Ryan Grigson is living a football life.
The Indianapolis Colts' general manager played tight end and offensive tackle at Purdue and three seasons as a professional in Cincinnati, Detroit and Toronto before a back injury sent him into coaching and personnel. There were stops in Saskatchewan, McPherson, Kan., and Buffalo, N.Y., where he worked for the Destroyers of the Arena Football League. He had been a scout for the St. Louis Rams for five years when the Philadelphia Eagles hired him in 2004 to search for talent out West. He worked his way up to director of player personnel, and after the 2011 season -- at the age of 39 -- the Indiana native returned home. But the Colts were coming off a two-win season and had a lame-duck coach and future Hall of Fame quarterback, too.
Grigson still beats the bushes for talent.
"Sometimes, you just go out trolling," he said the other day from his office in Indianapolis. "I'll shoot out an email, and someone hits back on the line."
No one has been more aggressive than Grigson. In the 22 months he has been with the Colts, he has orchestrated 16 trades, roughly a fifth of the league's total during that time. "From [owner Jim] Irsay to [head coach] Chuck Pagano, we try to get better every day," Grigson said. "You only have so many ways to make your team better after the draft and free agency. I think trades are the next best avenue."
When he fired out one of those exploratory emails on Sept. 17, Cleveland Browns CEO Joe Banner, his old boss in Philadelphia, hit back.
"It happened very quickly," Banner explained. "Twenty-four hours later, we had a deal. As far as value goes, we thought we got a little less than we wanted. But Ryan probably felt the same way."
Running back Trent Richardson went to the Colts, and the forward-looking Browns received Indy's 2014 first-round draft choice. Suddenly, Indianapolis possessed two of the first three players drafted in 2012, Richardson and quarterback Andrew Luck.
The star-for-prospect trade, because of its daring and novelty, struck a nerve in the button-down, stay-the-course NFL. So why don't we see more of these?
"The league does things the way things have always been done," Banner said. "This trade was so conspicuous and untraditional. People say football is the ultimate team sport. That's true, but I think that's taken on a bigger life than it deserves."
Baseball thrives on trades. In August 2012, the Boston Red Sox sent three high-profile players and $12 million to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who parted with five players. Boston rid itself of $275 million in salary, then used that money to reinvent its roster. That the Dodgers and Red Sox were still playing in mid-October is a testament to the power of what a good trade can do for both parties involved.
Before the NFL's 2012 season, the league and the players union agreed to extend the trading deadline two weeks -- this year's cutoff is Oct. 29 at 4 p.m. ET -- giving teams more time to make deals without compromising the integrity of competition.
Banner, who was the Eagles' president from 2001-12, sees the NFL loosening up and trading more often. "It comes down to a comfort level," he said. "Five picks from Atlanta for Julio Jones? I believe this will seem less bold in a year or so. I know certain teams would be reluctant to look at deals like this, but I think you'll see more trades in the future. "Not an avalanche, but more."
Thick playbooks and complex strategies make it far more difficult for a player to assimilate into a new team in football than baseball. But NFL teams do seem to be more willing to explore trades during the regular season in hopes of reaping near-immediate dividends. Since Week 1, no fewer than four teams have traded away one of their former first-round draft choices:
The Browns traded Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, to the Colts after Week 2.
The Jacksonville Jaguars traded their 2009 first-round pick, offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, to the Baltimore Ravens after Week 4. It was the first in-season trade the Ravens had made in their 18-year history.
Using those transactions as a jumping-off point, we propose five over-the-top deals that actually make a wild-and-crazy sort of sense, marquee trades that would leave the Richardson deal looking like a standard transaction.
Suspend your disbelief
Before you start snickering and scrambling to post a snarky Facebook comment, consider a few things:
Yes, we fully realize that for various reasons -- some more sentimental than practical -- these trades are extremely unlikely to occur in real life. Nevertheless, a strong argument can be made that these are balanced deals that would indeed benefit each side. Certainly, there are salary-cap implications to be considered. But contracts are renegotiated all the time, and teams can often find ways to create cap space for a player they truly covet.
Again, these are trades we would like to see from an observer's perspective -- not ones we actually expect to see.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has long recognized the value of trades, having benefited greatly from wise acquisitions such as Corey Dillon, Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Just last year, he pulled off a pivotal in-season trade to acquire cornerback Aqib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the other side of things, he notably dealt Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders in 2009. Whenever possible, Belichick collects extra draft choices to replenish the roster.
"You have 53 players and only seven draft picks," said NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, who was the general manager of the Redskins and Texans for 18 seasons. "Those are like gold."
As the Buffalo Bills' general manager, Bill Polian guided the team to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls.
When he would discuss trades with Marv Levy, the head coach would quote former Redskins colleague George Allen.
"He'd say, 'No one trades anyone that can help them,'" Polian said, laughing. "In the back of your mind, you're wondering why they're getting rid of this guy."
Marshall Faulk ran for more than 5,000 yards and scored more than 50 touchdowns in his first five seasons with the Colts. And then, after some temperamental behavior that looked like an attempt to force a new contract, Polian traded Faulk to the Rams for second- and fifth-round picks in the 1999 draft. Faulk ran for more than 1,300 yards in his first season in St. Louis, produced the league's best average per carry (5.5) -- and, more importantly, the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV.
It worked, Casserly, insisted, because Faulk had the offseason to assimilate the Rams' complex offense.
"This isn't baseball," Casserly said. "If you're the right fielder for the Nationals, you just get on the next flight and play the next day. Throw him in there and he hits and fields his position. In football, there's a much more coordinated effort."
Quarterbacks, who must mesh seamlessly with 10 other players, have the most difficult time in transition. Running backs, receivers and pass-rushers play a more individual game and can be plugged in more quickly after a trade. Another reason teams trade for draft picks and veteran stars aren't dealt more often is because they can have considerable mileage on their tires.
The biggest deterrent? Those in the business all point to the salary cap.
"With veteran players," Polian said, "it's a huge impediment. The signing bonus is prorated over the years remaining in the contract. ... If you're not significantly under the cap, you're in the soup."
Time always tells
In the final analysis, NFL teams are reluctant to gamble with their futures. For some, though, the risk-reward equation is too tempting to ignore.
In 2004, Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi believed that Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning was a winner. When San Diego came calling, Accorsi drafted Philip Rivers with the No. 4 overall pick and sent him, along with three draft choices, to the Chargers in exchange for Manning, who was the No.1 pick.
"You better be right," Accorsi has said. "If you're right, it's Super Bowls. If you're wrong, now you've really crippled the franchise."
Manning, despite a horrific start to 2013, has won two Super Bowls with the Giants.
Early in the 1989 season, while on a run with some of his staff, Jimmy Johnson conceived the trade that would turn around the Cowboys franchise. He dealt running back Herschel Walker, who had produced more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage the previous season, to the Vikings, who imagined themselves to be one player away from reaching the Super Bowl. "The Great Train Robbery," as it came to be known, involved 18 players and draft picks. The Cowboys sent Walker and four modest draft choices to the Vikings, who parted with five notable players -- and six draft choices from the first or second rounds, plus a third- and a sixth-rounder. Four of them were parlayed into Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, Alvin Harper and Dixon Edwards, part of the core that carried the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories in four years. The Vikings lost in the divisional playoffs that year, and Walker failed to rush for at least 1,000 yards in any of his three middling seasons in Minnesota.
The winner of the Richardson trade won't be known for years.
"To be determined," Casserly said. "Let's see who Cleveland picks with that choice. Clearly, the Browns were not impressed with Trent Richardson. In Indy's case, it's a little bit of going for it. It's like, 'Hey, we've got a shot here.'"
The trade, Casserly and others were quick to point out, was made possible by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that vastly diminished the value of rookie contracts. Through five games with the Colts, Richardson has run for a modest 228 yards and two touchdowns.
Grigson's trades have brought 13 players and six draft choices to the Colts, mostly in exchange for draft choices, five of them from the next two drafts. Earlier this season, ESPN reporter Adam Schefter sent Grigson a text message with his less-than-two-year trade totals. "I said to my assistant, 'That's scary,'" Grigson said, laughing. "I guess that's a lot, but it seems to be working for us.
"Honestly, it's not a race. We're just trying to win the Super Bowl. A lot of teams chart their course and roll with it because there's a fear of the unknown. We're just trying to get better. We'll always listen."