The Detroit Lions And Their Very First Free Agent Signing

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Believe it or not, the crazy madness that we know today as free agency has only been around for 23 years.

It’s a bit odd to think that free agency has only been able to go to the bar for two years. Before a lawsuit gave us what free agency is today, it was quite a different world. Before 1989, if you wanted to play for another team, you had to be cut or traded. Then the NFL came out with its original form of free agency called Plan B. This wasn’t exactly the best way of doing things. Here’s how it all worked. At the end of the season, each team would select 37 players. These players would be their Plan B protected players.

What does it mean to be a Plan B protected player? Well let’s say the Cowboys have a great player that they love on their team. Let’s call him Johnny. The season is over and after three years, so is Johnny’s contract. Johnny being from northern California would love to go play for the 49ers and be close to home. But the Cowboys have protected him. Which means Johnny isn’t allowed to talk to the 49ers until the Cowboys make their offer and say he can. Sure it seems simple, just turn down the Cowboys offer and head to San Francisco. But surprisingly, very few protected players wound up leaving their team.

This all resulted in a lawsuit in 1992. Eight players sued on the ground that the NFL was violating anti-trust laws. The players won and the NFL converted its free agency program to the way it is today.

After the Lions went 5-11 in 1992. Long time Detroit Lions beat writer Mike O’Hara told me that Lions General Manager Chuck Schmidt’s game plan going into free agency was to find players that could block. The Lions had just lost Mike Utley to paralysis, Ken Dallafior retired, and starting tight end Jimmie Johnson left in free agency for Kansas City. While the Lions did in fact go out and get offensive lineman Bill Fralic, David Lutz and David Richards, their first ever signing was a tight end. Meet Rodney Holman.

It was actually a pretty good pick up for the Lions at the time. Holman was a three-time Pro Bowler and a Three tie All-Pro. He was coming off a a great ten years with the Bengals and even played in a Super Bowl in 1988. The Lions seemed like a no brainer for Holman who was born and raised in Ypsilanti, Michigan and grew up a Lions fan. The only issue is that Holman was 33 by the time he signed with Detroit.

The terms of the deal are unknown, But Holman spent the last three years of his career in Detroit. He was only a full-time starter for just one season. All told he played 47 games and started 26 of them. He racked up 47 receptions for 442 yards and two touchdowns. After the 1995 season, Holman retired from the NFL at the age of 35. Just when a young upstart by the name of David Sloan had come to town.

In 1990 Holman was inducted into the Tulane University Hall Of Fame. He was also inducted into the Sugar Bowl Hall Of Fame in 2013. Later, he was an assistant coach of the New Orleans Saints in 1998 and 1999 and now lives in Louisiana with his wife and daughters. After all the signings the Detroit Lions have pulled off in the past 23 years, who knew that it was a tight end from Ypsilanti that got the whole thing started.

I would like to thank Mike O’Hara for helping me out with this article. A great honor to share a small conversation with you sir.