The Miami Dolphins had a big day in free agency Wednesday when they added
It was the kind of day NFL fans hope to see from their team every offseason when the free agency market opens in March.
There was a time, though, when there were no such days in March, when free agency meant players who had never been drafted or had been released by other teams.
Unrestricted free agency as we know it — the signing of players who don’t get released but who have played in the league at least four years and whose contracts have expired — began in full force in 1993.
Technically, it began in September of 1992 when a federal judge shot down Plan B free agency (remember that?) and ruled in favor of four players seeking unrestricted free agency and granted them a four-day window to sign with any team of their choosing.
And there’s where Keith Jackson and the Miami Dolphins become part of the history of free agency.
A Pro Bowl selection in three of his first four seasons in the NFL as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, Jackson was the biggest name among the four plaintiffs, a group that also included wide receiver Webster Slaughter, defensive end Garin Veris, and running back D.J. Dozier.
Given his chance to sign with any team in the league, Jackson chose the Miami Dolphins. More than 20 years later, he says it wasn’t a close call, either.
“It is really interesting, I was sitting there watching the Dolphins play and they were playing against the Seattle Seahawks,” Jackson recalled Wednesday by phone from Arkansas, where he runs a children’s nonprofit organization called P.A.R.K. “I think that was the game that Dan Marino got knocked out. He came back in and threw a touchdown. And I was sitting there and I’m watching them and I said, boy, I would love to play with Dan Marino. That’s the team that I’d love to play on. And the next day Eddie Jones, who was the general manager, called Gary Wichard, who was my agent. And my agent looked at me, he said, you’re not going to believe who’s on the phone. That’s kind of how it happened. I’ve always been one of those guys who just pray about stuff and it was just one of those deals. I said, that’s where I want to play. And the next day we get the phone call.
“I think that people made (Wichard) offers. Gary listened to them. But Gary always listened to his players, too. He wanted his players to be happy. We started talking about different teams I really would play for, and as a tight end you start looking at quarterback. So who can I play with that can get me the ball? And at that time there was no one better at doing it than Dan Marino.”
One day after the judge made him a free agent, Keith Jackson was a member of the Miami Dolphins. The date was Sept. 29, 1992.
The Dolphins already had a solid tight end on the roster in Ferrell Edmunds, but Jackson was a special talent, the kind of player that no team would have turned down the opportunity to pick up.
Better still for the Dolphins, Jackson signed on a Tuesday and five days later was in uniform for an early-October AFC East showdown against the rival Buffalo Bills at Rich Stadium.
“When I first signed with the Dolphins, Coach (Don) Shula, they were just saying, ‘Well, OK, we’re glad you’re here, we’re going to work you into playing down the line,’ ” Jackson recalled.
“And I said, ‘Coach, I’m in really good shape.’
“He said, ‘Yes, but you’ve got to learn our playbooks, there’s some things you got ...’
“I said, ‘Coach, I’ll have the playbook learned by Friday.’
“He said, ‘Yeah, right.’
“I said, ‘No, I’ll have it. I’ll play in the game.’
“He goes, ‘All right, we’ll see. I go, I’m an Academic All-American, this is not chemistry, this is football.’
“By Saturday, we practiced, they quizzed me, they said, ‘Man, that’s amazing you learned the playbook in two days. On Friday, I did a walk-through, ran through every play. And on Sunday I played in the game.”
Oh, Jackson played all right. He caught four passes for 64 yards that day to help the Dolphins rout the Bills 37-10. One of those receptions was good for a touchdown.
“There’s still a question whether Dan Marino was throwing it to Mark Clayton behind me or throwing it to me,” Jackson said. “If you ask Danny, he threw it to the guy who caught it. That was his argument. Hey, he hasn’t changed his mind about that, either. Trust me.”
Jackson would go on to play three seasons with the Dolphins, averaging 49 catches a year. He earned first-team All-Pro honors and a Pro Bowl selection in his first season in Miami and was a key ingredient for one of the best passing offenses of that time.
“The one thing you’ve got to say is when I played in Miami, it was fun,” Jackson said. “We scored a lot of points. We kept it exciting. We went out and got great free agents, like Irving Fryar and Mark Ingram. You bring in a young O.J. McDuffie, Terry Kirby into the offense. You had Keith Byars coming down there. You really got this high-powered offense. The defense was struggling. We just couldn’t stop people like we should. But it was a lot of fun and when fans sit in the stands, they go, man, this is a fun brand of football because we could put points on the board.”
Jackson would get traded to Green Bay following the 1994 season and he would play for the Packers for two seasons before retiring.
Looking back on his free agency experience and his role in a major development in the NFL, Jackson says he has mixed emotions.
“I kind of remember back in the day being in Philadelphia how important Dr. J. and Mike Quick were to the community, the same way with Dan Marino and even John Offerdahl, different guys down in Miami,” Jackson said. “They played their whole career basically and everybody only knows them as Dolphins. They’re part of the fabric of the community. Free agency kind of took that away. It’s like you go to the next step, to the next team. It kind of took that away. That’s kind of bothersome.
“But at the same time, I do like the fact that players do have to be treated right. There’s some form of being respectful and treating players in the right way. That, I’m proud of. I think that if a player doesn’t like where they are, they put in their time, they have an opportunity to go somewhere else and show their skills and their talent. I would do it over again if I had because I think that at the time the system was broken. It was a system that said, hey, really, I have your rights, you can’t go anywhere, there’s nothing else you can do with it, so pretty much I can treat you any way I want to. That’s not a fair system. That’s not America. Now, players can showcase their ability. If one team doesn’t want it anymore, another team does. That’s the free market and it’s worked out great for so many players.
“The only sad reality of it is I’m not young enough to explore it again considering all the money guys make today.”