+] EnlargeVince Lombardi
AP PhotoCoach Vince Lombardi (upper right) led the Packers to five championship wins in seven seasons.
Mara declined, knowing Vince was ready to be a head coach. Marie stood by her husband. And the rest, as they say, is Packers history.

Lombardi's arrival in Green Bay was your overwhelming choice as the Packers' Flash Point, and it received a higher percentage of votes (69 percent) than any individual event offered in last week's series of polls. Lombardi won his first NFL title in 1961 and collected four more before giving up the job in 1967, building an unmatched legend and painting the franchise in gold mystique for generations to come.

Some of you made impassioned arguments for Curly Lambeau's push to sell stock and make the franchise a non-profit organization in 1923, a short-term fundraising effort that embedded a structure still in operation today. "How can it not be Curly?" wrote mallow420. "If Curly doesn't save the Packers then there's no Packers to hire Lombardi."

Hadessniper allowed that "Lambeau making the Packers public is more important for the Packers, as without that there is simply no way Green Bay keeps a team." But, wrote hadessniper, "Lombardi is probably more important for the NFL as a whole. The NFL was gaining popularity, but Lombardi gave the game a legend. Without Lombardi the NFL wouldn't be what it is today."

Timarquardt was more direct: "Get back to me when someone else wins five championships in seven years. That's Lombardi's legacy and with all due credit to Curly, he did it when there was a bunch of good teams. Curly saved the franchise, obviously important, but without those Lombardi years the team never would have had the following through the dark years of the '70s and '80s to be successful."

What's fascinating to me is that Lambeau actually wanted Lombardi's job in 1959, a decade after an internal power struggle led to Lambeau's ouster. As Maraniss recounts, Lambeau flew to Green Bay during the interview process and launched a campaign to capture at least the general manager position that Lombardi ultimately filled. Dominic Olejniczak, president of the Packers board of directors, resisted the urge to hire him despite heavy public support.

The Flash Point mandate was less clear for the NFC North's other three teams. Let's sort through them in alphabetical order:

BEARS: A hero of 1985

About half of you voted for the arrival of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, the architect of the 46 defense that led the Bears to a championship in 1985.

Buddy Ryan
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesBuddy Ryan's 46 defense formed the identity of the 1985 Super Bowl-winning Bears team.
Lewie21982 was livid and wrote: "Who are these people voting?? Are you just idiot baby boomers, hippies, or the '80s mullet crowd??? I was born in the '80s and clearly know the decision of drafting Red Grange or instituting the T-Formation was the most significant thing the Bears have ever done. The Bears have nine championships and eight of them were before Buddy Ryan, Mike Ditka, or the 46 defense ever came around!!"

I hear ya, Lewie21982. Red Grange made the Bears an early heavy hitter in pro football, and George Halas' schematic innovations led to the golden age in franchise history -- four world titles in seven years between 1940-46. But I understand where the baby boomers, hippies and mulleteers were going.

The 1985 Bears were the best team in franchise history and one of the most dominant of the NFL's post-merger era. With all due respect to Ditka and running back Walter Payton, Ryan's 46 defense was the biggest reason. It's impossible for a single moment to spawn something so impactful, and I heard a suggestion for ex-general manager Jim Finks acquiring many of that team's stars. But without Buddy Ryan, the 46 defense doesn't exist and the 1985 Bears as they were known never come to be.

LIONS: Forgetting yesteryear

The Detroit Lions' Flash Point vote got more action than any team in the division, garnering more than 53,000 votes. On that, we can agree.

[+] EnlargeDetroit's Barry Sanders
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesBarry Sanders had a Hall of Fame career but couldn't get the Lions a championship.
But did the decision to draft running back Barry Sanders have more impact than any other event in franchise history? About 60 percent of you thought so, although the comments reflected a wider disparity.

I'm not on board, and neither was j_sleik83. We agree that quarterback Bobby Layne brought the Lions what Sanders never did. J_sleik83: "Bobby Layne in combination with the Hall of Fame defensive backfield the Lions had during the entirety of the '50s IS their defining era. Barry Sanders didn't lead them to the promised land, Layne did."

I mean no disrespect to Sanders, who forged a Hall of Fame career on some otherwise undermanned teams. But with Layne behind center, the Lions won NFL titles in 1952 and 1953. He contributed to a third in 1957, and upon his subsequent departure, Layne placed a (possibly apocryphal) 50-year curse on the franchise. (For that reason, DWargs thought trading Layne away is the defining moment in franchise history: "Haven't gotten close to a championship since.")

Several of you pointed to the ownership of the Ford family as the primary reason for that dubious run. Regardless, I understand that Lions history is defined more by failure than success. But on an otherwise desultory landscape, the Lions once had a brilliant run. Bobby Layne was the single biggest reason why.

VIKINGS: Varied opinions

I did either an excellent or terrible job of choosing options for the Minnesota Vikings' Flash Point: All four possibilities received between 19 and 32 percent of the vote. Assembling the "Purple People Eaters" had the highest percentage, but its total was hardly a mandate among the 38,000 or so votes cast.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota coach Bud Grant
AP Photo/Jack ThornellBud Grant won 152 games as coach over 18 seasons.
Scanning the comments, it was clear that you agreed on only one thing: A Vikings Flash Point needed to reflect a long history of dysfunction.

Even looking beyond the obvious, Ymacdaddy offered this litany: "Herschel Walker, Metrodome [collapse], Gary Anderson, Dimitrius Underwood, too many in huddle, big-game chokers, etc. How about Darrin Nelson before Marcus Allen?"

The 1989 Walker trade, in which the Vikings ultimately gave up five players and six draft choices, received multiple mentions. So did Gary Anderson's shocking field goal miss in the 1998 NFC Championship Game. BuckeyeVikes80 is "still reeling from that 12 years later."

Dbatten1 noted Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach's Hail Mary pass to Drew "Push" Pearson in the 1975 playoffs. TampaPacMan's moment was the final play of the 2003 season, when the Vikings lost the NFC North title and a playoff berth by giving up an improbable touchdown to Arizona Cardinals receiver Nathan Poole. It was "the signature moment in a franchise history littered with failures!" wrote TampaPacMan.

If it were up to me, Bud Grant's arrival would rank as the most significant moment in Vikings history. Many of us would agree that Grant has made the single-biggest impact in this franchise's 50 years. But what do I know? I just work here.

The Minnesota Vikings had a 41-year-old quarterback last season.

Would they like a 48-year-old running back in 2011?

That's the question posed Monday by once-and-perhaps-future Vikings running back Herschel Walker, who now competes as a mixed martial artist. On a promotional conference call this week, Walker said he has toyed with playing up to the age of 50, and that the Vikings or his hometown Atlanta Falcons would be his preferred landing spot.

Walker via Franklin McNeil of ESPN.com: "I'm a much better-conditioned athlete now than when I was playing football. I'm 48 and in better shape now than I was when I was in my early 20s, playing football."

If anyone could pull a George Foreman-like comeback in the NFL, it would be Walker. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say the Vikings aren't likely to be interested in that sideshow after a year as tumultuous as the one they just endured.

Plus, I hear Jimmy Johnson wants one final cut of that action.

Top 5 Metrodome (football) moments

October, 2, 2009
10/02/09
12:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert


To coincide with an ESPN.com project on the Minnesota Twins’ departure from the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, here are my top five football moments from the 27-year-old building:

Date: Sept. 26, 1993
We’ll call it: McMahon to Who?
What happened: With six seconds remaining, anonymous receiver Eric Guliford gets wide open against Green Bay and hauls in a 45-yard pass from Vikings quarterback Jim McMahon. The play sets up Fuad Reveiz for a 22-yard game-winning field goal. It’s Guliford’s only catch of the season.

K.C. Alfred/Union-Tribune/Getty Images
Adrian Peterson broke the single-game rushing record in his rookie season.
Date: Jan. 17, 1999
We’ll call it: Dancing the Dirty Bird
What happened: The best team in Vikings regular-season history gets upset in its march to the Super Bowl. The heavily favored Vikings lose to Atlanta on Morten Anderson’s field goal in overtime.

Date: Nov. 4, 2007
We’ll call it:
All Day’s Day
What happened:
Rookie tailback Adrian Peterson, nicknamed “AD” for “All Day,” sets an NFL record by rushing for 296 yards in a victory over San Diego. The record still stands.

Dates: Jan. 3, 1983. Nov. 30, 2008. Nov. 4, 2007.
We’ll call it: The Long and Long of It
What happened: On those respective dates, the Metrodome serves as the site of the longest run in NFL history, the longest pass (tie) in NFL history and the longest overall play in NFL history. Dallas tailback Tony Dorsett ran 99 yards in 1983, Vikings receiver Bernard Berrian caught a 99-yard pass from quarterback Gus Frerotte in 2008, and Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie caught a missed field goal and returned in 109 yards for a touchdown in 2007.

Date: Oct. 15, 1989
We’ll call it:
Herschel Outruns His Shoe
What happened:
On his first play from scrimmage following a franchise-altering trade, tailback Herschel Walker darts 47 yards -- the last 15 without a shoe. It is the longest run for the Vikings in two years, and unfortunately for them, one of the few highlights Walker produced in his Minnesota tenure.

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