Everyone knew it was coming. After all, the New Orleans Saints said they would trade all of their picks in the 1999 draft if they moved up far enough in the selection order to get Texas's Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ricky Williams. Still, when NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced on draft day that the Saints had made the deal with the Washington Redskins, it was stunning.
"We've [tried to build the team] probably a little bit against the norm," Saints President-General Manager Bill Kuharich said. "We believe you do it with the running back, obviously. We traded away all our picks for Ricky."
That -- and then some. To move from the 12th overall selection to the fifth, the Saints parted with all six of their remaining picks in the 1999 draft and their first- and third-round picks in the 2000 draft.
But behind all of the excitement and uproar -- which Coach Mike Ditka certainly didn't mind -- there was a plan that had been in place since Ditka joined the club in January 1997.
"When Mike was hired, we sat down and developed a five-year plan of how to build a football team and we wanted to build it inside out," Kuharich said.
That meant building the lines, which they did on offense with veteran all-pro William Roaf and the additions of 1998 first-round draft choice Kyle Turley at tackle, 1997 first-round pick Chris Naeole and 1999 free agent signee Wally Williams at guard and 1997 free agent signee Jerry Fontenot at center. On defense, they added tackle La'Roi Glover, a 1997 waiver acquisition who had 10 sacks last season, and 1997 second-round pick Jared Tomich at end, to complement veterans Wayne Martin and Joe Johnson (although Johnson injured his knee in August and is out for the year).
"The third year," Kuharich said, "the plan was to get the best skill player, regardless of position, and we thought Ricky Williams was the best skill player over the quarterbacks who came out in this draft."
According to Kuharich, Ditka wanted to build the Saints similar to the way the Chicago Bears constructed the team that won the Super Bowl. So, does that mean Williams is Walter Payton, and Billy Joe Hobert will be Jim McMahon?
"I think this is all about Mike," said Archie Manning, the former Saints quarterback who is an analyst on Saints' radio broadcasts. "Mike was successful with a plan in Chicago. The year they won the championship, McMahon stayed healthy and played well, but it wasn't like that franchise was built around Jim McMahon. He won a championship based defense and a running game. It was a great defense, maybe the best defense in the history of football."
Manning should know about franchise building. He was the player around whom the Saints tried to build a team when they made him the second overall selection in the 1970 draft. The Indianapolis Colts are trying to do the same with his son, Peyton, also a quarterback, who was selected first overall last year.
"The Saints could have gotten in this quarterback derby the past couple of years," Archie Manning said. "People forget that last year when Peyton and Ryan [Leaf] looked like they were 1-2, the Saints offered the Cardinals all their draft choices last year for that No. 2 pick. People don't remember that. The Cardinals turned them down, but if that had been this year, it would have been interesting."
Especially if the Saints had taken Leaf, who appears to have self-destructed with the San Diego Chargers while Peyton Manning was the only quarterback in the NFL to be on the field for all of his team's plays from scrimmage last season.
However, even the elder Manning had to wonder about the Saints' decision to take Williams when they so desperately need a quarterback.
"Philosophically it's the wrong thing to do because unless you do a great job, it could really hurt you two years from now," Manning said. "But football's changed so much that the only people who can look at two years from now are the ones in their first year. And Mike is in Year 3."
"I think if it was my first year, looking at everything, I might have gone with a quarterback," he said. "But right now, I think we did the right thing. I'm not going to defend what we did because I don't care what people think.
"There's nobody who's going to feel sorry for us if we don't make it. We did what we thought we had to do. But we're happy with it."
Of course, it was all done with the expectation that Williams would stay healthy. But early in his first preseason game against the Miami Dolphins on Aug. 13, Williams suffered a high ankle sprain and was sidelined. Williams, presumably, would rebuild the Saints with Williams. However, the 5-foot-10, dreadlocked 235-pounder said he wouldn't talk to the media until the Saints' opener Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
Others in the franchise have their own opinions.
"The trend in the National Football League is you want to start out with the best quarterback," said Charles Bailey, the Saints' vice president of football operations. "You want to start out with that franchise player and build around him. If a quarterback is not available, I want to go with an offensive tackle or a defensive tackle. You always want to be strong up front. Quarterbacks, offensive tackles and defensive tackles. Those are premium players."
However, when the Saints drafted at No. 5 in April, no star quarterback was available, and the team looked good at offensive and defensive tackle.
"Ricky Williams is a franchise player," Bailey said. "Any time you have a chance to get that type of player, you make that move."
"We did the right move going after Ricky," Saints running back Aaron Craver said. "Next year we'll take the next step, whether it's a linebacker or a defensive back or a franchise quarterback."
Saints offensive coordinator Danny Abramowicz said: "Eventually, no matter what you do, you're going to have to have a quarterback. But we thought [Williams] was the best football player."
But worth an entire draft?
"We were very fortunate to get Ricky Williams," Kuharich said. "We did have to give up a considerable amount in the draft, but now because you can supplement with free agency, you have a way to give away choices and still be able to fill in the gaps."
And the Saints, who haven't had a winning season since 1992 and were 6-10 last year, have plenty of gaps.
"Next year, our first-round pick will be an unrestricted free agent," Kuharich said. "That's how we'll use our money."
Kuharich pointed out that the Denver Broncos got to the Super Bowl with John Elway, but didn't win until Terrell Davis emerged at running back, and that the Atlanta Falcons got there last season because of running back Jamal Anderson. "No disrespect to [quarterback] Chris Chandler," Kuharich said. "But without Jamal Anderson, they probably wouldn't have gotten to the Super Bowl."
And if nothing else, drafting Williams was the catalyst for the more than 2,000 new season tickets the Saints sold this year and the countless No. 34 jerseys that can be seen at their games.
"Everybody felt they had to do something big to get the excitement back and Mike felt like it would get snowballing what he wanted to do," Manning said. "So we'll see if it works."