Last week, reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers stole headlines from the NFL draft when news broke that he wanted to be traded from the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers’ demand is the latest of a growing player power movement in the NFL in which players are increasingly attempting to leverage power over their teams like NBA players have been doing for years.
One of the main reasons NFL players have struggled to gain leverage over their teams’ executives is the franchise tag, a tool teams can use to hold onto their unwilling players for a few extra years. Simply explained, the franchise tag requires players with expiring contracts to return for another year on a one-year contract near the top market value for that player’s position. Players can be franchise tagged up to three years in a row by the same team and get paid more for each additional tag.
Denver Broncos’ late Hall of Fame owner Pat Bowlen invented the franchise tag in 1993 to ensure that fellow Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway could not leave the Broncos in free agency. It is difficult to see the franchise tag going anywhere soon, as the current NFL collective bargaining agreement runs through 2030. The sooner the tag goes, though, the better, especially since NFL general managers are paid to make big decisions regarding signings and trades — they should be required to actually make them, rather than delay year after year.
At face value, the franchise tag may not seem all that bad. After all, wouldn’t players want the most money available for their position? The problem, though, is that the tag gives players no long-term security, something players in an injury-plagued league desperately need.
Last season, for example, Dallas Cowboys’ star quarterback Dak Prescott played under the franchise tag after rejecting contracts as large as $175 million, feeling he could have a more commanding grip of the team in Dallas. After kicking off the season with a strong performance that earned him MVP nods, Prescott gruesomely broke his ankle in week five, ending his season. In March, Prescott agreed to a $160 million contract with Dallas, just a day before being tagged for the second time in a row. Prescott was unable to earn the contract he deserves, instead settling for less money than he desired and a franchise tag designation.
Fortunately for Prescott, his injury should not have a significant long-term effect on his performance as a quarterback, and his slightly reduced contract reflects that. Most players, however, do not enjoy the virtual guarantee of a multi-million dollar contract, and getting injured while playing under the franchise tag is a player’s worst nightmare.
No example better illustrates players’ feelings toward playing on short-term contracts than Earl Thomas III flipping off his own team’s bench in 2018. Playing on the last year of his contract for the Seattle Seahawks, Thomas had held out until September of that year, demanding either a contract extension or to be released to sign a new, long-term contract elsewhere. He reluctantly returned to the Seahawks despite Seattle failing to respond to his demands, but broke his leg in week four, prompting the now-famous showing of the bird.
The franchise tag is also archaic in its position assignments. Last offseason, for example, the Pittsburgh Steelers tagged Bud Dupree as a linebacker. Dupree rushes the passer on nearly every play, much in the same way a defensive end does. Had Dupree been tagged as a defensive end, he could have earned an additional $2 million. Dupree filed a grievance in protest of the misassignment. Ultimately, Dupree tore his ACL in week 12 playing under the franchise tag, losing a significant amount of money.
Perhaps the most infamous franchise tag dispute happened when All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell opted to sit out of the entire 2018 season rather than play under a second franchise tag from Pittsburgh. This was a decision Bell should not have had to make: teams should not have the power to require players to risk their careers on what is effectively a one-year loan that can be renewed without any input from the players. Players who get franchise tagged would be making nearly the same amount of money in free agency, but they lose long-term guarantees of that money under the franchise tag’s one-year agreement.
Players like Bell could see their careers disappear in an instant if one tackler takes the wrong angle. They are right to demand as much money as they possibly can during their peak performance seasons; there is no guarantee that they will have the same market available to them when their franchise tag expires.
As players like Rodgers work to try to control the narrative regarding their own futures, the franchise tag ought to be their first target. Without any long-term security, it is no wonder that players loathe the tag. NFL teams ought to reward their players with actual contracts, not one-year handcuffs.
Austin Barish is a sophomore in the College. The Armchair Analyst appears online every other week.