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The NFL offseason has been one to remember, but perhaps not for all the right reasons. With threats of various holdouts, owners and respective players have been forced to air out their dirty laundry for their fans to see. How did the franchise tag come about? More important, why is it still a thing?
The History of the Franchise Tag
During the late 1980’s, the NFL was seeing a correlating issue within the league between contract extensions and player satisfaction. After a short-lived players strike in 1987, the two sides reached a settlement, which essentially placed a band-aid on the problem.
A few years later, the issue hit center stage when the Denver Broncos and QB John Elway couldn’t come to terms on a contract extension. As a result, owner Pat Bowlen sparked a revolution at the 1993 CBA when he proposed the ‘franchise tag’, which was later deemed the ‘Elway Rule’ by many.
Although it was a solid proposal, there was initial resistance from the NFLPA. The situation involving franchise tags got so complicated that at one point late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was pushing for owners to allow up to five franchise tag slots per franchise.
Eventually, the owners agreed to designate one franchise tag slot per franchise. Due to the ruling, the specified player would earn top dollar while sitting on a one-year contract.
When the franchise tag came to light, everyone expected for teams to use it on franchise quarterbacks in hopes of pushing the deadline to create long-term deals. However, this was not the case.
The Philadelphia Eagles were a perfect example, as they hoped to franchise tag DE Reggie White in return for compensatory draft picks. This forced the owners at the 1993 CBA to make a clear distinction between an “exclusive” and “non-exclusive” franchise tag.
Even after the conclusion of the meeting, there was a trend of teams franchise tagging role players that were too valuable to let walk in free agency, but not valuable enough to pay the market value. This proved to be true when the Baltimore Ravens franchise tagged an undrafted guard in Wally Williams in 1998.
The NFL didn’t know it yet, but the franchise tag would become one of their own worst enemies moving forward.
Turn for the Worst
When an issue comes to light, whether it’s in sports or not, it’s common to find a long-term solution. When the NFL continued to see flaws within the franchise tag system, they instead elected to input temporary solutions.
In 2005, the Jacksonville Jaguars franchise tagged S Donovin Darius for their third consecutive season. While the salary Darius was receiving was beneficial, the loyalty appeared to be at an all-time low.
“Personally, I felt disrespected,” Darius says. “I felt like the loyalty was only from one side. I met with the owner and the team’s financial guy to say, ‘I’ve given everything I could to this team. All I ask is for you to show me the commitment I’ve shown you.'”
For Jacksonville, this showed that Darius was valuable enough to pay just over $9M in those three years. As for Darius, his opportunity to depart from Jacksonville was taken away, and his future in the NFL was essentially decided for him.
In today’s game, NFL holdouts are becoming more of a trend. The idea itself stemmed from Bo Jackson in 1986, as he was initially supposed to be part of the Tampa Bay Bucaneers before bolting to the MLB. One year later, Jackson was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the seventh round of the 1987 NFL Draft.
Today, holdouts are often surrounded by the element of the franchise tag. As a result, owners are being scared straight into granting players long-term deals. In 2019 alone, players that were initially franchise tagged but signed long-term deals included Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence (five-year, $105M) and Seattle Seahawks’ DE Frank Clark (five-year, $104M). Leading into their deals, there was concern about a potential holdout with both names.
Think about their new deals though: Both Lawrence and Clark will not be eligible for free agency until the year 2024. While both players are outstanding talents, how much does the fear of a holdout come into play?
This leads into the last point:
Why the NFL Needs to Get Rid of the Franchise Tag:
Without the premature long-term extensions and holdouts, the NFL would have an improved product to put forth for their fans. By looking at other leagues, the NFL could even learn a thing or two.
In the NBA for example, their free agency sees top players hit the free agency market on an annual basis. This gives the players the opportunity to partake in meetings around the league, or to develop loyalty towards their original franchise.
The franchise tag stunts the free agency period, and multiple large signings in free agency have come only because front offices have refused to designate a franchise tag on a player.
The Washington Redskins refused to grant QB Kirk Cousins a third consecutive franchise tag, so he moved onto the Minnesota Vikings. This also became an example with former Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell, who now finds himself with the New York Jets.
The franchise tag hurts the players, the free agency period, and the integrity of the NFL. It’s time to get rid of it.
Featured Image: Harry How, Getty Images