JUST BEFORE NOON on April 17, 1999, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped to the podium inside Madison Square Garden to begin what would be the wildest 90 minutes in NFL draft history.
The epic, chaotic 1999 NFL draft had it all: Quarterback busts galore. Historic, massive trades involving three teams and 15 picks. Thunderous boos, double-crosses, late-night deals, green-room tears, prayer circles, internal franchise revolts, Mike Ditka in a dreadlocks wig, a Hall of Fame cornerback, a Heisman Trophy winner in a wedding dress and several juicy secrets that have just now come to light.
At the center of it all was Washington general manager Charley Casserly, who recently categorized the 1999 draft as a “once in a generation” type event. Good thing. Because 20 years later, on the anniversary of the craziest hour-and-a-half in NFL draft history, nearly everyone involved is still trying to make sense of what actually went down.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue: “Good morning, welcome to the National Football League’s 64th annual college player draft. Today the first selection choice belongs to the Cleveland Browns, who are now on the clock.”
After waiting three years to get back into the NFL, the Browns, technically an expansion team in 1999, had jumped the gun on Tagliabue’s pronouncement by almost nine hours. At 3:30 a.m. Browns president Carmen Policy signed a deal for Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch, who had set SEC records in attempts (553), completion percentage (72.3), passing yards (4,275) and touchdowns (36) in an early iteration of Hal Mumme’s and Mike Leach’s vaunted Air Raid offense.
Couch says his agent let him sleep and told him about the deal at 9 a.m. Couch believed he had secured the top pick — over Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb and Oregon’s Akili Smith — with a last-second, impromptu workout conducted by Browns coach Chris Palmer on campus at Kentucky. But what he didn’t know was that the Browns continued to negotiate with at least one other player all the way up until the night before the draft.
Meanwhile, on the morning of the draft, another backroom deal loomed large over the entire event. At the spring NFL owners meetings, Saints coach Mike Ditka proclaimed that he would be willing to trade his entire draft for the chance to move up and take Heisman Trophy winner and Texas running back Ricky Williams. (For the record, Ditka had promised to do the same thing the year before to get Peyton Manning, to no avail.)
All morning, in Washington’s war room, GM Casserly had been frantically working the phones, building a colossal deal with New Orleans that would trade the Redskins’ pick at No. 5 in exchange for the Saints’ 12th pick overall, the rest of their draft and their first- and third-round picks in 2000. Williams had gained more rushing yards than anyone in NCAA history and was being hyped as “the second coming of Jim Brown,” according to one GM. But the deal — and the entire draft, really — hinged on his still being available at No. 5, a scenario that seemed implausible as the draft got underway.
Tagliabue: “With the first pick in the 1999 draft, the Cleveland Browns’ selection is from the University of Kentucky, quarterback Tim Couch.”
Leigh Steinberg, Smith’s agent: “The Browns made it very clear to both Akili and I they had not decided whether they wanted Tim Couch or Akili. As we went to sleep that night we really had no idea about where they’d end up the next morning.”
Chris Palmer, Browns coach: “What really attracted me to Couch was he did more with less at Kentucky. He raised the level of all the players on that team. We were going to be young and we needed someone who would raise the level of play the same way with our players. Donovan was very good. Akili was very good. But Couch had that ‘I can make the guys around me better’ factor. And that was really the deciding factor for me. Although, in the NFL, you know it’s never done until it’s done.”
Steinberg: “I didn’t hear from them early in the morning. So we were in New York and we walked into the brunch they prepare for all the draftees before the event begins — I think it was at the Marriott Marquis — and there was a TV on with ESPN announcing the Browns were selecting Tim Couch. That’s how we found out. They just never got back to us.”
Bill Polian, Colts GM: “You don’t pay attention to anything written or said the week before the draft because 90 percent of it is smoke.”
Palmer: “You throw these young quarterbacks to the wolves and there’s a learning curve. If you’re a quarterback and you go [Nos.] 1, 2 or 3 you’re going to a team that’s missing a lot of parts and you need time, we needed time, to fill those parts in.”
As a rookie, Couch was sacked a league-high 56 times. He never fully recovered his confidence or his nerve and was out of the league by 2003. He finished 22-37 as a starter and threw for 64 touchdowns and 67 interceptions but did manage to lead the Browns to the playoffs in 2002, the last time Cleveland made the postseason.
A better running game certainly would have helped take the pressure off Couch. After a pre-draft interview with Williams, the Browns were smitten with the Texas running back and thought he would be a force in bad-weather games on the shores of Lake Erie. Amid the euphoria inside Cleveland’s war room after the Couch pick, the Browns discussed using a huge package of picks to obtain the fourth or fifth overall choice in order to beat New Orleans to Williams.
Palmer: “We liked Ricky and thought he was a very good player. We understood what Ditka saw in him. In Year 1 we were going to get the offense as strong as we could and in Year 2 we would address our defensive needs. We needed a running back. It was war-room chatter, we didn’t really have enough ammunition and we didn’t want to give away next year’s picks, so it never materialized. We never really got to first base with that one.”
In Philadelphia, Mayor Ed Rendell proclaimed that the Eagles should draft Williams with the second pick overall. Whipped into a frenzy by local sports radio, a horde of face-painted Eagles fans had packed Madison Square Garden for the draft, and with the Eagles officially on the clock they began chanting: “WE … WANT … RICKY … WE … WANT … RICKY!”
Tagliabue: “With the second pick, the Philadelphia Eagles select Donovan McNabb, quarterback, Syracuse University.”
Steinberg: “The boos were thunderous. I mean, the walls in the green room shook. The biggest action of the day was the booing of Donovan McNabb.”
Joe Banner, Eagles president: “We took Ditka seriously when he said he’d trade his whole draft for Williams but we didn’t think it was much of an offer. If you had a star QB on the board that you think can lead your team for the next decade or so, getting someone’s whole draft is not that compelling an offer. It sounded big and dramatic, but when you break it down it was two picks that were likely to produce players and then a bunch of low-percentage picks. Look at what the Rams gave up to get Jared Goff: two 1s, two 2s and two 3s. It was a very quick discussion and it didn’t even tempt us for five minutes.”
McNabb (to YES Network in 2016): “They booed me in the beginning when they introduced everyone in the green room and I thought it was pretty funny.”
Banner: “You felt for Donovan and his family. People booing you during a moment you’ve been dreaming about for most of your life is harsh. I’ve talked to Don about this and he downplays how it affected him, but I feel like I know him well enough that what could have been one of the most joyful moments of his life was stolen away. He was deprived of a huge thrill that he deserved and it’s hard to not have any feelings about that at all.”
McNabb (to YES Network): “That’s how I’ve been through life. I’ll smile, take into account what happened and put it in the back of my mind and prove you wrong.”
Banner: “We were chuckling to ourselves inside the building a bit, because if people knew that not only are we not picking Ricky over Donovan, we don’t even have Ricky rated as our top running back, that probably would have had our fans set the city of Philadelphia on fire. If there’s a better evaluator of quarterbacks than Andy Reid, I can’t figure out who it could possibly be. Had we picked the wrong quarterback or, frankly, either of those running backs, the next decade of the Eagles’ history would have been completely different. Only two years later we had a streak of going to four straight championship games. We had a good team. But without Donovan that would not have happened.”
That day, in the limo ride from the draft in New York to Philadelphia, the Eagles knew they had made the right choice when McNabb loosened his tie, opened up Reid’s massive playbook and began studying the chapter on cadences. It wouldn’t be long before he supplanted the current Eagles starting quarterback: Doug Pederson.
Tagliabue: “The Cincinnati Bengals are now on the clock.”
As soon as it became clear Smith was probably going to Cincinnati with the third pick, Akili’s family, led by his father, Ray Smith, a minister in San Diego, formed a circle to specifically pray about the prospect of playing for the Bengals, who hadn’t had a winning season in nine years. Smith would be the fifth first-round pick of the Bengals represented by Steinberg, and his relationship with Bengals owner and GM Mike Brown had been, at times, contentious. Brown did not respond to an interview request.
Steinberg: “I always felt Mike Brown’s presence in Cincinnati was sort of life’s way of telling me life was too easy. If I ended up representing astronauts, Mike would have somehow ended up commissioner of the moon. I told Akili’s family, ‘Look, it’s a little difficult at times to deal with Cincinnati. Mike Brown considers himself in an alternative reality in terms of player compensation.’ But the consensus after the prayer circle was, if it’s God’s will to go to Cincinnati then they’d be fine going to Cincinnati.”
At the start of the college season, Smith’s goal had been to get a rookie free-agent contract with an NFL team. But after throwing for 3,763 yards with 32 TDs against eight INTs, Smith had a spectacular pro day workout that left scouts oohing and aahing, making him one of the fastest risers in draft history. But after several minutes with the Bengals on the clock, no word had come yet about Cincinnati’s selection.
Steinberg: “Draft time is not real time. It’s water torture time. Every second seems like a minute and every minute seems like an hour. The waiting can be excruciating. So you’re sitting there and you’re asking yourself, ‘Why are they waiting until the very end if they already know who their pick is going to be?’ And clearly it’s because they are entertaining trade offers.”
Worried that the Colts would take Williams with the fourth pick, Ditka and the Saints had offered Cincinnati all six of their picks in the 1999 draft along with their first- and third-round picks in 2000. The Bengals countered by asking for all the Saints’ 1999 picks plus their first-rounders in the next three drafts.
Tagliabue: “With the third choice, the Cincinnati Bengals select Akili Smith, quarterback, University of Oregon.”
With the top three picks all being used on quarterbacks, and five total taken in the first 12 picks, there was speculation by the ESPN crew covering the draft on TV that the 1999 QB class would rival the famed 1983 QB class that included John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.
Mike Brown (in 2000): “If Akili pans out, I’d rather have him than all those other guys. I know this: We weren’t the only team that didn’t take the trade. It’s all going to come down to Akili. If he works out, then it was the right thing.”
As Steinberg feared, the negotiations with Brown dragged on. Smith held out for 25 days and ultimately managed just 17 starts and five career passing touchdowns. Out of football after four seasons, he’s considered one of the biggest draft busts in history.
Tagliabue: “The Indianapolis Colts are now on the clock.”
Forty-eight hours before their pick, the Colts had thrown the 1999 draft into chaos by trading future Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk to the Rams. GM Bill Polian didn’t want to do it, but Faulk’s contract had become untenable and the Colts weren’t in a position to renegotiate the deal or tolerate a long, disruptive holdout. A few weeks earlier, Polian had a deal in place with another team (even now, he won’t name the other team), but it fell apart at the last second.
Given his concerns about that happening again, when the Rams offered a second-rounder and a fifth-rounder, he jumped at it. When the news hit inside the team offices that Faulk had been shipped to St. Louis, Polian heard Colts employees screaming, “No! They can’t do that!” The only consolation was that everyone in Indianapolis believed the deal meant the Colts were about to land Williams. Williams did not respond to several interview requests.
Polian: “In spite of his poor workout, Ricky was still being heralded as the greatest thing since Gale Sayers. But Ricky was slow. He ran a high 4.6 or a low 4.7 in the 40 and he seemed disinterested.”
Casserly: “Edgerrin James’ flight got canceled and he rebooked the whole thing himself and was sitting on the curb at the airport when we went to pick him up. We always pick draft picks up with the intern’s car because we wanted to get them straight: You’re starting at the bottom now. And the intern was the same age as the players so we got a heck of a lot of information out of guys on that car ride. I’m sure a lot of guys didn’t like riding in the intern’s car.”
Polian: “We flew down to Miami to watch James in a Thursday night game and we left blown away by his talent. But we still wanted to double- and triple-check so we looked at every play of both their careers. It was weeks of film work to do that and everybody came away knowing who was the better choice.”
Casserly: “That morning I called Polian and I asked him point blank as a friend, ‘Who you gonna take at running back?’ And he wouldn’t tell me.”
Polian: “I learned a valuable and powerful lesson from that draft: Stick with your convictions, stick with the process, let the board speak to you and make the decision that’s right, not the decision that’s popular.”
Tagliabue: “With the fourth choice in this draft, the Indianapolis Colts select Edgerrin James, running back, University of Miami.”
On the broadcast, waiting by the edge of the stage expecting to be called, a stunned Williams could be seen mouthing the word “wow” and then dropping his head.
Ricky Williams (to WFAN-AM in 2018): “I was still reeling from not being the first pick, not being the second pick, not being the third pick, not being the fourth pick, wasn’t even the first running back taken, so it was a hit to my ego. I probably would have done more with Peyton Manning as my quarterback, but it was still a great pick and James will probably be in the Hall of Fame.”
Polian: “There were actually people on the business side of our building yelling and carrying on, making plain the fact that they thought it was a crazy decision. Our PR people came in and said the phone lines are burning up. The funniest line of the day came from our personnel director Dom Anile, who flipped the keys to his car to Tom Telesco, a scout, and said, ‘Hey Tom, go start my car.’ I said, ‘I’m not going home, I’m staying right here, the office is the safest place.’ We all had a good laugh, with people joking that the fans were going to storm the building at any second.”
Tagliabue: “There has been a trade involving this fifth pick in the draft.”
Casserly: “When Ditka announced that he’d trade his whole draft for Ricky Williams, I called him on the Monday right after the league meetings and said, ‘Put us in line.’ We kept in touch all spring with the Saints. You have about a 33 percent chance [for success] with third-round picks, fourth round is 25 percent, fifth round is 20 percent and sixth- and seventh-rounders are about 9 percent long shots. So getting their first pick next year and their third was the basis of the whole deal from our end.”
Williams (to Jim Rome in 2019): “Trading away the entire draft? I was a really good college football player, but it was just hard for people to make sense of that [deal] in real life.”
Casserly: “The morning of the draft I called [Saints GM Bill Kuharich] and confirmed that we had the basics for the deal. The backdrop to all this was the Redskins were being sold and so none of us knew if we’d even be around tomorrow. I called John Cooke, who at that point was still running the team, and he said, ‘We all know none of us may be here next year, so do what’s best for the team: Take the deal.’ I told our scouts we’d move back up if we could but if not we liked [future defensive rookie of the year] Jevon Kearse at 12. As soon as Kuharich confirms the deal I start calling everyone in front of us to move back up. Chicago is the only team to agree. The deal-breaker for the Bears was UCLA quarterback Cade McNown, so I just went through what everyone else was gonna pick with the info I had gathered and explained to them that he’d still be there. So we agree on that deal: a third, fourth and fifth to move back to No. 7.”
Tagliabue: “The New Orleans Saints are now on the clock.”
Ditka (at the draft): “Bill [Kuharich] has been on the phone for a week. I believe things are supposed to happen for a reason and I think Ricky is supposed to come here. I love the kid. I love everything about him. He’s what we need. We really need this kid. And I think he’s gonna show everybody that he is the best college football player coming out and I don’t care about the other guys.”
Not everyone with the Saints agreed, but most were afraid to stand up to Ditka. At a pre-draft meeting described by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Ditka went around the room and asked every scout if they’d trade their entire draft for Williams; only two disagreed and said they wouldn’t.
Tagliabue: “With the fifth pick in the draft, the New Orleans Saints select Ricky Williams, running back, University of Texas.”
Ditka: “We’re gonna become a much better football team because of Ricky Williams. He gives us what Walter Payton gave us in Chicago. … My plans for the rest of the day? Gone golfing.”
The next day, Ditka wore a dreadlocks wig and a Hawaiian shirt as he took the stage at a post-draft celebration in New Orleans. Represented by Master P’s No Limit Sports, Williams signed a vastly undermarket, incentive-laden rookie contract. Before the season started, the running back donned a wedding dress and posed on the cover of ESPN The Magazine with Ditka under the headline: For Better or Worse. Williams, who has discussed battling social anxiety disorder, went on to conduct interviews during his rookie season with his helmet on.
Williams (to ESPN.com in 2018): “I thought [the magazine cover] was nothing crazy compared to Ditka trading eight picks for me.”
Ditka: “We are going to win the Super Bowl. We got Ricky and he’s the final piece to the puzzle. I really believe that.”
Instead, Williams’ rookie season turned out to be the final chapter of Ditka’s coaching career. Hampered by injuries and expectations, Williams rushed for 884 yards and two touchdowns in 1999. One week after the Saints finished 3-13, Ditka was fired and he didn’t coach again. The Saints were so crippled by the deal that the next year they had to use $15 million in cap space to sign 27 free agents to upgrade their roster.
Terry O’Neil, Saints cap specialist (to the Times-Picayune in 2009): “The Ricky Williams trade was really the death of the whole operation. That was the end of it all. The whole history of the Ditka regime would be worlds different if we would have just stayed right where we were and taken a quarterback. In hindsight, it was one of the most ridiculous deals in history.”
Williams (to Jim Rome in 2019): “The trade was an amazing gesture and something I’ll probably be remembered for for a long time, but it was too much — for the organization, for the team, for his coaching career, and for my time in New Orleans — to overcome, and it wasn’t until I was shipped away [in 2002] to Miami until the Saints could move past it and move toward their first Super Bowl and I could move on and get my career going. It was a great story, but it was just tough to make it work.”
Traded to Miami in 2002 for two first-round picks, Williams was an All-Pro that season for the Dolphins. Over a career that spanned 12 years and included a yearlong retirement, myriad suspensions for violating the NFL’s drug policy, a stint as a vagabond world traveler and a season in the CFL, Williams rushed for more than 10,000 yards. Now an astrologer and holistic healer based in San Diego, Williams is pursuing his doctorate in Chinese medicine while selling cannabis-based herbal wellness products.
Tagliabue: “The St. Louis Rams are now on the clock.”
After all his wheeling and dealing, Casserly says he was told by a member of the St. Louis organization that, down to the last second, the Rams were split 50-50 between bolstering the Greatest Show on Turf with receiver Torry Holt or taking defensive back Champ Bailey, the player Casserly desperately wanted.
Tagliabue: “With the sixth pick in the draft, the St. Louis Rams select Torry Holt, wide receiver, North Carolina … North Carolina State.”
Casserly: “We got lucky.”
Tagliabue: “With the seventh pick, the Washington Redskins select Champ Bailey, defensive back, University of Georgia.”
Casserly: “After I had secured the deal with the Saints, I picked up the phone and called Chicago. And now all of a sudden they want to change the deal, they wanted another third-round draft choice. So I put them on hold and I told everyone in our draft room what was going on. Obviously, they were screwing us, to put it bluntly. They went back on their word. Something I never did on a trade. But the feeling in our draft room was we wanted Champ Bailey, so we’re gonna make the deal.”
Bailey’s selection solidified the importance of the shutdown corner as a team-building foundation piece in the current pass-happy era of the NFL.
Eventually the Bears did pick McNown at 12, one spot after the Vikings selected Daunte Culpepper.
Casserly: “We loved Bailey. He was a legitimate two-way player at Georgia. He had so much raw athletic ability with long arms and the ability to catch the ball. Do you sit there and say we’re drafting a guy who will go to more Pro Bowls at cornerback in the history of football and end up in the Hall of Fame? No. But we knew we were drafting the best defensive player in the draft with a lot of upside and we knew that all the deals we did gave the Redskins three No. 1 picks the next season. And the next year? I was gone.”