NFL Labor pains, part 8: the game of Tag

Here are parts seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one on the series so far on NFL labor.

Thursday marks the beginning of the two-week window that NFL teams have to place Franchise tags (Tag) on its players…. we think. While the NFL has announced that the application of the Tag will commence, the NFLPA has challenged that assertion.

The issue may be one of interpretation of language in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The CBA allows for application of the Tag “in any season during the term of this Agreement.” Well, the Agreement is in place until March 3 so technically the Tag can be used now. However, once the Agreement expires, all bets are off with use of the Tag, subject to negotiation of a new CBA. As the union notes in its statement: “The 2011 season is not a ‘season during the term of this Agreement’ so the NFL has no valid basis for claiming the right to franchise players in 2011.”

The back and forth over the language of the CBA and the use of the Tag is interesting, although, in my opinion, extraneous to the reality of the situation. At some point, whether now or later, the NFL and NFLPA will have a new CBA. In that CBA, the issue of the Tag will be resolved. Let’s look at the background and possible resolution.

Background of use of Tag

The Franchise Tag mechanism -- created upon negotiation of the 1993 CBA – has had an application that is different than its intent.

The NFL’s counterpart to the NBA’s “Larry Bird exemption”, giving the incumbent team an advantage in keeping a “franchise” player and allowing the team to, in essence, take the player off of the market. With the one-year number for the player to be the average of the top five salaries at his position from the prior year, it was meant to make the team think long and hard about carrying such a high number on a player to keep him off the market.

A motivational tool

Things have not worked that way. The Franchise tag has been used as a management sword wielded over the league’s best players to prevent them from receiving long-term financial gain similar to peers not tagged. As a tool especially valuable to teams to use for players with weight or motivation issues – Haynesworth, anyone? – the Tag allows teams to go year-by-year in their payments, paying only during the season and avoiding any large guaranteed money that would be at risk for potential recovery.

With the higher Cap amounts since 2006 -- the Cap went from $85.5 million to $102 million from 2005 to 2006 -- and teams managing their Caps better, the large numbers for the Tags have not served as deterrents. An adjustment was made in 2006 to require teams that want to Franchise a player for a third consecutive season to have to apply the highest tag – the quarterback number – but that was really meant for kickers and has had little to no effect.

Teams counting on use

Colts president Bill Polian was content to allow superstar Peyton Manning to play out his contract this season and become a free agent. Unless Polian is willing to enroll in witness protection for losing Manning to another bidder, he must be certain the Tag will continue in the next CBA and he will not lose the right to retain Manning. Michael Vick of the Eagles, David Harris of the Jets, Haloti Ngata of the Ravens and Richard Seymour of the Raiders are other likely targets for application of the Tag. The Franchise tag numbers for Ngata and Seymour will be very inflated this year due to the restructuring of Albert Haynesworth's contract in 2010 to take advantage of the uncapped year. The Ravens and Raiders can than the Redskins for that.

My proposed resolution

The union agrees to continued use of the Tag, as there are usually only 10-12 players a year affected. As with everything regarding these issues, the union tries to use the allowance of the Tag as a bargaining chip.

There need to be adjustments for both sides in application to ensure more participation in training camp by tagged players, since many do not show up until the meaningful checks start coming in September. Since the money is guaranteed anyway at the time of signing, the player should receive a percentage of the Tag amount, perhaps 10%, at the start of training camp if his tender is signed by then. In return, the union should accept penalties that tagged players will not the 10% unless they report to training camp and all mandatory team activities.

Follow me on Twitter at adbrandt.

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