After wringing their hands in front of a jury this summer and telling anyone who would listen that free agency would upset the league's competitive balance, NFL owners got their first glimpse on Sunday of what impact unrestricted player movement might have on their game. Just five days after tight end Keith Jackson gladly accepted the Miami Dolphins' invitation to play with them the next four seasons for a reported $6 million, he jump-started his new team to a victory that restored some semblance of balance to a division, the AFC East, that the Buffalo Bills had had in a stranglehold.
The Bills have been AFC East champs the past four seasons, and they had a 4-0 record entering Sunday's game against Miami. They had led or shared the division lead since Week 2 of the 1990 season. They hadn't lost a division game at home since Dec. 20, 1987. They had thumped the Dolphins in 10 of their last 11 meetings. You call that competitive balance?
Miami dropped a hefty nugget on the other side of the scales by whipping the Bills 37-10 in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a Buffalo home game—80,368, with only 36 no-shows. Jackson's spectacular catch, run and dive into the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter put the Dolphins in front 10-3 and inspired his teammates to greater things.
Even before Jackson's TD, free safety Louis Oliver, whose contract is up after this season, was one of a handful of Dolphins who were playing with more emotion than usual. They were angry at Miami for having made a quick long-term deal with Jackson while carrying on tough negotiations with current Dolphin stars. Oliver had said during the week that his asking price of $1.2 million a year "automatically went up" upon Jackson's signing. Then Oliver started his salary drive in Buffalo by intercepting three Jim Kelly passes, the second of which he returned 103 yards to tie an NFL record and up Miami's lead to 31-10 in the third quarter.
Oliver's runback was the only play that upstaged Jackson's TD reception of a high bullet pass from Dan Marino, who appeared to be throwing to wide receiver Mark Clayton crossing behind Jackson on the play. When asked if the ball was intended for Jackson, Marino said, "Yes—and even if it weren't, I'd lie."
"No doubt it was meant for me," said Clayton, another Dolphin who's unhappy that the team has not pitched a rich contract in his direction. However, when told of Marino's reply, Clayton said, "You're supposed to lie if it's a touchdown pass. Hey, Keith scored, and I'm glad."
Playing in his first game since last December, Jackson had four catches for 64 yards and made only two obvious mistakes. He allowed one Marino pass to fly through his fingertips and was called once for pass interference. Most important, he displayed a thorough knowledge of Miami's offense. "You can't expect a guy to come in and do it that fast," said Dolphin coach Don Shula after the game, "but we got a very intelligent guy."
In the days leading up to the game, Jackson devoted all his time to learning the offense, receiving one-on-one instruction from coaches and poring over the playbook. "I learned it all—every bit of it," he said. In fact, by last Thursday night he felt confident enough in his grasp of the offense to ease into a back table at Shula's Steak House in Miami and relax for the first time in a week.
After waving away the wine list—"I don't touch that stuff," he said, "I'll stick with this water"—he carefully surveyed a display cart laden with beef and lobster, conscious of having to shed 10 pounds to get to his playing weight of 245. "Bring me the 20-ounce sirloin, but trim every bit of that fat off," he told the waiter. "I'll take a plate of sliced tomatoes with no dressing and a baked potato with nothing on it."
Content for the first time in two years, Jackson said, "Who would have thought it would come to this?" Since 1990 he had been bent on obtaining his freedom from the Philadelphia Eagles, who had selected him in the first round of the '88 draft but had disappointed him not only with their contract offers but also with their firing of coach Buddy Ryan after the '90 season. When training camp opened this past July, the McNeil v. NFL antitrust trial was a month old, and Jackson patiently began his third holdout in five pro seasons. "I was willing to wait on the [legal] process," he said.
On Sept. 24, two weeks after the jury struck down the NFL's Plan B free-agency policy, U.S. District Court Judge David Doty ruled in favor of Jackson and the three other NFL holdouts—defensive end Garin Veris, wideout Webster Slaughter and running back D.J. Dozier—in their bid for freedom. But Doty's ruling gave the players only a five-day window to make a deal with any NFL team, and suddenly Jackson was whipped into a frenzy. "My agent got tired of hearing from me," said Jackson, who parked himself at agent Gary Wichard's Malibu home to wait out negotiations. "I was right there going, 'Who'd we talk to today? Who'd we talk to today?' I really became hyper.
"The night before my decision I couldn't sleep. I phoned my mother in Arkansas—it was 4 a.m. in Malibu and 6 a.m. in Little Rock—and woke her up. I told her Miami was very interested, and I thought it would be a great situation. She said, 'Wait a minute. Why don't you pray? The devil could be just putting thoughts in your mind. Pray that God will show you overwhelmingly what to do.' Funny. A few hours later Gary called and said, 'The Eagles said they're not going to up their offer, and Miami has given us a great offer.' I said, 'That's it—overwhelmingly.' There wasn't even a choice to be made."
So Jackson, a three-time All-Pro, the biggest prize among the free agents ("the Jackson Four, as they call us now, but we don't sing"), signed with Miami on Sept. 29. "I had five days of freedom," Jackson said over dinner. "It felt great. Now I want freedom for everybody who wants it. For every punter and every quarterback. Plan B was like a bone thrown at us. They abolished slavery, but then they set up a system like sharecropping. That's what Plan B was all about. But to have total abolition—a player can pick and choose exactly what he wants to do—man, there's no feeling like that."
Jackson said he wasn't so much an activist as a grateful beneficiary of the triumph of right over wrong. Clearly, though, the longing for emancipation from the NFL structure had been with him for two years—since Eagle owner Norman Braman told him, "I own you," and refused to budge on Jackson's request in 1990 to renegotiate the last two years of his contract. That was Jackson's second holdout; the first had come at the start of his rookie season, when he signed a four-year, $2.15 million contract that last season paid him a base salary of $350,000.
The hardest part of his new deal, said Jackson, was leaving behind close friends like quarterback Randall Cunningham and defensive end Reggie White on an Eagle team that "is going to be in the Super Bowl this year." However, he had to isolate his bitterness toward management, which he says offered him $800,000 for this season, from his affection for the players and coaches. "A Super Bowl ring is important," he said. "But...."
Many NFL observers were surprised that the Dolphins were the team to snap up Jackson. He and Shula could not be further apart on the issue of free agency. Shula had given a deposition before the McNeil trial stating his opposition to unrestricted free agency. But ideological chasms have a way of closing in the face of pragmatism. "To be competitive, we have to play by the existing rules, whether we like them or not," said Shula last week. "I'm on record as saying that there has to be some sort of system in order to have competitive balance in the NFL, and I still feel that way. But if I were to stand by and let the parade go on, then our club would not be operating competitively."
Even in the wake of Sunday's triumph, which left the Dolphins on top of the AFC East with a 4-0 record, Shula was unrelenting in his principle. "I still believe in what has made the game so great over a long period of time," he said.
Jackson wouldn't say how many teams Wichard negotiated with, but "I told him to be sure to call Miami and Denver, because those were the two teams I really wanted to go to. Miami because of the offense overall and Denver because [quarterback John] Elway didn't have the tight end he needed to be effective downfield. Then [Bronco owner] Pat Bowlen said on TV that I was a receiving tight end, and so I was not worth the money."
Thus Jackson focused on the Dolphins and watched their Sept. 27 game against the Seahawks in Seattle on TV. During a break in the action NBC commentator Ahmad Rashad said he had spoken with Marino before the game, and Marino had told him that if he had Jackson on the team he would throw to him a lot. "That a player of his caliber wanted me on the team helped me make my decision," Jackson said, "because the first thing you worry about when you go to another team is whether you'll be accepted. When you come in, that means somebody has to be cut. Players are going to look at you like you were the one who did it. So for Dan to make a statement like that made me think, Well, he wants me down there."
The player cut turned out to be Marino's best friend on the team, 12-year Dolphin multipurpose player Jim (Crash) Jensen. But Marino was mindful of the feelings of all parties last week, especially those of Ferrell Edmunds, the tight end whom Jackson is sure to replace in the lineup eventually. "What I told Ahmad," Marino said, "was that any quarterback would like to have Keith Jackson on his team, because he can catch the ball and he has NFL experience at getting open."
Though Edmunds was visibly downcast over what he called his "awkward situation," he said of Jackson, "You can't hold a grudge against a guy for making a smart business decision." But of Dolphin management Edmunds said, "You've got to wonder what it's thinking. Even Clayton and [wideout Mark] Duper aren't making that kind of money. No one on this team is, except Marino."
Miami's alltime leading receiver, with 511 catches, Clayton has reportedly been seeking a new contract averaging $2 million a year. But last week he told his agent not to contact the Dolphins anymore. "We'll see where their loyalty lies," said Clayton. "I'm leaving it up to them."
"Anything that comes out of Clayton's mouth is to be considered a grumble," said Shula, who then turned his attention to the ramifications of free agency. "In something like this, there is some backlash. But this is what the players have asked for. They're the ones who are suing for free agency, and we're getting a firsthand look at how it works. The same players who complain about it would say, if you didn't get your draft choices signed and didn't go after the best players, that your organization was not doing everything it could to win."
As far as that goes, Jackson agrees with his new coach. "Players are going to have to realize that this is what happens when you have free agency," he said. "It's contradictory to say, 'I want free agency, but I don't want what it brings.' I don't want people to look at me and say, 'There's the guy who started it all.' This had nothing to do with Keith Jackson and nothing to do with the NFL. It was something that had to happen. Free agency had to happen. It's the American way."