Did you know that Bobby Hebert, yes the Cajun Cannon himself, helped lead the fight that ushered in the era of modern NFL free agency that we see in the league now?
That’s right, current NFL players can thank the Cajun Cannon for his early 1990s stand off against general manager Jim Finks and Saints ownership for helping bring in true unrestricted free agency.
The story is long, and has been told countless times, but it deserves another remembrance less than 10 days away from the opening of this year’s NFL free agency.
It started in 1990 when Hebert squared off against Saints General Manager Jim finks, an old-school hardliner who were among the countless NFL front office executives who treated players more like commodities at an auction house rather than real people.
Hebert had lost his job as starting quarterback the year before to New Orleans’ native John Fourcade, and he wanted out. Hebert felt he could get a salary of about $1.2 million per season as fair market value. Yet, with the way free agency worked (or didn’t work) in those days the Saints had all of the leverage.
“Players know where they are ranked amongst their (peers) in the league,” Hebert says today. “So shouldn’t you be able to market yourself? Shouldn’t you be able to spread your ability to any city or any team?”
There was no such thing as Free Agency yet in the NFL, at least not the unrestricted free-for-all we see now. The league had what was known as “Plan B” free agency, which allowed teams for protect 37 of their players, almost always the best ones, by allowing those teams to match any contracts that were presented elsewhere. Think of it as a more restrictive version of modern restricted free agency. Basically, the teams were able to latch on to their best players and never risk having them leave.
This is what would happen to Hebert. After seeing Fourcade replace him as a starter with the Saints, he and his agent tried to facilitate a trade with the Oakland Raiders. Eventually, the Raiders and legendary owner Al Davis were willing to cough up future Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen in a deal to acquire Hebert.
Finks, however, rejected that offer, and all others, out of spite. He felt Hebert was thumbing his nose at the old structure of the NFL and was having none of it. He drew a line in the sand and was content waiting for Hebert to come back groveling in search of a new contract. The Saints had offered Hebert a $700,000 contract, which was about half of what he was likely to fetch on the open market.
“He hated me,” Hebert told me this week of Finks. “General managers across the league didn’t care much about their players. They viewed us as things to be owned and sold.”
Then, Hebert did the one thing that Saints management never expected him to do – he sat out the entire 1990 season. He was financially secure enough to take a stand that many of his fellow players couldn’t. The Saints, and the NFL, were caught off guard.
Fourcade eventually flamed out as the starter for the Saints, but Hebert wasn’t budging about coming back, and neither were the Saints. The team tried to save their season by trading to acquire Steve Walsh from the 49ers. They would go 8-8 and make the playoffs in an otherwise forgettable season.
The next season Hebert would show up to Saints camp and eventually got a contract, one that still underpaid him relative to what other comparable starting quarterback in the league were making.
However, he would play well and lead the Saints to records of 11-5 and 12-4 the next two seasons. But his biggest contributions to football would come off the field where he was among a group of players that filed a class action lawsuit against the NFL seeking a truly unrestricted free agency, as well as seeking damages for lost wages.
The players, with Hebert’s story headlining the plaintiff’s case in front of Judge David Dota, won. The league was forced to open up their free agency, which in turn led to more parity across the NFL.
It’s hard to imagine the NFL now without its trademark whirlwind offseason including it’s incredibly intriguing free agency period. It’s something we can at least partially think our own Bobby Hebert for helping bring in.