“Achieving” the worst record in the NFL comes with franchise-altering opportunity. Every year, the last ranked team is awarded the first overall pick of the NFL Draft, and with it the critical dilemma of selecting a potentially transcendent player or trading the pick away for a treasure trove of assets.
In 1985, the Buffalo Bills became the first team to make the first overall selection and receive compensation for trading the pick away. In doing so, a major loophole of the NFL Supplemental Draft was exposed, prompting inner-league lawsuit threats, future rule changes and restructuring of the supplemental draft format.
The USFL’s impact on the NFL Draft
Drafts in the 80’s were much different than drafts of today. The modern NFL rarely sees prospects like Kyler Murray drafted in multiple sports, granting the athlete a decision as to which sport they’ll pursue professionally (sorry, Oakland A’s). typically when a player is drafted, there’s no doubt they will play in the NFL, and the implementation of the rookie wage scale has relatively streamlined contract negotiations. From 1983-1985, the NFL was in a tug-of-war over talent with the upstart USFL, casting much more uncertainty and complications over the draft process and player leverage in negotiations.
In the 1983 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills selected Jim Kelly with the 14th overall pick, despite their inclusion on his Elway-inspired list of teams he refused to play for. This gave a window of opportunity for Bruce Allen (yes, THAT Bruce Allen from the Dan Snyder scandals) to reach out to Kelly in hopes to swaying him towards the USFL, where Allen worked as general manager of the Chicago Blitz. Hilariously enough, this conversation happened in the Buffalo Bills’ front office during their negotiations with Jim. Bruce Allen called the Bills’ secretary and lied about his identity to get Jim on the phone, and convinced him to leave the building without signing a deal. Kelly opted for spring-league USFL but signed with the Houston Gamblers.
This left the Bills with a wasted first round pick... initially. They managed an 8-8 record in 1983 before collapsing in 1984 with a two-win season, good enough for last place honors. This gave them the first overall selection in the upcoming draft, and the decision of whether to draft a star or trade-down for a bundle of picks or players.
The USFL had already begun showing financial issues in 1984 after entering an ill-advised financial arms race with the NFL. Teams were folding, financial cover-ups were exposed, and the overall sustainability of the league was in question. By 1985, the league had relocated from major hubs like Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington to smaller markets like Portland, Orlando, Memphis, and San Antonio. Kelly’s anti-Buffalo stance softened with the questionable longevity of the USFL, which gave the Bills pause on targeting another QB with their first overall pick. By late February of 1985, they preemptively agreed to terms with future Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, who would go on to be their selection.
Bernie Kosar calls an audible on the NFL Draft
In the spring of 1985, Bernie Kosar shocked the league by declaring his intention to forgo his final two years of collegiate eligibility and enter the 1985 draft. He was a redshirt sophomore at a time when draft eligibility was limited to college seniors and graduates. He immediately became the top quarterback prospect of the class, although in his official announcement he omitted his commitment to enter the NFL Draft. Without reason to believe he wouldn’t be eligible, teams scrambled for positioning over Kosar. The Bills were committed to Smith, and the Houston Oilers owned the second selection but had drafted Warren Moon the year prior. This put the Minnesota Vikings as Kosar’s likely destination with their third overall selection, and they went so far as to hire his quarterback coach from Miami, Marc Trestman. However, the Oilers were also fielding trade-up calls.
Bernie Kosar’s motivation for graduating early was partially fueled by a belief he had outgrown the NCAA, despite his loyalty to his teammates and desire to carry them to a national championship again. His father solidified his decision when he explained a loophole that would strengthen his chance to play for his hometown team, the Cleveland Browns. Undergrads were required to submit their draft eligibility applications by April 15th in order to declare for the April 30th draft. By missing this deadline while setting course for a summer graduation, Bernie would be ineligible for the NFL Draft but eligible for the supplemental draft and 1985 season.
Two key trades happened on April 9th, 1985 that targeted the same player and would cause turmoil in the coming weeks. The Vikings, determined to not let a team leapfrog them to grab Kosar, sent their first and second round picks to the Oilers in exchange for the second overall pick, an expensive cost to move one draft slot. With Allen already locked up by the Bills, they had every reason to believe they had secured the rights to draft Bernie Kosar, but wisely insured themselves by making the second round selection conditional on Kosar signing with them.
The Browns already attempted to trade with the Oilers as well, but Houston was determined to not let the star quarterback go to a division rival. However, Kosar tipped off Cleveland of his newly discovered loophole. The same day as the Minnesota-Houston trade, the Bills sent their first overall supplemental pick to the Browns in exchange for Cleveland’s seventh overall pick, third round pick, 1986 sixth round pick, and All-Pro linebacker Chip Banks. Banks was unable to be located following news of the trade, so Buffalo exercised an option that sent Cleveland’s 1986 first round selection in lieu of Banks.
The fallout of Bernie “missing” the NFL Draft application deadline
Chaos erupted when news of Kosar’s NFL Draft ineligibility broke. The Vikings and Oilers demanded action from NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. On April 23rd, Rozelle ruled that Kosar hadn’t broken any rules, but gave Kosar a second chance to select which draft to enter. This gave the Vikings an opportunity to send Hall of Fame head coach Bud Grant and Marc Trestman to sway Kosar their direction.
While these meetings took place, Houston attempted to delay the draft by naming Rozelle in a lawsuit. However, when Minnesota opted to not join in the lawsuit, the case was dropped. The first round pick swap wasn’t reversed but Minnesota agreed that they would not select or allow a trade partner to select Houston’s primary target, Ray Childress. The conditional second round pick was not sent to Houston. The Oilers lost twice; they missed an opportunity to gain significant draft capital by trading with the Browns initially, and still wound up with the star quarterback in their division.
The drama of the 1985 offseason prompted the NFL to change the rules surrounding the supplemental draft order. By holding a selection lottery after the traditional entry draft, players have much less leverage when trying to broker a pre-draft deal like Kosar. Brian Bosworth attempted to do so in 1987, but despite warning various teams including the Seahawks that he wouldn’t sign with them, Seattle selected Bosworth with the first pick of the draft. Bosworth backed off his stance and eventually signed with Seattle, playing 24 games for them before being waived after three years of his 11-year deal.
The Kosar trade laid the groundwork for both Buffalo and and Cleveland to have some of their most successful eras. Bernie led the Browns to the playoffs five consecutive years from 1985-1989, the longest playoff streak they achieved since the 50’s. They would make three conference championship appearances in this time, but lost to John Elway’s Broncos each time. Success in Buffalo was a little more delayed, as they went 2-14 a second consecutive year. They wouldn’t benefit from their misfortune with a second first overall pick, as Cleveland’s use of the supplemental pick forfeited this selection. Kelly would finally make his NFL debut in 1986, and from 1988-1996 they made the playoffs all but one year, including four Super Bowl losses.
Although Bernie Kosar isn’t in the Hall of Fame, he was a multiple time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl champion with the Cowboys, NCAA national champion, and author of quite possibly the most unique and ingenious transaction the NFL has seen.