The Franchise Tag: An Unfair Practice

The NFL's franchise tag, which allows a team to retain one player under strict conditions, is a hotly debated topic among the Seahawk faithful. Seahawks.NET capologist "The Hawkstorian" weighs in with his take - that the tag tilts to the team's advantage far too much to be a fair practice.

When real free agency was first granted to NFL players in 1993, many fans were worried that parity had won out over continuity. Fans were accustomed to seeing their favorite players retire with the same teams by which they (the players, not the fans) were drafted.

To help alleviate these concerns, and largely as a negotiating and publicity measure, the league and players agreed to a system by which teams could prevent their best players from becoming free agents. Twelve years later, the “franchise tag” is still in effect, but its meaning and practice has become quite different than what was originally intended.

The first problem with the “franchise” tag, is its name. We used to think of franchise players as the truly elite, not just the really darn good. Walter Jones probably qualified, as did Peyton Manning. Unfortunately, the true use of the tag is the threat, not the execution. The Seahawks played that angle to perfection this off-season, using the threat of the tag to accelerate negotiations with Jones and Matt Hasselbeck before slapping the tag on their THIRD (or maybe even fourth) best offensive player – Shaun Alexander.

So, in this case, we have a franchise tag designee who isn’t even the Seahawks' best player. Is that what the league intended?

We can clearly see that this situation is good for the team. Despite all the public saber-rattling, Alexander has almost no options beyond suiting up in his familiar Seahawks jersey this year. It’s also good for the fans because A) One of our best players is forced to stay and B) We can debate all year long whether or not he’s being mistreated.

He IS being mistreated. Here’s why….

First off, the rules that spring from the franchise tag make no sense. There’s the four-month moratorium on negotiations. What’s that all about? From the Ides of March to the Ides of July, nothing can happen. What sense does that make? This dark period pushes negotiations into a period when the teams would benefit very little from extending the franchise player’s deal, since there are few players left on the open market on whom to spend any cap savings.

The players’ side of the story was eloquently stated to our own Mark Olsen back in April. Mind you, the player he interviewed hasn’t personally experienced the impact of the tag, but he felt strongly enough to stick up for his teammates who have been criticized by fans and the media for “selfishly” not agreeing to a one-year contract.

In 2005, Matt Hasselbeck will be paid $19,000,000 in salary and bonuses as part of the 6-year, $47 million deal he signed with the Seahawks in February. Walter Jones will be paid $17,700,000 as part of his own 7-year, $52.5 million February deal. Shaun Alexander will likely make $6,323,000 this year. If he gets hurt during the 2005 season, his earning potential for 2006 will go in the toilet. Hasselbeck and Jones were able to get paid based on their greatest career performances. If Alexander even slips a little in ’05, he’ll see his leverage for a long-term deal go way down.

Shaun’s status as a running back also works unfairly against him. Since the careers of running backs are generally shorter, the average of the top 5 salaries (used to determine the $6.32M tag number) tends to be less than other positions. And yet, Shaun has been very durable and is coming off a terrific season in which he led the NFC in rushing yards (1.696), and the NFL in touchdowns (20). He’s a safe bet to continue this production for the next 3 – 4 years. Even if you don’t agree with that, I can guarantee you that SOME team would see him that way, if he had the chance to negotiate. By being lumped in with others in his position, he loses the ability to make his own case, regardless of the potential of his peers at his position.

By the way… this whole argument that Alexander isn’t that valuable because no team would trade for him is complete garbage. The reason no team traded for him is they would have to give up a high draft pick and be in the same boat as the Seahawks! They would have given maybe a second round pick, and been forced to carry his huge cap number with no guarantee they’d keep him for more than one season. A #2 pick is usually a very valuable choice (Anton Palepoi and Ike Charlton aside). If used correctly, a high pick should become Ken Lucas or Michael Boulware. 4 years of those guys is clearly more valuable than one year of even a great back like Shaun Alexander. Teams can do the math, and dealing for a franchise player is normally not worth the risk.

All these complaints are basically moot, because the Seahawks are acting completely within the rules of the collective bargaining agreement. As the league and players work towards the extension of their agreement (NBA, check; NHL, check; NFL, next?) the franchise tag concept needs to be junked...or at the very least, overhauled. Teams should be required to offer multi-year tenders, not just one-season tenders. The four-month blackout period should be eliminated. Negotiations should be encouraged, not discouraged.

And fans will just have to find something else to argue about through the long off-season.

"The Hawkstorian" writes about Seahawks history, the salary cap, and many other things for Seahawks.NET on an alarmingly regular basis. You can reach him at Top Stories