In 1999, New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka wanted Ricky Williams and went to extreme lengths to get him in the NFL Draft. Revesting the Saints quest to draft Texas running back Ricky Williams 25 years ago.

These days, it’s generally a widely accepted notion that running backs shouldn’t be drafted too early. It’s notable any time a running back is selected in the first round, let alone the early part of the first round.

But that wasn’t always the case. In 1999, two running backs were selected in the first five picks. One of them cost the team that drafted him their entire draft, literally.

And 25 years after the fact, we look back at how the New Orleans Saints drafted Texas running back Ricky Williams. And amazingly, the haul that the Saints gave up to get Williams could have been even greater.

The buildup

Williams was the star of the 1998 college football season. The Texas running back set the career rushing record and won the Heisman Trophy. 

While that was happening, Mike Ditka’s return to the NFL coaching ranks wasn’t going particularly well. Ditka was head coach of the Chicago Bears from 1982-1992, a successful tenure that included the franchise’s lone Super Bowl win in 1985. In 1997, he re-entered the NFL, taking over as head coach of the New Orleans Saints. He couldn’t replicate the success he had in Chicago, though, going 6-10 in both 1997 and 1998. If Ditka was going to coach the Saints in 2000, 1999 had to go well. 

Ditka made it clear that Williams was the man he wanted, heaping immense praise on him with comparisons to Walter Payton. The problem? The Saints had the No. 12 pick. There was no way that Williams would last that long. If Ditka was going to bring Williams to New Orleans, he’d need to get aggressive — and lucky. 

There wasn’t much doubt that the Cleveland Browns would select Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch No. 1. There was some chatter that they might be interested in one of the other quarterbacks. But hours before the draft, the Browns and Couch agreed on a contract. 

Next on the clock were the Philadelphia Eagles. The general consensus heading into the draft was that the first three picks, held by the Browns, Eagles, and Cincinnati Bengals, would all be quarterbacks. Still, a vocal group of Eagles fans were on-hand, believing that Philadelphia would select Williams. That group was unpleasantly surprised when the Eagles selected Donovan McNabb and booed the Syracuse quarterback. 

That’s when Ditka made his move. Or, when he tried to make his move.

Bengals bungle

When Ditka talked about wanting Williams, he said in no uncertain terms he would trade his entire draft to get him. That wasn’t hyperbole. And to the extent that it was hyperbole, it’s because Ditka was actually willing to offer more than his entire draft.

Due to a previous trade, New Orleans was already without its second round pick in 1999. The Saints, however, offered all six of their remaining 1999 draft picks to the Bengals, first-round picks in both 2000 and 2001 and a second-round pick in 2002. They were that serious about getting Ricky Williams. Ditka’s previous declaration — that he would trade his entire draft for Williams — gave New Orleans no leverage.

But the Bengals had their man. They saw Oregon quarterback Akili Smith as the franchise quarterback that would help lead them out of the long struggle they experienced in the 1990s. With that, they declined the trade.

Smith didn’t pan out. He started only 17 games in his career and was out of the NFL after the 2002 season. In related news, the Bengals didn’t return to the playoffs until 2005 and didn’t win a playoff game until 2021.

Colts draft a running back at No. 4

While it didn’t work out this way, 1999 was seen as the best quarterback draft since the famed 1983 NFL Draft, when Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino were all selected in the first round. The Indianapolis Colts, however, drafted their franchise quarterback, Peyton Manning, a year earlier. They also traded future Hall of Fame running back, Marshall Faulk, to the then-St. Louis Rams ahead of the draft. So, getting a running back was a priority.

Indianapolis did draft a running back — just not Williams. With the No. 4 pick, the Colts selected Miami running back Edgerrin James.

At the time, this was seen as a questionable pick. James was a fantastic running back with the Hurricanes, rushing for 1,416 yards with 17 touchdowns in 1998. But Williams dwarfed those totals, rushing for 2,327 yards with a staggering 29 touchdowns. He also caught 29 passes for 307 yards, while James caught 17 passes for 255 yards.

James was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1999 and was a First-team All-Pro running back that season.

He holds the franchise record for rushing yards (9,226), rushing touchdowns 64), and 1,000-yard rushing seasons (5), and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020.

So, while the move was questioned at the time, it worked out well for the Colts.

Ditka gets his man

Next on the clock were the then-Washington Redskins. They had their sights on Georgia cornerback Champ Bailey. But ultimately, the Saints gave them an offer that was too good to refuse.

The trade was similar to the one that Cincinnati declined. New Orleans sent all six of its picks in the 1999 draft plus a first and third-rounder in 2000 for the No. 5 pick.

There was no mystery about who the Saints would take. They drafted Williams with hopes that he’d be the man to turn things around.

Rest of Draft

The next man off the board was North Carolina State receiver Torrey Holt, who went to the Rams. Holt, along with the aforementioned Faulk, helped the Rams win the Super Bowl in 1999, led by the famed Greatest Show on Turf offense.

Washington got Bailey, using part of the haul acquired in the Williams trade to move back into the top-10 and selected Bailey at No. 7.

In terms of quarterbacks, this draft was nothing close to what 1983 was. Notably, Couch, Smith and Cade McNown were all first-round picks who struggled in the NFL. That said, plenty of taken in this draft. In the first round alone, 13 future Pro Bowlers were selected. Two of them — James and Bailey — are in the Hall of Fame.

Williams in New Orleans

Famously, Williams and Ditka posed as a bride and groom on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, with Williams even dawning a wedding dress.

This marriage, like all too many others, didn’t pan out well.

While the Saints didn’t get a full return on their investment with Williams, it would be wrong to say that he was a complete bust for them. But as far as Ditka was concerned, it was a bust.

Williams played in only 12 games in 1999. He rushed for 884 yards and two touchdowns. The Saints struggled through an awful season, going 3-13. Ditka, his entire coaching staff, and general manager Bill Kuharich were all fired shortly after the season ended.

Things got better for Williams after that. He played in only 10 games in 2000 but got to 1,000 yards and added eight rushing touchdowns. The Saints also not only advanced to the playoffs but won a playoff game, defeating the Rams. It was the first postseason win in franchise history.

Williams had a much better season in 2001. He played all 16 games and rushed f0r 1,245 yards with six touchdowns. He also set still-standing career highs with 60 receptions and 511 receiving yards. But the team success didn’t follow. New Orleans went 7-9 and missed the playoffs. Given how much the Saints gave up to get Williams, it’s no surprise that the cupboard was bare. In an attempt to recoup some of those losses, the Saints traded Williams to the Miami Dolphins after the 2001 season.

That 2000 playoff appearance was easily the best team success New Orleans enjoyed at this time. The Saints wouldn’t return to the playoffs until 2006.

In a sport like basketball, giving up that much for one player might be justifiable. Each team has only five players on the court and players don’t platoon, playing offense and defense. But in football, one player can only make so much of an impact. Even in Miami, when Williams rushed for 1,853 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2002, the Dolphins only managed a 9-7 season and missed the playoffs.

But Williams’ career in Miami is another story for another day. Everything the Saints gave up to get Williams is a reminder that trading so much for one player is a heavy risk. In this case, it was a risk that did not work. It’s viewed as one of the worst trades in NFL history. And as bad as it is to make that trade, imagine what it’s like being the team that rejected an even bigger return.

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