Last Friday Wilber Marshall, one of the best linebackers in football, who played the last four seasons for the Chicago Bears, became the property of the Washington Redskins under the NFL's 11-year-old free-agent compensation rule. It was, to say the least, one of the most startling developments in recent league history. In Phoenix, where the NFL brass was holding its annual meeting, the reactions were wildly mixed:
•Shock. The Marshall deal will lead to a rash of player moves before the April 15 deadline. The rich will squeeze the poor, and competitive balance will be kaput.
•Mild interest. It was an isolated case. Never had conditions been so perfect for such a move.
•Jubilation. Locked in a contract dispute with the Players Association, the NFL Management Council argued that the move proved that the compensation system works.
March 28, 1988
The Players Association reacted to the development with a big shrug. Two free agents changing teams in 11 years hardly constitutes a trend. The only other free agent to sign with another team in the recent past was defensive back Norm Thompson, who went from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Baltimore Colts for a third-round draft choice in 1977 and never became a player of any significance. If the Players Association has its way in a Minneapolis federal court case, the current system will be declared illegal and a new one then will be negotiated with the league.
To land Marshall, the Redskins had to give the Bears their No. 1 draft choice in 1988 and in '89, two first-round selections being the going rate for a topflight free agent under the compensation system. And they had to give Marshall a contract—worth $6 million over the next five years—that will make him the highest-paid defensive player in the history of the league. The Bears had a week to match that offer but refused to do so.
Several factors worked in favor of Marshall's becoming a rare free agent in motion. First, if a player wants to move, he has to find a team that's not married to the draft as a way of filling its roster, and the Skins certainly qualify. G.M. Bobby Beathard has had only three No. 1 picks in his 10 years in Washington. And the 1988 draft is not strong.
Second, the offering team should be drafting low. The Super Bowl champion Redskins are the lowest on the board this year.
Third, the player has to be young. Marshall, an All-America at Florida before becoming Chicago's No. 1 draft pick in 1984, will be 26 next month, and he already has two Pro Bowl seasons behind him.
A free agent also should be reasonably sure that his old team won't match the new one's offer. Trying to move from a rich club is a waste of time. As Marshall (see box, page 43) prepared to make his move, the Bears were exercising their right of first refusal to pay the heirs of Mugs Halas, the former president of the team, $17.5 million for 20% of the club. Further, a clause in the contract of Chicago's All-Pro middle linebacker Mike Singletary calls for him to be the team's highest-paid defensive player. Matching Washington's offer for Marshall would have meant paying even more to Singletary, who now reportedly earns a tidy $750,000 a year.
It also worked in Marshall's favor that some NFL executives have come to regard No. 1 draft choices as almost more trouble than they're worth. The dollar packages are high, and many rookies aren't signed by the time training camps open. "You choose a No. 1 to fill an immediate need," says New Orleans G.M. Jim Finks, "but you aren't going to fill it if the guy isn't in camp."
It didn't hurt that Marshall's Washington-based agent, Richard Bennett, who also was the architect of the Thompson deal, represents a dozen or so Redskins, including linebackers Neal Olkewicz and Monte Coleman and four All-Pros, wideouts Art Monk and Gary Clark, cornerback Darrell Green and offensive tackle Joe Jacoby. Bennett and Beathard know each other quite well, which made things easier. Washington was the first choice of both Bennett and Marshall.
"I wouldn't have minded staying in Chicago," Marshall, who made $400,000 in 1987, said Friday night. "We'd been talking contract with the Bears, but they told my agent his demands were ridiculous. I preferred to play in Washington. When you're a linebacker, you look at who you're lining up behind, and I'll have Dexter Manley and Darryl Grant in front of me on the right side. The Redskins' whole defensive line is great... this unit could be more powerful than the one I played on in the last few years.
"The Bears tried to get me to drop the no-trade provision in the deal I'd signed with Washington. They got Walter Pay-ton to talk to me about it. He called me from Phoenix. I thought there was someone listening in on the speaker phone. I said, 'Walter, if they want to ask me, they don't need you to do it for them.'
"Without the no-trade, they could have signed me and then traded me for higher draft choices. It wouldn't have been right. I made a deal with the Skins. I want to be better than I was for the last four years. I know I've got it in me. I think I can make NFL Player of the Year. That's my goal, and I won't stop until I get there."
So Bennett called Beathard, who told him he would get back to him after he had consulted his people. Joe Gibbs, the Redskins' coach, was interested in a player of Marshall's caliber. Jack Kent Cooke, the owner, said he would come up with the money. Cooke's son, John, and Beathard handled the detailed negotiations with Bennett. Meanwhile, Beathard and Gibbs got out the depth charts and looked for the right place for Marshall.
"I would guess he'd be playing the right side, the weak side, just as he did in Chicago," says Beathard. "He's a great blitzer and cover guy. He can run stride for stride with wideouts. Coleman is coming off a fine year as our right linebacker, but he's good at playing the power side, the tight-end side, too." That would leave Mel Kaufman, the left linebacker, as the odd man out, or give Washington greater depth at the position, depending on how you look at it.
Mike McCaskey, the president of the Bears, said he tried to match the Redskins' salary offer and then work a trade, "but I didn't get very far. Wilber wanted Chicago or Washington and no one else. A guaranteed contract of this size would weaken our club. We regard this as another challenge along the road to our ultimate goal—getting into the Super Bowl again."
As soon as the Bears let it be known that they wouldn't match Washington's offer, rumors started flying in Phoenix regarding other free agents. The first involved Randall Cunningham, 25, quarterback of the Philaelphia Eagles. "I got a call from his agent, Jim Steiner," said the Los Angeles Raiders' managing general partner, Al Davis. "He called me about seven o'clock at night and asked me if I was interested. I said, 'What are the numbers?' He didn't have any. I'd never talked to the guy in my life. He was just putting out feelers. Then he lets it get out that we're interested in his guy. Right now I would say no, we're not interested in Randall Cunningham."
The second rumor was more logical—Andre Tippett, 28, the New England Patriot All-Pro outside linebacker, to the San Francisco 49ers, who have the 25th draft pick. The Niners are looking for outside rushers. The Patriots, deeply in debt, are looking to move high-salaried players and cut back the payroll.
Patriot quarterback Tony Eason, 28, who reportedly made $875,000 last season, falls into that category. Eason is coming off a serious shoulder injury that has left him with numbness in the thumb on his throwing hand. None of the other teams in Phoenix seemed interested in Eason, but his agent, Leigh Steinberg, said he thinks quarterbacks will be the targets of offers if a free agent movement really develops. "And I wouldn't be surprised if my guy is among them," Steinberg said, ever hopeful.
The names of Carl Banks, the New York Giants' 25-year-old outside linebacker, and Mark Bavaro, their 24-year-old tight end, came up. Both are All-Pros, but the Giants have a history of holding on to their own. When Bennett went out and signed Lawrence Taylor to a USFL contract in 1984, New York bought out the contract and locked Taylor to a long-term deal that is worth a million dollars this year. The Giants aren't to be messed with. All you'll do is make an enemy.
Most NFL people felt that one isolated case does not a trend make, but Buffalo Bills general manager Bill Polian says, "It wouldn't surprise me if there was a rash of offer sheets handed around. These things tend to lead to chain reactions. Plus the draft is not that strong this year. If Jim Kelly had decided to sit out a couple of years ago, we were prepared to match any offer he got.
"Now? I don't know. What this is forcing us to do is to look at our squad very carefully and determine which players we want to make sure are signed before the last year of their contracts. It's changed the general manager's focus. You can't be fooling around with speaking engagements and ticket sales. You'd better spend 14 hours a day on squad matters or the roof could fall in quickly. The Al Davises and Bobby Beathards will eat you up. The premium on winning soon has increased dramatically. The five-year rebuilding plan doesn't fly anymore."
The deadline for making offers to this year's 500 or so free agents is April 15. Keep your eye on the weather reports. Will it be a flood—or a raindrop?