DALLAS – What would have happened if Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian had taken the better deal for Marshall Faulk?
"I don't want to think about that," former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) said Thursday, his eyes shutting and his body quaking ever so slightly as a bolt of fear went through his body. "I won't think about that."
The 1999 trade of Faulk from Indianapolis to St. Louis ranks among the most significant deals in recent NFL history, a move that pushed the Rams from afterthought to Super Bowl champion and perhaps the greatest offense in the history of the game. The Rams became known as "The Greatest Show on Turf."
It was a deal that allowed Faulk to become the centerpiece of that attack and perhaps the greatest all-purpose runner in NFL history – a deal that, all these years later, will likely allow him to waltz into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday when he is among 17 to be considered.
"Things happen for a reason," Faulk said this week. "I told the Colts I wanted a new contract or I wasn't coming in. Whatever team I played for, I wanted a new contract. That's the way it was going to be. How it worked out was great for me; it was great for our team.
"The best part of it is that I never felt like it was all about me. I think our first four or five games, we were 4-0 and I hadn't done anything."
While that's not exactly true (Faulk had 105 yards rushing in the second game of the season, but only 83 yards in the other three combined), the point is that while Faulk was important, he had plenty of help from the likes of Warner and receivers Torry Holt(notes) and Isaac Bruce(notes).
Again, that was because Polian turned down a first-round pick and instead accepted second- and fifth-round picks from the Rams.
"Yep, we offered the Colts a first-round pick," former Miami Dolphins coach and current Fox commentator Jimmy Johnson said Wednesday, referring to the No. 24 overall pick the division-rival Dolphins held that year.
Other teams – such as the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots – were interested. The problem was that all of them were competing with the Colts in the American Football Conference. Polian took the old "Don't trade within the division" principle, which applied to the Dolphins since the Colts resided in the AFC East in 1999, and applied it to the entire conference.
In the days leading up to the 1999 NFL draft, Miami was on a mission to get a running back. The Dolphins were trying anything possible to move up from No. 24 overall to land University of Miami running back Edgerrin James(notes), who ended up going No. 4 to the Colts.
The Colts, of course, were at the center of the running-back market that year. Not only did they take James (over Ricky Williams(notes), whom most people expected them to draft), but they had Faulk and fully intended to trade him before the draft.
Faulk, already five years into his career, was just what Johnson wanted for the Dolphins. He hoped to pair him with veteran quarterback Dan Marino for one big run at the Super Bowl.
But Polian took the offer from the Rams. In fact, Polian wanted Faulk out of the division and conference so badly that he allowed the Rams to talk him down from his original demand of second- and fourth-round picks, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The interesting question is what might have happened if Polian had simply traded Faulk to the highest bidder, taking the first-rounder from the Dolphins?
Consider the following:
• Would the Rams have won Super Bowl XXXIV following the '99 regular season?
"We would have been competitive with the other players we had, there's no question about that," said Warner, who became the NFL most valuable player with Faulk, Holt and Bruce by his side on offense. But Warner's rise to prominence in the NFL might never have been the same. The quarterback ended up playing in three Super Bowls and is arguably a Hall of Famer himself following a spectacular career.
"But Marshall was such a difference maker because I truly believe he's the greatest all-around running back in the league," Warner said. "Whether it was having him run downhill between the tackles, having him block against the blitz, run a route against the blitz or even split him out as a receiver, Marshall was the ultimate weapon out of the backfield. He wasn't just a speed guy; he was able to play all over the field."
Faulk – who is the only player in NFL history with 12,000 yards rushing and 6,000 yards receiving and the only one with 100 rushing and 30 receiving touchdowns – finished with 1,381 yards rushing and 1,048 yards receiving that season. He also scored 12 touchdowns. Without him, it's extremely questionable whether the Rams go 13-3 and, more importantly, host the NFC championship game.
• Would Jon Gruden have gone to Tampa Bay and Tony Dungy to Indianapolis?
One of the first daggers which former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy took during his run in Tampa was losing the conference title game to the Rams in the 1999 season. That loss led to the firing of offensive coordinator Mike Shula and the degeneration of the Bucs offense, which ultimately led to the firing of Dungy after the 2001 season. Dungy then went to Indianapolis and the Bucs acquired Gruden in a trade with the Oakland Raiders.
• Would Johnson and Marino have ended up in the ugly divorce that led to them both retiring?
It is well known and well documented that Johnson and Marino went through a brutal relationship in the 1999 season. It's the kind of problem that another great player such as Faulk could have solved.
When the Dolphins didn't get Faulk and couldn't move up to get James, they instead traded down, drafting backs such as J.J. Johnson, Rob Konrad and Cecil Collins. Collins became a huge distraction, getting arrested before the end of the season, while Johnson and Konrad had middling careers. Even put together, they don't belong in the same sentence with Faulk, who would have been a perfect complement to Marino as a pass-catching running back.
"I think it would have definitely worked for us if we had gotten him," said the ever-confident Johnson.
Certainly, it couldn't have been any worse than the situation turned out, as the Dolphins went 9-7, won one playoff game and then were demolished 62-7 in the second round in Jacksonville.
• Would Ricky Williams have ever become a Dolphin?
In 2002, the Dolphins, now led by Johnson protégé Dave Wannstedt and featuring a stellar defense, were still desperate to acquire a star running back. They ended up trading two first-round draft picks to New Orleans for Williams.
While Williams lived up to his end of the bargain in the first two seasons – rushing for a league-leading 1,853 yards in 2002 – the Dolphins failed to make the playoffs in either season. Things fell apart for the Dolphins in '04, with Williams abruptly retiring in July after it was revealed two months earlier that he violated the league's policy on substance abuse. Wannstedt was fired by the midway point of the campaign.
Over the next four years, Williams was a part-time Dolphin and a full-time distraction. While he turned his life around and has been a good player over the past three years, it's a history the Dolphins could have lived without. Fact is, since trading for Williams, the Dolphins have made the playoffs once while going through five coaches and 12 quarterbacks.
That's quite a difference that could have been made if not for Polian's willingness to take less.
- Marshall Faulk
- Bill Polian