A whole lot of deals have been agreed to and a lot of trades have been made—in principle. None of them become officially for another 10 hours or so. It’s thanks to the introduction of the salary cap—and the cap floor—however, and the incorporation of true free agency, that we see so many significant players now on the move and receiving enormous paydays.
True unrestricted free agency was originally put in place 26 years ago in 1993. Among the most significant names of the original wave were Reggie White, joining the Green Bay Packers, and of course Kevin Greene, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers for a very successful three-year run.
It was a year after that in 1994 that the salary cap was formally introduced, making this the 25th anniversary of that event. That season, the NFL operated under a salary cap of $34.6 million. A quarter of a center later, the top players in the league are starting to see contracts that amount to that much per season on their own, under a salary cap in 2019 that has risen to $188.2 million.
It was a long fight for the players and the NFLPA to get here that spans several decades. One of the critical culminating points was the strike season of 1982, a shortened year that featured replacement players for those who chose not to play in protest of the league’s refusal, among other things, to allow players to be free agents.
This fight ultimately led to the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring several years later, the two sides ultimately settling on a temporary fix dubbed Plan B free agency. Teams were allowed to protect up to 37 players on their roster with a right of first refusal if another team attempted to sign them.
White was the chief name among eight players who sued the NFL and eventually won in 1992 for true unrestricted free agency, a federal court ruling that its absence violated antitrust laws. And so White moved on from the Philadelphia Eagles, signing a four-year, $17 million contract, Greene joining Pittsburgh on a three-year, $5.35 million deal.
White could have joined the San Francisco 49ers, who had won four of the previous six Super Bowls at the time, and imagine if he did. But he elected not to for fears that the planned introduction of the salary cap the following year would force the team to get rid of some of its high-priced players, as they already had the highest payroll in the league and it would be difficult for them to get in compliance. Their payroll in 1992 was $34 million.
I hope you enjoyed this brief history lesson as we officially turn our attention to the 2019 season, which marks the 25th anniversary of what is essentially the offseason that we’ve come to know. The league, the game, and the salaries have all grown substantially since then, and a tremendous amount of debt is owed to the players who came before who fought for their rights, as the current generation will continue to do so heading into the next round of CBA negotiations.