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Paul Zimmerman
March 28, 1988
Chicago linebacker Wilber Marshall made NFL history by becoming the first free agent to switch teams in 11 years
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March 28, 1988

Getting Free For A Big Gain

Chicago linebacker Wilber Marshall made NFL history by becoming the first free agent to switch teams in 11 years

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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.

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.

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