Franchise Tag Will Keep New England Patriots, Vince Wilfork, In the Cold

T.J. DoneganCorrespondent IJanuary 30, 2010

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 10:  Vince Wilfork #75 of the New England Patriots adjusts his chin strap against the Baltimore Ravens during the 2010 AFC wild-card playoff game at Gillette Stadium on January 10, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Ravens won 33-14. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

On the face of it, one would think that New England Patriots and Vince Wilfork should be happy with each other.

Six years together, two Pro Bowl selections, two Super Bowl appearances, with Wilfork even going so far as to play out what is now considered an unfair sixth year on his original rookie deal.

And yet with that rookie contract coming to a close and the two camps seeming quite apart in their negotiations, it's likely the team will make the only sensible decision it has left: apply the franchise tag to Wilfork and continue negotiations without outside interference.

Wilfork has already pre-empted that decision, saying to be tagged would be a "slap in the face" for a player who has been forthright in his desire to extend his stay in New England.

The franchise tag is a sensible business decision for a club, at first glance. You have a player upon which you depend a great deal. You've invested a great deal of time and money on the player and, with their contract coming to a close, you want to be able to secure their future services or, at the very least, get a considerable amount of compensation in the draft if another team opens up the checkbook.

The problem is that an NFL player's career is a ticking clock. Every year, especially those crucial years before a player turns 30, is more valuable than the next. Losing a single year in a career that, at best, might have seven or eight years left can be deadly to a player's career value.

When you compound that by the fact that being tagged leaves the player with little recourse and that any year—any play, really—might be a player's last, it's easy to understand the frustration players have with the tag.

Players generally are paid a rather astronomical amount for the single year they are tagged, depending on the position, but the key is long-term security.

A player under the franchise tag should, theoretically, be able to collect a huge single year and then, the next year, enter free agency and get the big contract they were hoping for.

The problem is that in cases where the team doesn't want to pay a player long-term, can't come to an agreement on a player's worth, or can't find a willing trade partner, they're allowed to simply extend a player's contract using the franchise tag until the player loses the bulk of their future value either through injury or age.

It's an unfair system that, in cases like Wilfork's, punishes the player for not sitting out until the final few games of the year.

In my opinion, Wilfork is a player who deserves to be paid by whichever team is willing to pay him. He's been underpaid since almost the moment he stepped on the field, giving the team six years of incredible service in a time when six year rookie contracts are now banned.

He's now 28, at the height of his physical ability and commercial worth, and deserves to get the big contract all players dream of. He's arguably the best 3-4 nose tackle in a league starving for elite 3-4 nose tackles.

I don't think any unbiased source can say that, at the very least, Vince Wilfork hasn't lived up to the terms of the contract he signed with the New England Patriots in 2004.

And yet if the Patriots and Wilfork don't come to some sort of compromise in the next few months, that contract probably won't happen this year without Wilfork sitting out or the Patriots finding a willing trade partner.

Free agency isn't a perfect situation for fans or teams who grew up in an era where a player was continually associated with a single team. In a perfect world players would be paid what they are worth, be able to stay with the same team forever, and every team would win the Super Bowl every year.

That doesn't happen, and fans often blame players as being greedy for chasing bigger contracts in new cities as the cause. What I think many of these fans underestimate is the understanding that an NFL career is bitterly short, even for the elite athlete.

The career of an athlete doesn't extend far beyond their thirties. As medicine improves and rules change, some careers are extended, but most will end before a player is prepared.

I don't mean to make the franchise tag out to be an entirely terrible thing, of course. I think it's important for clubs to have the right of first refusal on players they've invested heavily in, but players all-too-frequently get the short end of the stick and yet have no option other than to basically rip the team in front of the media.

The Wilfork situation is a perfect example of exactly that. His barb about the tag being a "slap in the face" was expertly timed with the team likely to do just that in the next few weeks.

So how do teams get into these situations? Where their elite players are bemoaning their situation, wanting out of town, or outright causing a distraction by refusing to show up for work?

Most franchise tag negotiations devolve into public sniping that would make a late night TV host blush.

The tag itself is the problem. It's a sound business decision in a game where a man's contract is an expression of his personal worth as an athlete. It helps the team financially but burns bridges with players.

In truth the tag doesn't help teams or players. It's a smart idea that is executed poorly and needs to be reworked.

With the collective bargaining agreement between the union and owners currently being re-negotiated, now is the perfect time.

It just may come too late for Wilfork and the Patriots to fix a relationship that is souring faster than month-old milk.