Sorry Cliff, franchise tag is part of game

DE Cliff Avril (Jeff Hanisch/USP)

Cliff Avril may holdout if he's slapped with the franchise tag, but it's simply part of the game.

The two-week period for designating NFL veterans as franchise free agents began on Monday and, at least as of this writing midway through the day, no one had yet received the marker.

Which has hardly stopped players and agents from already weighing in the merits -- and, in most cases -- demerits of the tag.

And that's hardly news.

Almost as predictable as someone failing a drug test at the combine, or rampant tampering this week in Indianapolis -- if only the walls at the famed St. Elmo Steak House could talk -- some of the discussion at this time of the NFL calendar turns inevitably to the franchise designation.

And there are some, like Houston Texans outside linebacker and pending unrestricted free agent Mario Williams, whose agent has allowed that his client will accept the tag if imposed. And, more often than not, others, such as Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril, who have publicly chafed at the possibility of being designated as a franchise player.

Get in line, Cliff, and be aware that the queue is a long one.

"Players have been bitching about (the franchise tag) since it first came into being, and it's just a part of the game the last 20 years," said one player agent who has had multiple clients endure the designation. "Hey, it is what it is."

The volume of dissent might be even louder this year than in most. By the March 5 deadline for declaring franchise players, a record number of designations could be doled out by teams. Extension discussions with most of the players rumored to be franchise candidates have been slow so far, and there is so much salary cap room in the league right now, both aggregate and individual, that most teams are able to absorb the hit that comes along with the tag.

Few teams will be as cap crunched as in the past by the franchise designation.

It will be interesting to monitor whether the improved salary cap status of teams impacts on the number of long-term contract eventually negotiated with players who receive the franchise marker.

In past years, because of the savings tied to being able to expunge a prohibitive franchise number from the ledgers, by signing a player to a long contract that permitted a team to prorate the signing bonus, most franchise players subsequently got multiple-year deals. But the ramifications of the franchise marker might not be quite as crippling this time around, and negotiating impasses may last a bit longer.

And there is this element as well: Because of the new manner by which the franchise numbers are calculated for each position, the values for 2012 have decreased across the board. In six of the 11 position designations, for instance, the dropoff will be by 20 percent or more.

Not many components of a free agency system first implemented in 1993, and tweaked several times since then, have engendered as much debate as the franchise marker. Yet in every reincarnation of the collective bargaining agreement, including the 10-year extension hammered out last summer following the lockout, the marker has survived.

The late agent Gary Wichard used to make a pretty impassioned and somewhat convincing argument that the franchise tag had evolved into something it was not originally intended to be. But it remains part of the game's fabric.

Much the same way griping about it does.

Ironically, it was owners who once disagreed over the franchise tag. A little history here: In the early '90s, a labor accord was delayed when then-Oakland owner Al Davis led a cabal that felt each team should receive five franchise tags annually. The history of the franchise tag is, of course, that not even half the league's teams have utilized the marker in any given year.

Once regarded as a badge of excellence, the franchise designation now largely is about as dreaded as the scarlet letter.

Yet several owners and general managers who discussed the franchise tag with The Sports Xchange last week, and who are familiar with the evolution to which Wichard once referred, suggested that the marker has been good for the game and for the fans, and that it will probably never disappear. Not at least for the term of the new CBA, by the end of which many current owners will have retired.

Said one AFC owner: "I just think that it's one thing (the NFL Players Association) will never get out of (our) tool box."

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