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.