The current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the players’ union expires on March 4. The CBA permits each team to designate as a franchise player any player who otherwise would be an unrestricted free agent “each season during the term of this Agreement.” The window for applying the franchise tender opens 22 days before the first day of the new league year, and it closes eight days before the first day of the new league year.
We attempted in 2010 to ascertain whether the two sides agree — or not — that the franchise tag may be applied in February 2011, even though there will be no new league year absent a new agreement. Neither side would provide a definitive answer.
The question turns on the meaning of the phrase “each season during the term of this Agreement.” The 2011 season isn’t a “season during the term of this Agreement”; however, the 2010 season is such a season, and the tag would be applied during the 2010 league year, for use in the 2011 league year.
We’ve now entered the final weeks of the 2010 league year, and uncertainty continues to linger. ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio reported earlier today that teams have been advised not to use the tag in February 2011 until receiving further information and guidance from the league office. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Paolantonio that the situation is under review.
But why not simply apply the tag anyway? If the Colts don’t apply it to quarterback Peyton Manning or if the Eagles fail to apply it to quarterback Mike Vick before the close of business on the eighth day before the first day of the 2011 league year, they may forfeit the ability to do so later.
If the Colts and Eagles apply the tag, there’s no real downside. True, the union may file a grievance regarding the availability of the franchise tender for 2011, but if the franchise player concept remains in the next CBA, they’d surely still be able to use it. If they fail to apply the tender before the expiration of the current deal, they’ll possibly forfeit that ability.
Of course, that raises the question of why the league would tell the teams not to use the franchise tag pending further communication from the league office. Our guess is that the league prefers not to pick a fight that would be resolved under the current CBA by Judge David Doty. Doty, whose jurisdiction over the league and the union will expire as soon as the current labor deal terminates, would potentially provide the union with more leverage at the bargaining table by ruling that the owners’ decision to allow the current deal to evaporate necessarily triggers the evaporation of the franchise player concept.
In the end, it’s likely that the franchise player concept will survive, but the union may seek certain concessions from the league. By avoiding a fight before Judge Doty regarding the ongoing viability of the tag after the expiration of the CBA, the price tag for keeping the franchise tag could end up being lower.