No question it would mean the destruction of the NFL as we know it today.
—FRANK ROTHMAN, NFL lawyer, in his closing argument to the jury in the league's 1992 court fight over free agency
Sorry, Frank. It hasn't happened. the NFL's first free-agency period ended on July 15, and a touchdown is still worth six points, Jimmy Johnson's hair is still in place, and George Halas is still lying face-up in his grave. A total of 120 players changed uniforms in this inaugural, 4½-month free-agent derby, and not only is the league alive and well, but it also shows every indication of having been energized. Sorry, Frank, but free agency is great for the league.
During the trial, league executives insisted that the teams in the largest markets would have an unfair advantage in that bidding. That hasn't happened either. Consider that the prize of the whole auction, defensive end Reggie White, left Philadelphia, the nation's fifth-largest city, for Green Bay, the NFL's smallest city. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, a veteran of six seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, fielded offers from 20 teams before settling on the Tampa Bay Bucs. Says Nickerson, "The large-market argument was a myth that the owners wanted to present to stop free agency."
A salary cap, set to begin in '94, did serve to discourage the richer teams from stockpiling expensive talent, but the fact is that cable TV has created a global sporting village in which athletes who play in Seattle or Kansas City can be marketed just as successfully as those who toil in New York or Los Angeles. Shaquille O'Neal would not be earning one penny more from Reebok if he jammed in Chicago instead of Orlando.
Some of the neediest teams in the NFL's smallest cities used the new system best. The Atlanta Falcons, the worst defensive team in 1992, signed Pro Bowl defensive end Pierce Holt. Holt, who played five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, spurned a larger offer from the New York Jets. The Indianapolis Colts grabbed the best available tackle and center, Will Wolford and Kirk Lowdermilk, respectively. The lowly Phoenix Cardinals spread $28 million among six players who might lift the team out of the cellar.
Here is SI's assessment of which teams won, which ones lost and which ones have yet to figure out how to play the free-agency game.
They Led the Way
Says coach Mike Holmgren, "People have told me the huge salaries are going to lead to friction between players. I don't buy it. But I told the team when I met with it this week, 'Some people are going to make more money than you in every walk of life. If that's going to bother you, tell me now. That way I won't have to cut you in the middle of the season. I can do it now.' "
Holmgren and general manager Ron Wolf grabbed hold of free agency and rode it aggressively, getting two players, White and former Miami Dolphin guard Harry Galbreath, who will be around for many years and three others, nosetackle Bill Maas (Kansas City Chiefs), tackle Tunch Ilkin (Pittsburgh) and wideout Mark Clayton (Miami), who are near the ends of their careers.