1989 Review: After an 0-5 Start, the Cowboys Trade Herschel Walker

The Cowboys shipped Herschel Walker to Minnesota in 1989.

The Cowboys entered the 1989 season with a few familiar names from the Landry era (Herschel Walker, Too Tall Jones, Everson Walls, Tom Rafferty, Jim Jeffcoat, Eugene Lockhart). The team recorded a 3-1 record during the preseason. And what appeared to be the most important news of all was that Troy Aikman appeared to be the real deal.

The legend built gradually over the summer with the signing of a six-year, $11 million contract, followed by positive if not always rave reviews from Thousand Oaks, Calif., the Cowboys ‘ training camp. But the legend grew last Saturday when a beaten and bloodied Aikman shrugged off Oilers’ blitzes and late hits to lead the Cowboys to a 30-28 last-second victory.

In the wake of that contest in which he threw for 306 yards and took some ferocious hits, it seemed almost silly to Aikman to be talking about the approach of his first “real’ NFL game this Sunday. “If that wasn’t it, I can’t wait to see what a real one is like,’ Aikman said.

But, for record-keeping purposes, the real stuff does, indeed, start Sunday. And for a quarterback who has hit the NFL scene with more fanfare than Roger Staubach received when he returned from Vietnam and the Navy to join the Cowboys in 1969, the eyes of more than Texas will be watching.

That was the good news in 1989, except that the season hadn’t started yet. The ugly reality:

Week 1: New Orleans 28, Dallas 0

Aikman’s first game wasn’t awful on paper: 17 of 35 for 180 yards with 2 ints. Then there was the rushing attack– Walker finished with 10 yards on 8 carries in a game that was over early.

Week 2: Atlanta 27, Dallas 21

Aikman’s first touchdown pass to Michael Irvin came on a 65-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter of the team’s week 2 matchup against the Saints. Walker added two touchdowns to give the team a 21-10 lead. However, Atlanta cut the lead to 21-20 in the third quarter, and a fourth quarter touchdown gave the Falcons the lead. Late in the game, Aikman threw a deep pass to a wide open Kelvin Martin, but when Martin slipped, Scott Case came up with an interception that sealed the win for Atlanta.

Week 3: Washington 30, Dallas 7

The highlight: Jim Jeffcoat recorded a 77-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown. Evidence that Aikman was a rookie: 6 of 21 for 83 yards and two picks.

Week 4: N.Y. Giants 30, Dallas 13

Aikman didn’t get any better against the Giants: 1 of 6 for 11 yards before leaving the game with an injury. Steve Walsh performed fairly well in relief but also threw two picks.

Week 5: Green Bay 31, Dallas 13

The hot topic before the Cowboys faced the Packers in week 5 was whether Dallas would trade Walker. As many as five teams were interested, with the Browns and Vikings leading the pack.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys played a good first half against Green Bay but could not stop Don Majkowski, who threw for four touchdowns.

On October 12, 1989, the Cowboys sent Walker and a few draft picks to Minnesota for several mediocre players and a slew of draft picks. For more on this trade, visit Pro Sports Transactions or Scout.com (MC: I previously linked to a Wikipedia entry on the trade, but the summary on that site is inaccurate).

The end result after 1992:

Minnesota received–

  • Jake Reed
Dallas received–
  • Emmitt Smith
  • Russell Maryland
  • Kevin Smith
  • Darren Woodson
  • Clayton Holmes

As for the trade’s impact, here is the summary from ESPN’s Page 2:

The Deal: In a deal that involved a whopping six players and 12 draft picks, the Cowboys laid the groundwork for their Super Bowl teams of the 1990s by trading running back Herschel Walker to Minnesota on Oct. 12, 1989. In exchange for Walker, Dallas received five players, six conditional draft choices and a 1992 first-round pick.

The Impact: Two of those draft choices turned out to be running back Emmitt Smith and safety Darren Woodson, key players who helped the Cowboys win three Super Bowls in four seasons.

Jimmy Johnson used all those extra draft choices to wheel and deal through the 1990s — the picks eventually involved 15 teams and 55 players as they were combined with other choices and traded around the NFL. One such deal helped the ‘Boys land the No. 1 pick in the 1991 draft, which they used on defensive tackle Russell Maryland.

Walker played just 2½ years in Minnesota and never had a 1,000-yard season for the Vikes. Minnesota felt the running back was the missing piece to its Super Bowl puzzle, but the team never won a playoff game with Walker, and the loss of the draft picks seriously hurt a team that consistently contended.

  • Matt, I agree with your earlier comment that Landry would never have traded Herschel.

    W/o that trade, its extremely unlikely that Landry would’ve brought the Cowboys back as quickly as the JJs did.

    Jerry should put Vikings GM (at the time) Mike Lynn in the ROH!

  • Here’s a great article about “The Trade” from the Vikings’ point-of-view:


  • Tim Truemper

    After reading Fred’s post’s, I decided to review Walker’s #’s for Minnesota on Pro Football Reference. Prior to Herschel’s arrival, the Viking running game was pretty mediocre. Walker’s arrival improved it some. But in the three years he was there, he never got 200 carries (though he may have reached that total if had a full season with them the year of the trade). The year after he departed, 1992, Terry Allen became the starter and had 266 carries for over 1200 yards. Was Allen the better back and this led to more carries. Don’t know. But one problem for Minnesota was that they may not have used Walker well–i.e. a work horse back. Regardless, that the Vikings had a SB quality team at the moment and only needed Walker may have been an exaggeration. They lost in the playoffs in Walker’s first year to a 14-2 SF team (the Vikes were 10-6) and three years later lost to a very good Redskins team. One way to look at it is the Vikes lost a lot of draft picks and some good role players for one potential impact player who, perhaps, did not get enough opportunity to have that impact.

  • I’ve often wondered how Walker would have done in a West Coast system. He had the size of a fullback, the speed of a tailback, and the hands of a decent tight end. I can only imagine how Bill Walsh or a Bill Walsh disciple might have used him. Minnesota not only did not use him as a workhorse, but the Vikings also did not throw to him as often. Between 86 and 88, he caught an average of 63 passes per year. In his two full seasons with Minnesota in 90 and 91, he caught an average of 34.

  • Mike Little

    Jimmy not Jerry still had to make the right moves to make the right picks,and he obviously did.Most fans,even Aikman could’nt beleive they traded away their “best” player at the time.Strange memory about Herschel.I saw him in person at one of Brad Sham’s KRLD Cowboys hour at a restaraunt just days before he was traded.

  • Tim Truemper

    I think with a Bill Walsh offense, Walker would have had a Roger Craig type career. I like your description Matt of Walker’s skill set. And in my post I neglected to include the drop off in receiving that Walker experienced in Minnesota. Can’t imagine what they were doing with him except he did return a lot of kickoffs when he was a Viking.

  • I’ve often wondered how Walker’s career might’ve been different if he hadn’t opted for the USFL.

    Could he have been a HOF-caliber back in the NFL? If he had joined the Cowboys straight out of UGA, could he have taken the starter’s job from Dorsett, who was beginning his decline (83-84-85 were his last three 1,000 yard seasons)?

    Its hard to compare Walker’s gaudy USFL stats to NFL rushers, but I have no doubt he would’ve been successful in the NFL if he were placed in the right system with a coach that used him to maximum effect.

  • Jason Neighbors

    Jerry deserves just as much credit for the Walker trade as Jimmy. After all, Walker represented ALOT of ticket sales. Jerry’s money ain’t monopopoly money, folks. Alot of owners probably wouldn’t have had the balls to pull off that trade, lopsided as it was; especially if you consider Jerry was probably losing money the first couple of years. Jimmy gets too much credit at Jerry’s expense.

    @Matt- that Wikipedia summary isn’t correct. Some of those players listed we got with our own picks, not Minnesota’s. The link Fred provides gives an accurate rundown of the trade. Basically, within four years the trade netted these players:

    Vikings Cowboys
    WR Jake Reed RB Emmitt Smith
    DT Russell Maryland
    CB Kevin Smith
    S Darren Woodson
    CB Clayton Holmes

    Hell, just getting Emmitt would have made the trade worthwhile alone. Best college rusher in history for best NFL rusher in history? Uh, yeah!!

  • Jason Neighbors

    Yikes, that didn’t format as expected. Retry:

    WR Jake Reed

    RB Emmitt Smith
    DT Russell Maryland
    CB Kevin Smith
    S Darren Woodson
    CB Clayton Holmes