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The NFL's 10 Most Significant Front Office Decisions Ever

Kyle GibbonsAnalyst IIIJune 10, 2011

The NFL's 10 Most Significant Front Office Decisions Ever

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    Detroit Lions Quarterback Bobby Layne. AP PHOTO
    Detroit Lions Quarterback Bobby Layne. AP PHOTO

    Every once in a while, an NFL franchise's front office makes a decision that not only influences the direction of their team, but alters the entire landscape of the NFL.

    For example, the Indianapolis Colts’ selection of Peyton Manning has led to a tendency by opposing teams to pursue and draft defensive talent in attempts to combat the prolific quarterback’s ability to attack a weak link within a defense.

    Here are what I believe to be the 10 most influential front office decisions in the history of the National Football League.

10. The Minnesota Vikings Draft the “Super Freak”

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    MINNEAPOLIS - OCTOBER 24:  Wide receiver Randy Moss #84 of the Minnesota Vikings waits to enter the game against the Tennessee Titans at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on October 24, 2004 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Titans 20-3.
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Due to off-field issues, Randy Moss, projected to be a high first-round pick, fell to the Minnesota Vikings at the 21st pick of the 1998 NFL Draft.

    19 teams passed on Moss, including teams in desperate need of a wide receiver.

    The Cincinnati Bengals passed on Moss not once, but twice.

    Randy Moss came into his rookie season with a chip on his shoulder. He combined that with his tremendous size and athletic ability, and absolutely dominated.

    The arrival of Moss in Minnesota completely transformed the Vikings.

    The ’98 Vikings finished the season as the number one offense in the National Football League, scoring a then-NFL record 556 points.

    Moss' rookie season numbers included 1,313 receiving yards, 17 touchdowns, and 20 yards per reception, despite starting only 11 games.

    Not only was Moss named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in ’98, but he led his team to the playoffs and was an easy All-Pro selection.

    Had it not been for a poor decision by then-head coach Dennis Green in the ’98 NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Vikings may have been Super Bowl champions.

9. The Indianapolis Colts Take “Edge” over the “Texas Tornado”

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    INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 14:  Running back Edgerrin James #32 of the Indianapolis Colts stiff arms linebacker Jamie Sharper #55 of the Houston Texans to pick up 28 yards before getting pushed out of bounds at the one yard line in the second quarter on Nove
    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    In what many NFL analysts thought was a huge mistake, the Indianapolis Colts drafted Miami running back Edgerrin James over Texas' Heisman Trophy winner, Ricky Williams, in the 1999 NFL Draft.

    It’s worth noting that head coach Mike Ditka traded all of the Saints' ‘99 draft picks to trade up to select Williams fifth overall, as well as their 1st- and 3rd-round picks in the 2000 draft. It marked the first and only time a single player was the only draft selection of an NFL team.

    James went on to make an immediate impact, rushing for over 1,500 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in his rookie season. A true dual threat in both the run and pass games, James added 586 receiving yards and four touchdowns.

    Edgerrin was named the ‘99 NFL Offensive Rookie of The Year and was named to the 1999 Pro Bowl team.

    Ricky Williams, however, never lived up to the hype, scoring only two touchdowns in his rookie season.

    After the draft, Williams and Ditka posed for the cover of ESPN The Magazine as a bride and a groom with the heading, "For Better or for Worse."

    Let’s just say it was the latter of the two.

    “Edge” was the NFL Rushing champion in each of his first two seasons.

8. The End of the Millen Era in Detroit

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    DETROIT - DECEMBER 4:  A young fan holds up a sign to fire Matt Millen, President and CEO of the Detroit Lions, during the game between the Lions and Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field on December 4, 2005 in Detroit, Michigan. The Vikings won the game 21-16.
    Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

    Though Matt Millen was a decorated NFL linebacker and has become a serviceable football analyst, he is regarded as one of the worst team presidents in NFL history.

    From 2001-2008, he took a mediocre Lions football team, and, implausibly, made it worse. He is directly responsible for some of the worst personnel decisions in Lions history.

    At one point, Millen even tried to coax Barry Sanders out of retirement. Barry knew better.

    Then, in 2008, the oppression known as the Millen Era came to an abrupt end.

    Finally, in what is known as one of his greatest moments, Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford said, "I have relieved Matt Millen of his duties, effective immediately." 

7. Green Bay Goes All In With Mr. Michigan

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    ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06:  Charles Woodson #21 of the Green Bay Packers, who was injured during the game, celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after they defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 31 to 25 in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6,
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    An injury-shortened 2005 season saw former Defensive Rookie of the Year Charles Woodson fall out of favor with the Raiders and team owner Al Davis.

    Feeling disrespected and unappreciated, Woodson decided to move on.

    On April 26th, 2006, Charles Woodson and the Green Bay Packers agreed to a seven-year contract worth as much as $52.7 million dollars, including bonuses and incentives.

    Initially, Woodson wasn’t interested in playing for Green Bay, but his hand was forced, as the Packers were the only team to offer him a contract.

    Charles Woodson has since been quoted as saying, “It was truly a blessing coming to Green Bay.”

    In his time in Green Bay, Woodson has been selected to three Pro Bowls, has been named the NFL Defensive Player of The Year, and was a prominent fixture in Green Bay’s 2010 Super Bowl championship run.

    Following the 2010 championship season, despite having three years left on his contract, the 33-year-old Woodson signed a two-year extension with the Packers, adding five years and $55 million to his existing contract.

    Since his departure, Oakland has gone a combined 24-56.

6. Packers GM Ted Thompson Replaces a Legend

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    ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06:  Aaron Rodgers #12 and Clay Matthews #52 of the Green Bay Packers of the Green Bay Packers holds the Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    In 2005, the Green Bay Packers drafted California University quarterback Aaron Rodgers to be the heir apparent to Brett Favre’s throne.

    Rodgers spent the majority of his first three seasons watching Brett Favre from the sidelines, waiting for his moment.

    On March 4th, 2008, the time had come.

    Favre formally announced his retirement, effectively handing the reigns over to an unproven but talented Aaron Rodgers.

    Favre stated, "I know I can play, but I don't think I want to. And that's really what it comes down to."

    Green Bay immediately initiated the Aaron Rodgers era.

    Feeling as if he was “guilty of retiring early,” Favre contacted Packers GM Ted Thompson and conveyed his desire for Green Bay to unconditionally release him, allowing him to play elsewhere. Thompson refused.

    Ultimately, Favre decided to return to the NFL, and filed for reinstatement on July 29, 2008. Favre’s reinstatement was granted by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, effective August 4, 2008.

    Favre then immediately reported to Packers training camp.

    Favre made clear his refusal to play a backup role, and demanded a trade in a meeting with head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson.

    Ted Thompson basically thought that the Packers were better off in going with the talented Rodgers than with beloved Green Bay legend Brett Favre.

    Thompson was ruthlessly criticized in Green Bay for his decision to move on in trading Brett Favre to the New York Jets. Thompson, though, firmly believed that he made the right decision and stuck with it.

    Ted Thompson couldn’t have been more right in his decision. Brett Favre has gone on to enjoy only one postseason appearance in three years with two separate teams.

    Rodgers went on to become the first and only player in NFL history to pass for over 4,000 yards in each of his first two starting seasons. In 2009, he was selected to the NFC Pro Bowl team.

    In 2010, only three seasons removed from the departure of Brett Favre, Rodgers led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl XLV victory. Following Green Bay’s 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Aaron Rodgers was named the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player.

    I think that Ted Thompson may have made the correct decision.

5. GM Bill Polian and the Indianapolis Colts Select Manning over Leaf

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    MIAMI GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 04:  Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Super Bowl trophy next to head coach Tony Dungy and is wife, Lauren, CBS sports broadcaster Jim Nantz and Team owner Jim Irsay af
    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    In 1998, the Colts agonized over the first overall draft pick, deciding whether to draft Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf or Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning.

    "We knew we were going to take one of them, and we knew it was going to be a franchise pick," said Jim Mora, who was hired as the team's head coach by general manager Bill Polian 4 months before the 1998 draft. "We knew how important it was to get the pick right. We probably spent more time evaluating those two guys than anybody else I've ever scouted in my career.''

    It’s fairly evident that Indianapolis made the correct decision in selecting Manning, who has gone on to become one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.

    Leaf’s time in the National Football League has been referred to as one of the most disappointing professional careers in sports history.

4. Lions Make a Move for the Legendary Bobby Layne

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    AP PHOTO
    AP PHOTO

    As a rookie in 1948, former Michigan University standout receiver Bob Mann became the first African American to play for the Detroit Lions. Though he appeared in all 12 games in ’48, he was never included in the team’s starting lineup.

    A victim of league-wide racial discrimination, Bob Mann was never given a reasonable chance in the Detroit Lions organization.

    A salary dispute in 1950 would lead to the Lions making a deal with the New York Bulldogs and trading the disgruntled Mann for quarterback Bobby Layne.

    Two years prior, Layne had been traded from the Chicago Bears by then-head coach George Halas to the New York Bulldogs for their #1 draft pick and $50,000 cash. The cash was to be paid in four installments.

    The Mann/Layne trade stipulated that the Lions pay off the remainder of the final three payments in the $50,000 contract to George Halas and the Bears.  

    Halas would later remark that the Lions should have continued the yearly payments indefinitely to him considering Layne's performance in Detroit.

    Bobby Layne would go on to lead the Detroit Lions to three NFL championships in five years, including back-to-back championships in ’52 and ’53. He was selected to the 1950s all-decade team and was a 4-time Pro Bowl selection in Detroit.

    In 1995, Sports Illustrated named Bobby Layne as "The Toughest Quarterback Who Ever Lived.” Layne also made the Sporting News’ list of football’s 100 Greatest Players Ever.

    Layne was renowned for his leadership and determination. According to long-time friend and teammate Doak Walker, "Layne never lost a game...time just ran out on him."

    In 1967, Layne was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame under the Detroit Lions banner. The quarterback is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

    Layne’s #22 was retired by both the Texas Longhorns and the Detroit Lions.

3. The Great Train Robbery

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    AP PHOTO
    AP PHOTO

    The trade 1989 between the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys was the largest player trade in NFL history.

    Four games into the ’89 season, then-Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson came up with the idea to trade Herschel Walker. Johnson felt the Cowboys were so terrible that only a blockbuster trade could help the Cowboys return to legitimacy.

    The Falcons, Giants, Browns, and Vikings all expressed interest in Walker. A bidding war of epic proportions between the teams instantly ensued, with Minnesota finalizing negotiations. In order to get Walker to agree to a trade that would send him to Minnesota, the Cowboys paid him a severance package or “exit bonus” in the form of $1.25 million dollars.

    In what is famously regarded as “The Great Train Robbery,” Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys absolutely pillaged the Minnesota Vikings.

    The Cowboys secured a total of six of the Vikings’ picks over the following years, picks that ultimately were used to draft Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and Pro Bowl safety Darren Woodson.

    Jimmy Johnson used the other draft picks as bargaining chips with other teams throughout the league. One of the trades led to obtaining the first overall selection in the ’91 NFL Draft.

    The Cowboys used the first overall selection in the ’91 Draft to select Pro Bowl defensive tackle Russell Maryland, who became a staple of the dominant Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl runs of the early to mid ‘90s.

    Essentially, the trade of Herschel Walker to the Vikings contributed largely to the Cowboys' astonishing three Super Bowl championships in the span of five years.

    Emmitt Smith went on to be regarded by some to be the greatest running back of all time, finishing his career as the National Football League’s career rushing leader, surpassing the legendary Walter Payton.

    To add insult to injury, when Walker failed to impress in Minnesota, the Vikings released him, only for him to end up back in Dallas.

2. The Team That Jr. Built

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    AP PHOTO
    AP PHOTO

    As the director of player personnel for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Art Rooney Jr. was responsible for some of the greatest draft selections of all time.

    In 1971, Rooney Jr. beautifully choreographed an historic draft class that would yield eight Super Bowl IX starters in ‘74, providing the backbone for a powerful dynasty. The ’71 draft class alone is responsible for Hall of Fame outside linebacker Jack Ham and five other Pro Bowlers.

    Then in 1974, Jr. made history. In what is regarded by most as the greatest draft in NFL history, Rooney Jr. selected four future Hall of Fame players.

    The ’74 class included wide receiver Lynn Swann in round 1, linebacker Jack Lambert in round 2, wide receiver John Stallworth in round 4, and center Mike Webster in round 5. No other single team's draft class has ever produced more than two Hall of Fame selections.

    In 1974, the Steelers would go on to win what would be their first Super Bowl championship of four in the 1970’s.

     The ’71 and ’74 Steelers drafts provided the Steel City with the Steel Curtain and the Terrible Towel.

    There may not be a better defensive unit than the one Rooney assembled during the ‘70’s.

1. Bill Walsh Trades Up to Draft the Wayne Gretzky of Wide Receivers

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    SAN FRANCISCO - SEPTEMBER 20:  Former member of the San Francisco 49ers Jerry Rice has his number retired at halftime against the New Orleans Saints during an NFL game at Candlestick Park on September 20, 2010 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Jed
    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    In what is considered to be the greatest draft day trade of all time, Bill Walsh and the 49ers">San Francisco 49ers completed a trade in 1985 with the New England Patriots that would bring Jerry Rice to the 49ers.

    The Patriots traded their 16th overall pick for the 49ers' 28th and 56th overall picks. The 49ers and Patriots also swapped third round picks.

    Coming out of college, Rice was considered the overrated product of a wide-open offense at Mississippi Valley State.

    49ers team president and head coach Bill Walsh didn’t feel the same way. In scouting Rice he used terms like “phenom” and “unbelievable player.”

    Bill Walsh was absolutely infatuated with Rice, and pulled the trigger to trade up to the 16th position in fear that Dallas would select Rice at the 17th.

    By the time that Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice decided to walk away from the game, he owned career records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. Rice’s receiving records could go on to stand the tests of time.

    In addition to owning all of the NFL’s significant receiving records, Jerry Rice led the 49ers to three Super Bowl championships.

    NFL.com ranked Rice as the number one player of all-time.

    Who did the Patriots go on to select with the picks attained in the trade with San Francisco in the ’85 draft?

    The Patriots drafted offensive lineman Trevor Matich and defensive lineman Ben Thomas, who each failed to start a single game for the New England Patriots.

    In comparison to the greatest player to ever play the game, I’d say San Francisco got the better end of the bargain.

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