By nature, such assessments are purely subjective, governed by the many variables considered, both individually and as a sum, by the vested parties. But with the Denver Broncos trading quarterback Jay Cutler to Chicago on Thursday, such a deal could be considered among the most significant in NFL history.
Certainly, the trade of Cutler would be among the most notable in the past 20 years.
"I think to call it a once-in-a-lifetime deal is probably [overstatement]," said a personnel man from one of the several franchises that bid for Cutler's services but lost him to the Bears. "But once in a generation? Yeah, probably so. It's tough enough to find a [good] backup quarterback out there. So you can see how rare it is that a guy like Cutler, somebody with his credentials, would be on the market."
That's for sure.
In the period 1989-2008, there were 79 trades involving veteran quarterbacks, a surprising average of nearly four per season, according to the NFL Record and Fact book for each year The deals ranged from "A" (A.J. Feeley, twice) to "Z" (Eric Zeier, also twice). In fact, 17 veteran quarterbacks were traded twice each in that span. The 1995 campaign was the only season that did not include a trade involving a veteran quarterback. The incomparable Joe Montana, a Hall of Fame player, was dealt during that time. So was Brett Favre, a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Fame selection in the future.
But with the combination of age, accomplishment and potential, a quarterback of Cutler's ilk hasn't been available in the past 20 years.
Or maybe ever.
It makes no sense at this point to assign blame for the current ugly situation surrounding the Broncos. With the trade completed, it's up to the pundits to weigh in on whether coach Josh McDaniels or Cutler was more responsible. There is plenty of culpability to be shared by those men and others.
But consider the Cutler résumé: The three-year veteran won't turn 26 until later this month. In his two full seasons as a starter, Cutler has thrown for more than 3,500 yards twice, including 4,500-plus yards last year. Cutler has 45 touchdown passes, including 25 in 2008, in the past two years. And there is no debate -- even among his staunchest critics -- about Cutler's impressive arm strength. His best football is yet to come.
It is rare indeed for a quarterback of Cutler's pedigree to become available in the NFL, especially at his age.
Montana was traded from San Francisco to Kansas City after winning four Super Bowl titles with the 49ers, but he was 36 at the time and nearing the end of his career. Trent Green, who was traded twice this millennium, was 30-plus for each deal. Steve McNair, who went from Tennessee to Baltimore in 2006, was 33 at the time and, although he was a former co-MVP, he had a long list of injuries. Drew Bledsoe was 30 years old when New England shipped him to Buffalo.
In each of those cases, the quarterback was still serviceable but was on the downside of his football career.
Then there were those veteran quarterbacks involved in trades who were at the other end of the spectrum. Favre, for instance, was only 23 when he went from Atlanta to Green Bay in 1992. But at the time of the trade, Favre had zero NFL starts, and had thrown only five passes in the league. Matt Hasselbeck (Green Bay to Seattle in 2001) was only 26 when traded, and Aaron Brooks (Green Bay to New Orleans in 2000) was just 24. But neither Hasselbeck nor Brooks had yet logged his first NFL start, and the two had appeared in just 13 games combined. Matt Schaub (Atlanta to Houston in 2007) was just 26 when the trade was completed but had started only three regular-season games for the Falcons, with one win.
There are 16 "modern day" quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, and nine of them were traded at least once in their respective careers. In most cases, the trades occurred when the quarterbacks were in their football dotage, though.
Montana was 36. The great Johnny Unitas was only a shadow of himself, and about as mobile as a statue, when traded to San Diego in 1973, and he lost his starting job to a rookie named Dan Fouts that year. Joe Namath had only one mediocre season left in him when traded from the Jets to the Rams in 1977. Only Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota to the New York Giants in 1967) and Steve Young (Tampa Bay to San Francisco in 1987) were in their 20-something years, both traded while still in their primes.
From the standpoints of youth, accomplishments in the league and physical potential, perhaps Jeff George (Indianapolis to Atlanta in 1993) is the only quarterback traded at all recently who is comparable to Cutler overall. George was 25 at the time of the trade, had been the Colts' starter for three seasons and, at least physically, was regarded by many scouts as a sky-is-the-limit prospect. And we all know how that turned out.
Despite his obvious problems with temperament, and his distaste for rookie coach McDaniels, Cutler is a tremendous talent. If reports are to be believed, suitors were lined up to get him, and that's hardly surprising. Kudos to Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo for closing the deal.
"Really, you have to pinch yourself because players like that, and particularly at that position, simply aren't on the market," the NFL personnel man said just hours before the trade was completed. "It just doesn't happen in this league."
Cutler's detractors emphasize that he is sub-.500 in the only statistic that really matters for a quarterback, wins and losses. In 37 starts, the former Vanderbilt star is 17-20. There are, however, some mitigating circumstances worth noting. For instance, Cutler is 8-1 in games when the Denver defense held opponents to 20 or fewer points. In Cutler's 20 losses, the porous Broncos allowed an average of 32.5 points per game. That's a tough mountain for any quarterback to have to climb.
When it comes to pure numbers, the 1989 trade in which Minnesota acquired tailback Herschel Walker from Dallas, is recognized as the biggest in NFL history. A total of 18 "bodies" (players and draft choices) changed teams between the Cowboys and Vikings in that megadeal. There are five other trades in league history that involved 10 or more bodies. Notably, only one of those deals included a veteran quarterback, and he was a backup.
So in terms of impact and significance, if not raw numbers, the Cutler trade almost certainly ranks among the most notable in NFL history.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.