For the last 15 years, the New England Patriots have been an almost unbroken example of success to the rest of the NFL, having recently added to that with the fourth Super Bowl win in team history. Going back another 15 years before the Belichick period, and the story was significantly different. It was the Patriots who were once on the losing end of draft trades that their current head coach deftly navigates. And this was never more true than 30 years ago, during the 1985 draft.
The San Francisco 49ers were only a few weeks removed from the second Super Bowl win of the Joe Montana-Bill Walsh era, and were slated to pick last in the draft (as is custom for the defending champion). But Walsh, the 49ers coach and one of the greatest draft minds in NFL history, wasn’t content to sit back and add depth to his already stocked roster.
“We were solid and strong at virtually ever position,” Walsh noted in his biography, Building a Champion. “When you reach that point, your only chance for measurable improvement is to acquire a true impact player. When at the very top, you be bold.”
And Walsh had a plan, though it was only by luck that he’d first seen the man he wanted to “be bold” in drafting.
The “living legend”
Falling asleep one night in a Houston hotel (ahead of a game against the Oilers), Walsh managed to stay awake for one more highlight.
“It was near midnight and I was beginning to doze off when I heard the sportscaster say, ‘Following this break, we have some incredible highlights of Jerry Rice and the Mississippi Valley State game,'” Walsh recalled in his book. “That caught my attention and I sat up to take a look at this ‘living legend.'”
Walsh was immediately impressed with what he saw. Despite the skepticism of scouts who told him that Rice’s 40-yard dash time was “no better than 4.6” seconds, the innovative San Francisco coach had found the person that he would trade up in the draft to get.
Adding Rice to Walsh’s famed “west coast offense” would give them a new dimension, and make them a nightmare for defenses across the league.
Finding a team to trade with in the first round proved difficult. After all, the logic of trading for a lower group of picks instead of a single higher pick was far from an accepted practice in that era.
After scouring the league, Walsh finally found a party willing to listen to his offer: Dick Steinberg, the personnel director of the Patriots. And on the morning of the draft, the Patriots and 49ers concluded what would prove to be a momentous trade in NFL history. The terms were a swap of first round picks, plus additional later round selections also changing hands:
After tense moments, Walsh and the 49ers got their man. Jerry Rice, the future leader in virtually every measurable wide receiver category in NFL history, joined forces with the era’s greatest coach-quarterback combination.
After an up and down rookie season, Rice matured into the player history remembers him as: The greatest receiver of all time. And in Walsh’s system with Montana as the quarterback, the 49ers would eventually add two more Super Bowls (with a third coming in the Steve Young era).
It was a perfect addition for all parties involved, except of course for the Patriots. While New England shouldn’t receive all of the blame (since not everyone rated Rice as a can’t-miss prospect), they nonetheless handed San Francisco the exact player who would propel them into becoming a full-fledged dynasty and team of the decade.
In return, the Patriots ended up with an underwhelming haul of talent. New England took offensive linemen Trevor Matich with San Francisco’s original first round pick (the 28th selection). He was a hard worker and college national champion, but Matich was hurt for much of his Patriots career, before eventually leaving a few seasons later. Neither of the other picks received in the trade panned out in New England either.
It can’t be called “the worst Patriots trade ever” due to the full circumstances. Still, from a purely historic NFL standpoint, it probably remains the team’s most notable draft day move, even if the notoriety was more from the 49ers’ point of view.
Bonus: The Patriots did draft a notable wide receiver in the 1985 draft, only it came in the fourth round. Boston College’s Gerard Phalen, who caught the famous Hail Mary from Doug Flutie, was taken by the local NFL team. Sadly, he never actually played for the Patriots due to a knee injury: