Thursday marks the last day that teams can slap the franchise tag collar around one of its free agents, thus keeping that player from running off and putting on a different uniform. Any minute now, Carolina will likely subject Peppers to the situation, making him the ninth guy to be tagged this offseason.
And the ninth time that a potential free agent is robbed of his rightful chance to test the market.
I know, it's hard to feel sorry for someone that will be guaranteed to make $16,965,000 in 2009, as Peppers will under the franchise tag rules. Those rules ensure that all the franchised players will cash in rather nicely, for a season. Matt Cassel, for example, will earn nearly $15 million next year; Terrell Suggs more than $9 million, Antonio Bryant almost $10. At least from a short-term, financial aspect, there seems to be no harm done on either side. The team gets to keep a guy that it deems extremely important and the player, in turn, fattens his wallet.
Fine. Dandy. At its root, the franchise tag idea looks rosy.
Let's think about this for a second, though.
In Cassel's case, this may be his one and only chance to cash in on a huge deal. The guy took full advantage of Tom Brady's Week 1 injury, produced a huge season and looked ready to parlay that into a long-term deal to become a franchise's unquestioned starter. Instead, the Patriots franchised him, meaning he'll either spend next season as Brady's backup again -- greatly diminishing the frothing over him in 2010 -- or he'll get traded to a potentially terrible situation (Hello, Detroit Lions).
Without the franchise tag, Cassel would have been like a single dad on a network-TV reality show -- the subject of incessant fawning until he found someone that suited him.
Then there's a case like Peppers'. He has played -- and played amazingly well, for the most part -- in Carolina since 2002. The Panthers tried to sign him to a long-term deal before this season, but couldn't come to terms. Peppers wanted to play in a defensive system that he felt fit him better, and Carolina didn't offer enough dough to convince him otherwise.
So now his contract his up, and he should be ready to field a bombardment of free-agent offers.
Nuh-uh. Not under the franchise tag rules. Instead, assuming the Panthers do franchise him, he'll either be forced to play in Carolina (or holdout), or the Panthers will trade him to a team that meets their asking price. Not Peppers' asking price. Theirs.
What sense does it make for the NFL to have a system in place that undermines contracts? How is that fair for the NFL's elite players, other than the short-term financial spike? Professional football players' careers are notoriously quick as it is, so boxing them out from a multi-year deal and the team of their choice is borderline ludicrous. I mean, in theory, the Panthers could never let Peppers play for another team. Sure, they'd have to pay him exceedingly more money every season, and there's a very good chance he would holdout at some point, but the point is that the Panthers could do that.
If nothing else, the NFL needs to limit the franchise tag option to a one-year window: Franchise the guy, keep him for another season, and if you still can't get a long-term extension together, then he gets to go on his way. Arizona just franchised Karlos Dansby for the second year in a row, Tennessee could've done the same to Albert Haynesworth.
Streeter Lecka, Getty Images
Donald Miralle, Getty Images
Bill Kostroun, AP
Paul Sakuma, AP
Ross D. Franklin, AP
Mark Humphrey, AP
Scott Boehm, Getty Images
Rob Carr, AP
G. Newman Lowrance, Getty Images
Scott Boehm, Getty Images
There's just no need for this current modus operandi. I understand the desire to keep elite players in your uniform -- but if you don't create an environment they want to be in over the course of their contract, whose fault is that? Why should the team benefit from that player's ability, via forcing him into their lineup for another 16 games or from picking up several draft picks by dealing him?
Some argue that the franchise tag helps the NFL maintain its much-loved parity. This, too, is a ridiculous notion. We're talking about a league with a strict cap, plus salary requirements for top draft picks -- the opportunity to just dominate the league money-wise is not there. Pittsburgh or New England or whichever team cannot just go out and sign Ray Lewis and Haynesworth and every other big free agent this offseason, because there's not enough money for it.
The only sport where that spend-at-will approach works is baseball. And, therefore, baseball is the only sport where the franchise tag might make any sort of sense.
The league would never be able to enact it because of the power of the MLB Players' Association, but if you're going to talk about costing a player his chance in free agency for the sake of teams around the league, baseball's got the only setup fit for that. Baltimore's letting Lewis walk, but the Ravens have just as much chance as anybody to bring him back because everyone's operating under the same salary cap. But in major league baseball, the Royals don't get the same shot -- not realistically -- as the Yankees or Mets, the Pirates aren't running under the same guidelines as the Cubs or Dodgers.
Maybe there, under the right circumstances, the idea of the franchise tag has some merit. Even so, you're still denying a professional athlete of his right to be a free agent.
And that's the issue that is at the heart of the franchise tag problem. Putting all the money and parity-related issues aside, that's the biggest crime committed here: A player that has earned an opportunity to find his ideal situation is not allowed to do so.
It's a broken system, and one that needs to go.