The dreaded honor of being 'tagged'
The 31 other NFL GMs will envy the Patriots for how smoothly their franchise-player designation of Matt Cassell went. Most players dread the "honor" and drawn-out negotiations result.
Matt Cassel was the first NFL player to receive the franchise player tag this year, and he surely won't be the last veteran marked with the dreaded restriction during the two-week window, which expires 4 p.m. ET Thursday, teams have to make such moves.
But the New England Patriots quarterback just might be the one star player who most quickly resolves his franchise-tag status this offseason.
Cassel, who led the Patriots to a surprising 11-5 season after starter Tom Brady suffered a knee ligament injury in the opener, agreed to the franchise marker within a day or two of its application. Such a fast acceptance has been rare in the NFL during the age of free agency.
This year, free agency begins Feb. 27. A franchise tag placed on a coveted player basically keeps him out of the free-agent pool. Thus, the tag usually creates great acrimony -- or certainly strained feelings -- between the player and the team.
"It keeps you from doing everything you want to do," said Seattle Seahawks left offensive tackle Walter Jones, who had the franchise tag applied for three consecutive years before finally reaching a long-term contract agreement. "It restricts your opportunities and potential. It does create some hard feelings. It's not what it was meant to be if you ask me from personal experience."
Said Roosevelt Barnes, the long-time agent for Jones: "It definitely affects you. You're all but handcuffed to the team [that applies the franchise tag], you know? It limits your [negotiating] leverage overall."
When the franchise tag was first devised at the outset of free agency, it was actually meant as an honor to the players who received it. It was a merit badge of sorts, a tacit endorsement that the tagged veteran was the best player -- or at least the most irreplaceable player -- on the team. In fact, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis delayed the free agency negotiations for weeks, contending that every team should have five franchise players because the core talent was so important to the integrity of a club.
The collective bargaining agreement affords NFL teams three primary ways to restrict players from leaving as unrestricted free agents.
-- Mike Sando
Today, just having one franchise player is usually one too many -- at least as far as the affected players are concerned.
The "honor" has instead evolved into a sort of scarlet letter, one which few players want to possess. In theory, a non-exclusive franchise player can solicit offers from other clubs, with the compensation for that player's signing with another team being two first-round draft choices sent to the original team. That theory, however, is hardly ever applied.
Franchise players almost never elicit contract offers from other teams, and very few have changed addresses since the advent of free agency.
Contract negotiations with franchise players are usually drawn out, and frequently contentious for both parties involved. Most veterans would prefer big up-front money, usually in the form of a signing bonus (basically the only truly guaranteed dollars in an NFL contract), and the franchise tag typically prohibits such immediate windfalls. It often results in long holdouts, which means a player misses much of the offseason program, if not part of training camp.
Case in point: The Cincinnati Bengals are rumored to be considering using the franchise tag on T.J. Houshmandzadeh. But the veteran wide receiver has made it known that he wants no part of the franchise marker, despite its $9.88 million price tag.
"When things like this are ongoing then obviously there are going to be some differences of opinions on your ability," Houshmandzadeh recently told the Dayton Daily News. "That's the big thing and whatever happens, happens.
"(But) I don't want any part of the tag," he said. "If you franchise somebody, what are you saying about the player? Obviously, you think he is that type of player, and if you think he's that type of player, then you're franchising him. coach [Marvin] Lewis made an emphasis of wanting guys at the offseason programs, on the field sessions and things of that nature. If I get franchised I'm not going to be there."
Such a mind-set is the norm, and Cassel's quick acceptance of the franchise tag is definitely the exception in these cases.
Accepting the one-year tender, which accompanies the franchise tag, is fairly common. There were 12 franchise players in 2008, and six of them eventually signed a one-year deal instead of agreeing to a long-term extension. Of the 22 franchise players over the past three seasons, 12 signed a one-year tender. But no one has done it quite as quickly as Cassel did.
"It's always an option, but it's one where you have to consider the ramifications," said one NFC general manager, referring to the franchise tag. "And the ramifications usually aren't pretty."
There figure to be eight to ten franchise players designated this year. Cassel clearly is an interesting case, for any number of reasons.
By applying the franchise tag to Cassel, New England has bought itself an expensive insurance policy. The quarterback franchise tag for 2009 will cost $14.65 million, which is more than Brady will pocket in the upcoming season and is slightly larger than Brady's salary-cap number. But the Patriots have no assurances that Brady will we return whole again, and so retaining the rights to Cassel was a sage move.
There have been reports that Brady is making good progress in his rehab from knee surgery. But while the ACL in Brady's injured knee is stable, there are rumors that the MCL is not as sturdy as his doctors would prefer.
Assuming Brady is healthy, the Patriots can go any number of ways with Cassel: They can retain him and pay him $14.65 million under the one-year tender he has accepted; or they can trade him, probably for something less than the two first-round draft choices called for in a franchise-player deal.
The conventional wisdom among the New York media, when Eric Mangini was still the Jets' coach, was that Cassel would be the Jets' quarterback in 2009. Mangini's firing has made that a moot point. Still, it's doubtful Patriots coach Bill Belichick would have traded Cassel -- for any combination of draft picks -- to the Jets, New England's most bitter rival. No one should be surprised if Cassel remains with New England for another season, while the team gauges Brady's health and develops another backup.
The fate of Cassel aside, there figure to be more franchise players designated before the deadline. In fact, Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is one who fully expects to be tagged for a second straight season.
"I don't know how they'll do it this year, but the expectation from my agent is that the tag will happen," said Asomugha, who received an exclusive franchise designation last spring.
Atlanta Falcons officials already have confirmed that they will use the franchise tag on punter Michael Koenen, whose incredible hang times were instrumental to the team's success last season. There have been indications that several other teams -- possibly the Bengals with Houshmandzadeh, the San Diego Chargers with tailback Darren Sproles, and the Arizona Cardinals with linebacker Karlos Dansby, among others -- will utilize the franchise tag this spring.
Given the recent history, many of those negotiations certainly will be bilious, with residual hard feelings on both sides. By the time the franchise deals are completed this summer, though, the Cassel case probably will be just a distant memory for some. But many besieged general managers might harbor these sentiments about the New England quarterback and by the time they conclude contract negotiations with franchise players: Oh, that every franchise situation could be so readily resolved.Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.