Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
About twenty-five years ago, the NFL was amidst a limited form of free agency, known as "Plan B free agency". We take a look back at this system and how it evolved into the free agency frenzy that you see today.
For those that have a Facebook account and "like" the NFL's page, you would have seen a post from them talking about the 20-year anniversary of the league's free agency as we know it today. Since that period, the month of March has turned into a frenzy that rivals the craziness of the NCAA men's basketball tournament where teams throw piles of money at players that could take a team over the top.
But, the truth is, the league didn't always allow its players the kind of freedom that it does today. Teams were basically allowed to treat their players as glorified indentured servants, where they held their rights for the majority of their careers. If a team wanted to retain a player, they almost always did and the main ways that players left were either via trade or after their release.
In 1989, the league introduced a form of free agency called "Plan B". The prestigious higher education institution, MIT, has a publication that helped to describe what this form of free agency was in an article back in 1992:
(Plan B) allows each team to retain limited rights to 37 players each season. A protected player is unable to sign with other teams without giving his old team the first chance to sign him or forcing his new club to compensate his old club if he goes elsewhere.
If it sounds kind of like an offer sheet situation with a restricted free agent today, you're not crazy. However, nearly 25 years ago, there wasn't much of a difference between today's restricted and unrestricted free agents, because well, there weren't any true unrestricted free agents. In 1992, the process to eliminate Plan B free agency began.
Eight players led the charge in a lawsuit against the NFL in an effort to label Plan B free agency a violation of antitrust laws. Ironically, Judge David Doty, the same man who was involved in the NFL's labor dispute in 2011, was involved in this case. Ultimately, it was ruled that Plan B free agency was in violation of antitrust laws and Plan B was no longer in effect after the 1992 season began and players had full freedom in free agency by 1993.
Not so coincidentally, it was around that time that the once-dominant Bengals team from the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s began to dismantle. Former running back, James Brooks, was tabbed as a Plan B free agent after the 1992 season, but subsequently left for the Cleveland Browns in the middle of that year and stayed there through the 1993 season. Former Bengals Pro Bowl tight end, Rodney Holman also left the Bengals in 1992 for Detroit and finished his final three seasons there and Anthony Munoz also left the Bengals after the 1992 season. After spending some time in camp with his former coach, Sam Wyche in Tampa Bay, Munoz called it quits. Quarterback Boomer Esiason also left after 1992, but he landed with the Jets via trade.
Needless to say, the NFL and free agency have come a long way in twenty short years. In comparison to the other major American sports, the NFL has always been a trendsetter and the most innovative. The freedoms allowed in their free agency period exemplify that--especially with Plan B in the rear view mirror.