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The Cornelius Bennett Trade

Time to take you back to one of the biggest move the Bills have made in franchise history: The Cornelius Bennett Trade of 1987.

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On October 31st, 1987, one of the largest trades in NFL history went down. Some would refer to this as the Eric Dickerson trade, seeing as he was arguably the best running back in the NFL at the time and easily the most expensive man involved in the deal. But, to Buffalo, someone far more important was involved.

Setting The Scene

You see, the number two overall pick in the 1987 NFL Draft had refused to sign with the team that drafted him, which was a common occurrence at the time. The sides couldn’t find a middle ground on a deal, and the season was two months underway without their top selection. The newly-moved Indianapolis Colts were at an impasse with an impressive young linebacker named Cornelius ‘Biscuit’ Bennett. They needed something in return for their 2nd-overall pick going to waste, and they knew that a solid running game was key to their team’s success.

Meanwhile, in Buffalo, a new age had just begun. After a successful yet brief trip to the USFL, Jim Kelly’s return to the NFL was a sign of the changing of the tides, but the incredible young quarterback needed a lot of help. He’d openly criticized the Bills ownership and their apparent inability to create a championship roster, citing their distinct lack of NFL success from the AFL-NFL merger to the time, and they needed to prove him wrong. They had some good-quality players and a soon-to-be-great coach in Marv Levy, but to gain the faith of their new QB1, they had to take a swing. They needed help in the middle of the field and someone who could bring real heat off the edge when they blitzed, and there just so happened to be someone available who fit the bill.

Lastly, the Los Angeles Rams were having some trouble with a player already on their roster. Eventual Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson was two years into contract disputes with the team and had already sat out games due to the growing tension between the two parties. Dickerson wanted ‘quarterback money’ in his own words, and Los Angeles wasn’t willing to give it to him. They knew, however, that they had one of the NFL’s best offensive players on their roster, and they could demand a king’s ransom to hand him over. As the trade deadline loomed, they had to act fast.

Everyone involved had needs, some more technical than others, and all of them were hesitant to show their hands. Still, they had to get it sorted out before it was too late, and the phones were ringing off the hook; Each front office was moving like it was draft day all over again. By the time the dust settled, Bills GM Bill Polian, Colts GM Jim Irsay, and Rams GM John Shaw had swapped a total of ten pieces between them, with the Rams getting a whopping eight of those moving parts.

Here’s how it broke down:

Rams Receive:Colts Receive:Bills Receive:
RB Greg BellRB Eric Dickerson
(Rams)
Rights to Cornelius
Bennett, LB (Colts)
RB Owen GillColts Lose:Bills Lose:
1988 First-round pick
(Buffalo)
RB Owen GillRB Greg Bell
1988 First-round pick
(Indianapolis)
1988 First-round pick1988 First-round pick
1988 Second-round pick
(Indianapolis)
1988 Second-round pick1989 First-round pick
1989 First-round pick
(Buffalo)
1989 Second-round pick 1989 Second-round pick
1989 Second-round pick
(Indianapolis)
1989 Second-round pick
(Buffalo)
Rams Lose:
RB Eric Dickerson

The Fallout

The Colts had shed a lot of capital to get ahold of Dickerson, and both parties seemed thrilled to get to work together. It was a successful partnership for a while as their new running back helped spearhead an offense that would have them return to the playoffs for the first time in a decade but, as things often do, they couldn’t stay that way. Dickerson was unhappy once more, turning away from the team amid further contract issues, and serving several suspensions for his actions, amid a myriad of injuries. Dickerson had been an excellent addition for the Colts organization whilst actually on the field, but he was eventually shed to the Los Angeles Raiders for their fourth and eighth-round picks in the 1992 Draft.

(David Durochik via AP)

Having gone 10-6 the season prior, the Rams fell to 6-9 following a 1-5 start to the season prior to the trade. They used their extra draft picks in 1988 to select running back Gaston Green at 14th overall (Buffalo’s pick), wide receiver Aaron Cox at 20th (Indianapolis’ pick), and linebacker Fred Strickland at 47th (Indianapolis’ pick). They doubled down at running back in the first round the next year, taking Cleveland Gary with their extra 1989 first-rounder (Buffalo’s pick), linebacker Frank Stams at 45th (Indianapolis’ pick), and defensive back Darryl Henley at 53rd (Buffalo’s pick). Gaston Green would be a Pro-Bowler for Denver, but didn’t contribute greatly to the Rams, and Aaron Cox had a good rookie season, but never lived up to his draft cost, leaving the league after six uneventful seasons. Fred Strickland was an effective linebacker, but injuries forced him into inactivity often, and he bounced around the league as an 11-year journeyman. Cleveland Gary led the NFL in rushing touchdowns in 1990, but otherwise had a short and uninteresting career, and Frank Stams was an acceptable linebacker who never earned any accolades. Lastly, Darryl Henley was a decent defensive back, but had trouble off the field that hampered his career. He is currently serving a 31-year sentence in prison. Los Angeles had fallen apart by 1990, and wouldn’t return to prominence until their 1999 Superbowl-winning breakout season.

There was really only one true winner of the trade, after Los Angeles squandered all those extra draft picks and the Colts couldn’t work out a good relationship with the future Hall of Famer at running back. The Buffalo Bills gave up a lot to get Cornelius Bennett, but the big swing paid off.

Risk It For The Biscuit

Upon arriving in Buffalo, Cornelius Bennett was an immediate impact player putting up 69 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and 5 forced fumbles over the eight remaining games in his rookie season. Bennett’s presence and importance to those legendary Superbowl-bound Buffalo Bills teams cannot be overstated, as the combination of Bennett, Bruce Smith, Darryl Talley, and other defensive players balanced one of the most explosive offenses in the league en route to their four consecutive AFC Championship titles.

Despite playing most of his career at outside linebacker, Bennett is fourth all-time on the Bills sacks leaderboard (52.5), second in forced fumbles (22), first in defensive fumble recoveries (19), third in solo tackles (751), and was one of the most consistent tacklers this team had ever seen. The 1988 Defensive Player of the Year was awarded with three All-Pro selections (1988, 1991, 1992), and five Pro Bowls (1988, 1990-1993) and is widely considered the best Buffalo Bills linebacker of all-time.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    November 1, 2021 at 11:25 am

    You mean to say “cannot be overstated”.

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