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A sucker punch, a blockbuster trade, and the relative value of first round running backs

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In the 1970s, the Seahawks executed a remarkably contemporary draft strategy, but in doing so might have cost themselves a transformative superstar player

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Who is Clint Longley?

Best known for subbing in for a dazed Roger Staubach in the second half of a 1974 Thanksgiving Day game and leading the Dallas Cowboys to a 13-point comeback victory over the Washington Redskins as a rookie, Longley threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns on just 11 completions in that rally. Since the former Abilene Christian star and reputed rattlesnake hunter hadn’t expected to play, had never seen action as a professional before and admitted he entered the game with no preparation, the performance prompted one of the legendary sports quotes—from Cowboys guard Blaine Nye who called it “the triumph of an uncluttered mind.” The 1970s were a key period for the propagation of zen practice in the United States.

What does this have to do with the Seattle Seahawks? Nothing.

They didn’t even exist at the time.

However, following that Thanksgiving comeback the folk aura of notoriety and intrigue surrounding Longley, nicknamed “The Mad Bomber”, helped provoke a series of transactions that permanently changed Seahawks history at the beginning of its infancy.

You see, although Longley threw just 24 more passes for a total of 108 yards over the rest of 1974 and ’75, including going 6-15 in his only start in the 1975 finale after Dallas had already locked up its playoff position, Longley’s residual value in the league (which had been just a fifth round pick when the Cincinnati Bengals traded the draft-ineligible underclassman’s rights to the Cowboys before 1974) remained high enough that Dallas general manager Gil Brandt succeeded in flipping Longley to the San Diego Chargers during training camp in 1976 for both a 1977 second rounder and a first round selection 10 slots higher than the pick the Cowboys gave back, even though Longley had fallen to third on the Dallas depth chart behind new rookie Danny White during that camp AND HAD JUST PUNCHED TEAMMATE STAUBACH IN THE FACE IN THE LOCKER ROOM. Brandt later bundled those assets plus two additional second round picks during the 1977 draft in exchange for the second overall choice owned by Seattle, which the Cowboys used on future Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett.

The Seahawks wound up trading one of those second rounders back to Dallas for a wide receiver, but thanks to the initial haul still amassed a portfolio of high picks that made their 1977 class look like a near opposite of the 2018 group, at least from a round distribution standpoint—six picks in the top 90 and no fifth-rounders at all:

(Note: The NFL Draft went 12 rounds in those days, so Seattle in 1977 also selected four more times after the seventh round but those picks are omitted from the chart for simplicity and relevance.)

Anyway the other notable difference, and a more pertinent contrast to contemporary discussion of the Seahawks’ roster building plan today, is the decision to not choose a running back at the top of the draft.

Running backs in the 1970s were far more coveted than they are today, of course; Dorsett wasn’t even the first rusher drafted, after USC’s Ricky Bell went number one to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the decade, 44 backs went in the first round (about 16 percent of all picks in that round, or nearly three times more often than quarterbacks) including 15 in the top 10. Five of those became Hall of Famers like Dorsett, so it was a rich time for the position.

’77 doesn’t appear quite so deep though, with the next running back after Dorsett not selected until midway through the second round. Teams still chose 30 more running backs in the top seven rounds and 49 in total, but only four of all those players produced career AV in the era-adjusted range expected for the upper quartile among the position (sadly, not even the top overall choice Bell, who suffered from a degenerative muscle condition and died in 1984, counts among those).

So Dorsett was undeniably the gem of the draft and, more importantly, everybody knew it at the time. According to this Washington Post article from May 1977, Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant said, “Most people felt Dorsett was the premier player ... similar to [O.J.] Simpson several year ago” (Simpson had gone number one overall in 1969, and in 1977 had been first team All-Pro five straight years). In the same story, Brandt says he made the trade contingent on Dorsett being available in the second slot; reportedly the Buccaneers had telegraphed their commitment to Bell who had previously played for Tampa coach John McKay at Southern Cal.

As we remember, Dorsett fulfilled his apex prospect status breaking 1,000 yards in each of his first eight non-strike-shortened years. Dorsett ran for 12,739 yards in just 11 seasons, surpassing Jim Brown’s then-record for career yards, and remains ninth on the all-time list. In retrospect, missing out on that talent was the Seahawks’ long-term loss. Said Grant on draft day: “Dallas and Seattle must be sleeping together.”

On the other hand, there’s no guarantee Seahawks GM John Thompson would have selected Dorsett even had he kept the pick, or that Dorsett would have played in Seattle if he did. Slight financial considerations meant more to pro teams back then than they do today, and Dorsett was intent on making the top dollar a star rusher commanded. Dorsett supposedly wrote a letter to the Seahawks management threatening to play in the CFL if they drafted him, and his agent, Mike Trope, told the Post, “He doesn’t care if he plays for the Cowboys or the Siberian Huskies, but Seattle has a reputation for being somewhat penurious.” The Seahawks had owned a top-two pick in their inaugural draft a year earlier, after all, and avoided a cornerstone running back then too—opting for defensive tackle Steve “not Dave” Niehaus with the franchise’s first ever selection. The next two players off the board, and four of the next six, were running backs so it’s not like the ’76 draft was short at that position either.

Likewise, the organization had different development priorities than Dallas, which was defending a division championship and playoff appearances in 10 of the past 11 years. “We gave up some building strength for a high-quality player who fills an immediate need,” Cowboys coach Tom Landry said, explaining the moves to get Dorsett. Dallas needed one piece—building strength was what Thompson was after.

With its top two picks Seattle focused on improving up front, drafting right tackle Steve August and left guard Tom Lynch, then added center John Yarno with the 87th selection; those three became the core of the Seahawks’ starting offensive line for the next five years. In 1976 Seattle had been a 2-12 expansion club. By 1978 it was 9-7 and poised for a successful next decade. With Dorsett, Dallas made its second straight Super Bowl in ’78, true, but as exciting as it might be to project Dorsett’s historic numbers onto a hypothetical 1980s Seahawks powerhouse it’s doubtful to imagine him finding equivalent production if you also subtract the investment in blocking. “From Seattle’s standpoint, it was a good trade because it gives them an opportunity to get a number of players to help lay the foundation for their team,” Landry said.

Now, John Schneider has been known for a similar blueprint of using high picks to acquire building strength rather than targeting high-capital individuals in his Seahawks drafts. Yet many fans in 2018 might have preferred Schneider follow Thompson’s example 40 years ago by addressing offensive line needs early instead of making Rashaad Penny Seattle’s fourth-ever first round running back. Then again the Seahawks aren’t now in as naked a construction mode as that fledgling edition. They don’t have quite the loaded luxury to go all in on one guy like the 1977 Cowboys either, but they’re somewhat in between. Don’t forget they technically traded back, not sacrificing but adding a pick, to get their man. What’s changed (apart from the context of Seattle’s 21st century rise into elite expectations) of course is the relative value assigned rushing talent in the draft and the way other teams harbor picks in general.

Which only makes the latest draft, with Penny at the top, even more upside down by comparison.

It’s not as though the Seahawks ignored the position in ’77: They took running backs Tony Benjamin and David Sims with their sixth and seventh round picks, then spent a future fourth rounder on Al Hunter in that summer’s supplemental draft (the league’s first ever supplemental pick; Hunter had gotten kicked off Notre Dame when he was discovered with a woman in his dorm room).

And all after spending a second round choice on Sherman Smith in ’76. But the attitude of the time was again summed up by Bud Grant: “Second-round picks are chancy. And you don’t win with quantity, but quality.”

The proper analytical response to this isn’t to select between quality or quantity, but to recognize how different strategies can execute these principles to generate value. If teams are over-appraising high draft picks, you can take advantage by flipping them for a greater amount of roster resources—and the reverse. I haven’t studied every draft trade from the 1970s, but the examples in this small sample of exchanges relating to the Tony Dorsett trade look like some pro teams were awfully loose with their valuation of draft capital!

If an NFL team traded the 14th, 41st, 51st and 54th picks for the New York Giants’ second overall selection in 2018 and then chose Saquon Barkley, that club would be laughed at on the draft broadcast and pilloried on the blogs rather than credited with the “steal of the draft” as Dallas was for spending their wealth of picks on Dorsett. The Giants took enough shit for using their native pick in that situation.

Independent of the positional value of the resulting choice though, the 1990s Jimmy Johnson trade sheet (which radically inflates the value of top picks, but many popular analysts and supposedly some traditionalist teams still use today) actually gives a slight edge to the team moving up in this case. However according to Chase Stuart’s chart, calculated from AV expected by draft position, this transaction was in modern terms a big win for Seattle—almost exactly like the Cowboys throwing in the 14th pick they got from San Diego in the Longley deal for free.

I haven’t done the work to be totally sure these same calibrations equate to values adjusted for the era, but when you think of the NFL environment at the time, with no salary cap or genuine free agency (teams possessed a kind of “restricted free agency”-style control at the end of player contracts, allowing them right of first refusal as well as compensation not in the form of bonus draft picks assigned by the league but rather picks extracted directly from the signing team—greatly restricting player movement compared to today), franchises should have been even more protective of draft capital as most cost effective avenue for acquiring player rights.

As such, that Longley trade looks like an even weirder move: The Chargers sent the 14th and 41st selections for the 24th pick and the Cowboys mercurial benchwarmer. For that swap to be fair in more recent terms, Longley needed to be worth either another 24th overall pick (Stuart) or even the 20th (Johnson). Spoiler: He wasn’t. Longley completed just half of his 24 attempts in San Diego for two touchdowns against three interceptions and seven (!) sacks—for an atrocious 1.5 adjusted yards per attempt and a negative any/a. He was playing in Canada a year later and selling carpets out of a truck in West Texas by 1980. If Gil Brandt theoretically lost the Seahawks trade, he cleaned up in this one.

And wait—what about that sucker punching incident?

Apparently chagrined by the challenge to his roster spot from White and resentful of the elder Staubach’s entrenched status as starter, on August 12, 1976, Clint Longley either attacked Staubach with a folding chair or approached the future Hall of Famer while he was putting on his shoulder pads and punched him from behind, causing cuts and severe bruising. Landry reportedly wanted Longley off the team immediately, but Brandt struggled to find a trade partner for almost three weeks as executives around the league knew Longley would have to be cut if not dealt.

In other words, Dallas had no leverage at all but the Chargers coughed up the equivalent of a first round pick anyway for the Mad Bomber. Perhaps that helped Brandt feel he was playing with house chips in overpaying Seattle for the opportunity to draft Dorsett.

A bizarre episode in football history to be sure, but had it not happened Rashaad Penny might have been the fifth first round running back in Seahawks history instead.