Banner still a believer despite Eagles' mishaps

With the acrimony created by the "franchise" tag, the question has surfaced whether the system still works.

Updated: September 2, 2005, 2:42 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Given the disastrous results of the Philadelphia Eagles' last two dalliances with the "franchise" free-agent tag, one would think team president Joe Banner might be the last guy in the league to defend the merits of a designation that's become more controversial than coveted over the last few years.

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Twice in the last four springs, first with middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter in 2002 and then this year with defensive tackle Corey Simon, the Eagles have used the franchise tag to retain the rights to a highly regarded veteran. On each occasion, the Eagles subsequently rescinded the designation, permitted the player to go free and unfettered, and got zilch in terms of compensation when the Pro Bowl-caliber defender signed elsewhere.

Some might suggest it's a definition of disaster. Banner countered this week, though, that the Eagles' two franchise fiascoes, which he emphasized had very different dynamics, were just unusual quirks in a system he strongly still feels has merit. And so despite suggestions that it's time to scuttle the franchise tag, including one in an excellent column last week by the Philadelphia Inquirer's Phil Sheridan, Banner isn't ready yet to toss out the designation.

Maybe once upon a time, [the franchise marker] was an honor. But lately, it just means a lot of hard feelings, it seems.
Agent Roosevelt Barnes
"Our experiences aside," Banner said, "I still think it works. And I really believe it still works for both sides. With the money involved now, and the fact a player can guarantee those dollars immediately by signing the [one-year qualifying offer that accompanies the franchise tag], there aren't many players who haven't done OK for themselves. And let's remember the original intent of the franchise tag, to allow teams a mechanism for being able to keep players essential to them. You don't think the Indianapolis Colts wouldn't have been harmed if they had lost Peyton Manning last year? No, I still think it's fair."

But around the league, and depending on who is doing the talking, sentiments are more split about the franchise marker, what it has become, and whether it should remain part of the NFL free-agency landscape in the future.

The detractors -- and there are plenty of them among the teams, agents and players -- have pointed out that the designation in recent seasons has meant more acrimony than accord in assessing a player's value. Rarely are franchise-designated players in camp on time. And under the current restrictions, if a franchise player hasn't reached agreement on a deal by March 15, there is a four-month moratorium on negotiations.

For the players, that's four months of stewing, weeks of pent-up anger over not being able to shop themselves in the unrestricted market, and plenty of time to seek out the media and air grievances over what they feel are the inequities of the system. Banner noted that the problems players have with the franchise marker are "more about freedom than money." But in the era of free agency, freedom is money, players feel. And while the franchise marker guarantees a one-year salary commensurate to the average salary cap numbers of the five highest-paid players at a position, most tagged players know the real guarantees of security only come with a fat signing bonus.

"I think that's the biggest sticking point," said agent Roosevelt Barnes, who represents Simon and has had other clients, most notably Seattle Seahawks left offensive tackle Walter Jones, tagged with the franchise designation. "I mean, none of these franchise players is pleading poverty. But they feel they've been blocked by the system from being able to market themselves in free agency and from landing the big guaranteed money. Maybe once upon a time, [the franchise marker] was an honor. But lately, it just means a lot of hard feelings, it seems."

It was the public acrimony created in 2002, in fact, that eventually led to the divorce of the Eagles and Trotter, then a two-time Pro Bowl performer. When Trotter went public with his grievances, coach Andy Reid, with the support of the organization, opted to cut ties. With the franchise tag rescinded, and suddenly being cast out into the open market, Trotter signed a lucrative contract with the Washington Redskins that included a signing bonus of $7 million. Two years later, he was released by Washington and went back to Philadelphia last season for a minimum-salary deal.

This week, the Eagles rescinded the franchise marker on Simon, and just four days later, he agreed to a five-year, $30 million contract with the Colts, a deal that includes $13 million in bonuses. Had he signed the one-year qualifying offer with the Eagles and reported to camp, Simon would have made $5.134 million. But his was a very unusual case in another sense, given that Philadelphia had decided in March to trade him to Baltimore for two draft choices. The trade collapsed when Barnes and Simon couldn't consummate a long-term contract with Ravens officials.

It took nearly four months, albeit four months that didn't include the manner of public bile of the Trotter case in 2002, but Simon finally got his money. Even if it meant having to go to a new team. The Eagles, on the other hand, got nothing in return for a former first-round draft pick, a still highly regarded player, and a guy in whom they invested a lot of time and money.

"That's just how it goes," Banner said. "In the case of [Trotter], there was a very public component to that, and everyone knows how and why it played out like it did. Yes, that was a negative experience, no doubt about it. But with Corey, there never were a lot of harsh words. It just got to a point where, with the season almost upon us, we needed to know when or if he would be there. And, really, back in the spring, we had tried hard to accommodate him. We made [multi-year] contract offers. We were prepared to trade him to a team that was prepared to make him a very good offer. It just didn't work."

And despite data that indicates most franchise players eventually get their money, that's the point of the system's detractors, that it just doesn't work the way it was supposed to when it was designed a dozen years ago. The critics note that teams are so much more savvy now in managing their salary caps, that most lock up essential veterans long-term way before their contracts have lapsed, and that most premier players aren't much affected by or in need of franchise designations because they rarely get close to free agency anyway.

Darren Howard
Defensive End
New Orleans Saints
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
46 38 8 4 11 0
Barnes pointed out that Jones signed the one-season qualifying offer three straight years before the Seahawks finally awarded him a monster long-term contract this spring. St. Louis offensive left tackle Orlando Pace signed the one-year tender two consecutive years before hitting a multi-year mother lode with the Rams this spring. Jacksonville safety Donovin Darius signed three straight qualifying offers, then finally got a long-term extension this spring. New Orleans defensive end Darren Howard, the subject of many trade rumors this offseason, is currently working on his second one-year franchise deal.

"I'm not going to complain, because it's a lot of money," said Howard, who will earn $7.8 million this season. "But it's still not like the security of getting the big up-front money and knowing it's guaranteed and in the bank."

This year's franchise class of a dozen players offers a pretty good cross section of how the designation usually plays out. Of the 12 franchise players, three signed long-term deals with their own teams. Simon landed a five-year contract after the franchise marker was rescinded. The other eight are working on one-year deals. Of those eight, only one player, New York Jets defensive end John Abraham, missed significant training camp time, a rarity. One of the players who signed the single-year tender, Seattle star tailback Shaun Alexander, did so only after the Seahawks stipulated in the deal that they cannot retain his rights after this season by using the franchise marker on him again.

As Banner pointed out, given the levels of the one-year qualifying offers, and the ability of players to guarantee that money, "the dollars are fair." And most players, in speaking of the short-term finances, don't disagree. But at a time when the emphasis has now been directed toward big guaranteed money -- just look at the structures of most first-round deals from this draft -- there remain some questions not only about the overall fairness of the franchise tag but also about whether it's worth the aggravation it typically means.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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