(EDITOR'S NOTE: During the offseason we sometimes ask guest columnists to contribute opinion pieces. Today NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal gives us a history lesson, taking us back to the beginning of free agency and detailing how it unfolded.)
Free agency has turned into the NFL’s Wheel of Fortune, an offseason quick fix that shakes up rosters, enriches players and beguiles fans. Hard to believe that when it was first proposed, owners opposed it.
That was in the early 1990s, with owners and players deadlocked on the issue.
But in late February of 1993 Judge David Doty approved a settlement between the NFL and NFLPA on Reggie White’s class-action lawsuit concerning free agency – ending what NFLPA lawyer Jim Quinn said was a 20-year struggle over free agency and some form of revenue sharing.
The settlement also included details like franchise and transition designations, the reduction of the draft from 12 to seven rounds and rules on tampering.
“I am pleased,” Quinn said then. “I think the settlement was a fair one.”
He was right. The players got what they wanted. Eventually, so did the owners.
Thus began a new era in NFL history, the Salary Cap/Free Agency era that annually sees hundreds of millions of dollars awarded to players. But the movement wasn’t without its hiccups … and its challenges.
Just four days after the 1993 settlement, for instance, linebacker Wilbur Marshall filed a motion objecting to being tagged a franchise player. Marshall believed he had a right to negotiate with teams other than Washington.
But he wasn’t alone. The lawyer for defensive end Leslie O’Neal told the media that he was planning a similar lawsuit (Marshall and O’Neal were two of the ten players designated franchise players under the new settlement).
The next challenge occurred on March 4, four days into the new free-agency era of 1993. Tackle Gerald Perry signed a three-year, $3-million deal with Al Davis’ Raiders, becoming the first player to switch teams in the “new era.”
Or so it seemed.
But Rams’ executive VP John Shaw told the NFL and media that he had a “handshake deal” with Perry and that “various sources, including Perry,” told him the Raiders courted Perry before the March 1 free-agency period. Essentially, he accused the Raiders of tampering.
But his charge didn’t stick.
A few hours after Perry signed with the Raiders, offensive lineman Don Maggs signed with the Broncos after seven seasons with the Houston Oilers. On the same day, quarterback Phil Simms re-signed with the Giants, choosing not to test the waters of free agency.
Over the next two days the Packers would sign nose tackle Bill Maas, and the Rams added tackle Irv Eatman (likely knowing they had zero chance of getting Perry back with any grievance filed against the Raiders). And the beat rolled on, with the Jets signing Ronnie Lott and defensive lineman Leonard Marshall, both aging vets.
Over the first 23 days only 23 players changed teams, but by April 25 – or nearly two months into the first year of free agency -- 82 had moved locations, including Reggie White, Tim McDonald, Kevin Greene, Hardy Nickerson, Pierce Holt and Jumpy Geathers.
All made significant contributions to their new teams.
But plenty of others did not, due to injuries, age or declining play. They included Maggs (16 games and three starts in two seasons with Denver), Ferrell Edmunds (31 catches and two touchdowns in two seasons after signing with Seattle), Chuck Cecil (15 games and seven starts as the “replacement” for Tim McDonald in Arizona), and Eric Thomas, who was hurt in his second year with Jets.
So there was the good, the bad and the ugly that first year of free agency. But the players got paid. More than that, it was the beginning of a system that was more than fair to players and made owners richer than ever in terms of revenues and franchise values.
It was the proverbial “win-win” and a critical ingredient in growing the NFL. Hard to believe its owners couldn’t envision that nearly three decades ago.