As quarterback is the most important position on an NFL football field, it’s not a surprise that some of the most nonsensical trades in league history revolve around them. Every team covets a franchise player at the position, and they’ll go to great lengths to make sure that they have one. The only problem is, sometimes their evaluation is faulty, and they aren’t able to see that the quarterback in question is worse than they thought, or they aren’t able to recognize his potential for the future before dealing him away.
These are the kinds of transactions that make or break NFL franchises. It’s been happening forever, and while some trades for quarterbacks have worked out well over the years, many more have fallen flat. In some cases, we’ve seen Hall-Of-Famers be given up for next to nothing, and draft busts be traded for a king’s ransom. Let’s take a look at some of these ridiculous deals for quarterbacks that have taken place, and see how one of the teams involved made a huge mistake. In some cases, it burned them for years to come.
Ranked below are the 15 worst quarterback trades in NFL history.
15. Carson Palmer For A 1st and 2nd
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Palmer excelled during his time in Oakland, but he did have a history of playing well for the Bengals. The trade that Cincinnati agreed to send him over to the Raiders was a hasty one, and they were never able to improve on his production, no matter which quarterback they gave a chance.
Granted, the Oakland trade netted them picks that turned into two productive players (Giovanni Bernard and Dre Kirkpatrick), but Palmer clearly had some gas left in the tank, evidenced by his resurgence in Arizona immediately after leaving the Raiders. In the time since that trade, the Bengals never won a playoff game, and Palmer did, so it’s difficult to say that they came out on top here.
14. John Elway Draft-Day Swap
Elway muscled his way out of Baltimore (it would be Indianapolis the following year), insisting that he did not want to play for the Colts under any circumstances. His ace in the hole was that he could just as easily play professional baseball, and forego playing in the NFL all together. The Colts management ended up giving in, and traded Elway after they took him 1st-overall, in exchange for Chris Hinton, Mark Herrmann and a 1984 1st-round pick.
It was a decision that continued to sink the Colts until they were able to land Peyton Manning, but it’s easy to see why they would have made it at the time. Still, Elway was and still is one of the greatest quarterback prospects of all-time, so it’s a trade that stings to this day, even if it’s understandable why they didn’t want to call his bluff at the time.
13. Bucs Give Steve Young To The 49ers
The Buccaneers were bullish on Vinny Testaverde, who was selected 1st-overall in 1987 by the team, and while it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, this was a decision that would soon be regretted. Though Tampa Bay only gave up a 2nd and a 4th, Testaverde never turned out to be the elite player that many thought he would be. He’d have a long career, but much of it was spent as a journeyman quarterback outside of Tampa.
Meanwhile, Young was able to lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl, and was consistently one of the best quarterbacks of the ’90s. His production wasn’t great with the Bucs in the first couple years of his career, but in retrospect, this is one that Tampa would like to have back, and it isn’t close.
12. Brad Johnson For A 1st, 2nd and 3rd
In just one of several awful quarterback transactions by Washington, Johnson was acquired to be a franchise player in 1999, and was anything but that. It was a massive expense to get him, and that 1st-round pick ended up netting Daunte Culpepper for the Vikings, who had a run (albeit relatively brief), as one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Meanwhile, Johnson’s production never eclipsed a mid-tier level.
Ultimately, the Redskins would let Johnson go several years later, only to see him win a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers (though he was carried by a great defense). Unfortunately for Washington, it wasn’t even the worst quarterback-involved trade in team history. The Vikings easily won this one, and netted a nice return for an average player.
11. Roman Gabriel For Two Players And Two 1sts
There was a time when Gabriel was one of the foremost quarterback names in the entire league. As a former 1st-overall pick in the old AFL (though he opted to play for the NFL’s Rams), he was a superstar of his day, and put in some very nice years in Los Angeles through the ’60s and ’70s. The Eagles were a mediocre team in 1973, and decided to sell the fame for Gabriel, giving up several 1st-rounders and multiple players, along with a 3rd-rounder in 1975.
While Gabriel had a solid 1973 season for Philly, he quickly fell off the map due to his increasing age, and the Eagles were left without a surefire starting quarterback. Yet they gave up several draft picks that could have been used to get one. It was simply a failure of a trade from all angles, though Philly would rebound, and make a Super Bowl in 1980 with Ron Jaworski under center.
10. Drew Bledsoe For A 1st
Today, he’s knows as the Patriots quarterback that preceded Tom Brady, but back in his heyday, Bledsoe was usually seen as a quality NFL player. He had some nice seasons in New England, even if he could be inconsistent, and when this trade happened, most people assumed that Buffalo was getting a good quarterback that could turn their fortunes around.
After a solid 2002 season however, Bledsoe looked to be done as an NFL starter. Though the Bills didn’t sell the farm, only giving up a lone 1st-rounder, it was still a pick that could have been used to draft a better quarterback. They never did make a playoff game with Bledsoe under center, and the experiment was promptly scrapped entirely in 2004. Soon after that, Bledsoe would be out of the league entirely.
9. Joe Theismann For A 1st
It’s hard to feel too bad for the Dolphins on this one, considering they would acquire the likes of Dan Marino just a relatively short time later, but in a vacuum it was still a bad trade. Once he got rolling for the Redskins, Theismann was one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and had several seasons where his production well-eclipsed that of most quarterbacks in the 70s and 80s.
He’d go on to play in several Super Bowls during his time in Washington, and cemented himself as one of the most legendary players in franchise history. Meanwhile, Miami wouldn’t make any noise in the playoffs until they acquired Marino. This trade was an easy win for the Redskins, that would go a long way to set up future success.
8. Redskins Trade Up For RGIII
The precedent that warned modern-day NFL teams about selling the farm for a quarterback, the decision for Washington to give up three 1st-round picks for Griffin was the biggest news in the league at the time. No doubt that Griffin was a star at Baylor, but he always had questions about durability. And that’s before you even factor in the musical chairs the Redskins were about to play with their coaching staff.
Long story short, Griffin sputtered out after a quality rookie season, and the Rams netted multiple productive players in exchange for him. Fortunately for the Redskins, the trade-up wasn’t completely debilitating, though it did set them back several years, even though they were able to develop Kirk Cousins.
7. Joe Montana For A 1st
It wasn’t exactly a secret that Montana was over the hill by the time he went to the Chiefs, but Kansas City elected to pull the trigger on him anyway. It probably wasn’t the best decision, and though the former Super Bowl-winning quarterback didn’t embarrass himself, he clearly wasn’t the player he was just several years earlier.
The repercussions to the Chiefs from this trade alone weren’t devastating, but they also were unnecessary. They would have been better off simply tanking and then drafting a quarterback in one of the next two drafts instead of taking a flyer on a name that was only going to end up being a feel-good move. After his second season in Kansas City, Montana was retired, and the team never eclipsed a 9-win season.
6. Chris Chandler For A 2nd-Overall Pick
In what was another horrific decision by the Tampa Bay front office, they elected to relinquish a 2nd-overall pick in exchange for Chandler, who was a middling starter for the Colts in the beginning of his career. Needless to say, this made no sense, and he predictably fizzled out with the Bucs after a mere one-and-a-half seasons with the team, none of which produced anything resembling a good NFL quarterback.
Of course, Chandler would find success later on with the Falcons, being a key ingredient to their 1998 Super Bowl run. But that was years later, and the Bucs certainly had no idea that kind of performance was on the horizon for him. Otherwise, they would have kept him to begin with. It was simply a reckless trade by Tampa, who was throwing darts to find a quarterback at this point in the early-90s.
5. Rob Johnson For A 1st
And these trades keep getting more inexplicable. You have reason to have no idea who Johnson is, as his career stat sheet would indicate. A former 4th-round pick by the Jaguars, he was sought out by the Bills for some reason, despite the fact that he totaled a mere one start in three seasons with the team. Nevertheless, Buffalo acquired him for a 1st-round pick for the 1998 season.
Of course, Johnson was horrible, and never started more than 11 games in a season for the Bills in his four years with the team. They would have been better off going with Doug Flutie, who proved him worth in 1999 when he got them to a playoff appearance. Instead, Johnson was maintained as the starter, and continued to play horribly. That first round pick that Jacksonville received? It turned into All-Pro running back Fred Taylor.
4. Chargers Trade Up For Ryan Leaf
The Chargers dropped the ball when they gave up a 1st, 2nd and 3rd-round pick, along with Pro-Bowler Eric Metcalf to move up in order to acquire Leaf in the 1998 draft. Of course, Peyton Manning was the big quarterback sensation that year, and Leaf ended up being the sucker move. He wasn’t a good player, and also had severe personal issues that gave him no chance to develop.
Leaf ended up out of the league in short order, and he’s widely considered one of the biggest all-time quarterback busts. It’s easy to see why the Chargers wanted a quarterback, but the trade was really the worst one they could have made. They’d rebound with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers a short time later, but they had to suffer for a few years as a result of the Leaf trade-up.
3. Rick Mirer For A 1st
A Notre Dame product that was taken at 2nd-overall by Seattle, the Mirer trade stands as one of the worst quarterback acquisitions of the 90s. It’s a prime example of why the mere need for a quarterback doesn’t necessitate a trade for a questionable player who’s unlikely to work out. Mirer was a big name because of his play in college, but it was clear once he got to the Seahawks, that he was a mediocre NFL starter.
Still, the Bears were willing to pull the trigger on him. All you really need to know is that Mirer appeared in seven games for them in 1997 and threw a grand total of zero touchdown passes, along with seven interceptions. That was what he produced in exchange for a 1st-round pick. Simply unbelievable.
2. Jeff George For Two 1sts and A 3rd
George was a former 1st-overall pick in 1990 by the Colts, and a few years later his name still carried a good bit of clout. After all, he had showed flashes in Indianapolis, and the consensus was that he was just on a bad roster, which meant that he could be more consistent with an improved supporting cast. It’s what prompted the Falcons to offer up two 1st-rounders and a 3rd for him in 1994.
While part of this turned out to be true, and George did post some solid numbers with the Falcons in ’95 and ’96, by 1997 he was off the roster. It was a short stay for such an expense, and George never did get along with the coaching staff during his time in Atlanta, which yielded just one winning season. To add insult to injury, one of the picks for the Colts turned out to be Marvin Harrison.
1. Brett Favre For A 1st
Throwing a total of four passes in 1991 for Atlanta, Packers head coach Mike Holmgren nevertheless decided to make a move for him the following year. It turned out to be the catalyst that would re-establish Green Bay as one of the foremost threats in the league. Favre would prove him dominance almost immediately, upon earning the starting job in 1992, and wouldn’t let up for almost 20 years to come.
Without a doubt, the Falcons were sitting on a gold mine with the former 2nd-round pick. Unfortunately for them, they just didn’t know it. Favre turned out to be one of the best quarterbacks of his era, and the player that the Falcons acquired for him never amounted to anything. In a lot of cases, Atlanta would have been correct in giving up a 2nd-round quarterback for a 1st-round pick. Unfortunately, they didn’t know they had a future Hall-Of-Famer on their hands.
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