How do you balance financial stability with a potential windfall?
That's the delicate dance that a number of NFL players and teams find themselves forced into each year when it comes to using the franchise or transition tags. Instituted in 1993, the tags were put in place to give teams the ability to keep their best players from hitting free agency.
Both tags are essentially one-year deals, with the franchise tag guaranteeing the average of the top-five salaries at the player's position or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary—whichever is greater. The transition tag is the same but guarantees a lesser, top-10 salary.
Many NFL fans already know how the tagging process works since it has been around for a couple of decades, but how players, their agents and teams prepare and react to the tagging process is still a behind-the-scenes process.
Let's change that.
The Tag Comes with A Serious Amount of Uncertainty
"A franchise year is a contract year."
That phrase is how ESPN's Andrew Brandt described the process of tagging a player with either the franchise or transition tag. Brandt, now one of the very best in sports business media, has been on both sides of the negotiating table.
Once a sports agent, Brandt switched camps and became one of the youngest general managers in all of sports when he took over Barcelona Dragons of the NFL's World League of American Football. He eventually worked his way up to be vice president of the Green Bay Packers.
Brandt called the franchise year a contract year because that's essentially what is happening. A team is giving a player a one-year deal at a pretty good amount of money to prove he's worth a longer commitment at a similar dollar amount.
He also used an interesting analogy about the play response to a tag, saying that although players may talk a big game, they'd all rather "marry than date," referring to the level of commitment (or non-commitment) that a tag entails.
Joel Corry of CBS Sports echoed those sentiments, saying: "From the agent side, players typically don’t like the franchise tag. For better or for worse, players want to find out their worth on the open market."
Corry, another former agent who has made the jump to become a valued member of the media, had some more practical advice for players preparing to get tagged:
"You tell the player that you’re going year-to-year—don’t make any huge purchases or life-changing financial decisions. The player mentality, of course, is that everything will go well."
This, in itself, is a hard way of looking at things for a player. No one gets to the NFL without being pretty confident in their own abilities (Brandt jokingly underplayed it as "strong self-esteem"). So there's a bit of a balancing act that players aren't used to.
"If you’re a pro, you’re preparing to be the best at what you do every season."
Five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent embodies that "strong self-esteem" as much as any player, as he's never been anything but supremely confident in his abilities. Vincent talked a lot about how he approached every offseason the same way, working every year through his NFL career either at internships or in his own philanthropic ventures.
Although Vincent came up to a contract year four different times, he said that he never approached one of those offseasons any differently, trusting that he would play well enough to earn whatever sort of money he and his family needed.
"I controlled what I could control. I wanted to make sure that I was a professional and if I was being compensated to perform, my efforts, focus and concentration was on that year."
Vincent is also in the unique position to work for the league office as Executive Vice President of Football Operations and was also one of the first players ever tagged, receiving a transition designation from the Miami Dolphins in 1993—the first year of the tag's existence.
"I was praying I didn’t get the franchise tag at the time. With the way they treated (head coach Don) Shula, I felt like it was time for me to depart from the organization as well."
So Vincent not only got the tag he wanted but also relished the opportunity to move on from the Dolphins (not wanting to be "married" to Miami, using Brandt's parlance). Things worked out for Vincent, as he went from being a good player in Miami to one of the best in the game during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Every tag situation can be different.
Mike McCartney of Priority Sports has represented a couple of franchise-tagged players, Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and Tampa Bay Buccaneers punter Michael Koenen. Ngata's franchise tag came during the NFL lockout a few years back, and McCartney intimated that Ngata signed it right away because of the uncertainty of the upcoming negotiations and potential changes to the collective bargaining agreement.
Still, with Ngata, it wasn't as if the Ravens were going to let one of their best players walk after one year. Even in a worst-case-injury scenario, this was a team-player marriage in the strongest sense of the analogy.
Brandt brought up an almost opposite example of a player tagged because a team was keeping him at arm's length—that of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, then of the Tennessee Titans. Brandt pointed out how the Titans continued to keep Haynesworth on year-to-year scenarios, paying extra money but never really committing.
Haynesworth continued to play at a high level.
Then Haynesworth got a long-term deal with Washington which eventually led to the end of his career. Now, Brandt allowed that Big Al had some motivation issues singular to him as a player, but it's a cautionary tale from the team side of things that showcases why uncertainty might be a valuable motivator.
Players Need to Bet on Themselves, While Teams Need to Plan for Success
"There’s another side to look at it; it should absolutely frame a negotiation."
Though some players hold out and refrain from signing the tag for very good reasons, both of McCartney's players signed theirs pretty quickly, but both as means to an end. While the tag very well could've meant one-and-done seasons for his players (as with any others), McCartney talked about how it gives a player a better seat at the negotiating table.
Corry told much the same story, talking about how teams look at things in a three-year snapshot. With even a modicum of advanced planning, the team is able to predict when tags come up and are able to build those into their planning process.
For McCartney, then, it was about looking at the player's situation not as a franchised player on a one-year deal, but as a player who already has the first year of a longer commitment guaranteed. It may not be the contractual reality of the situation, but as long as both sides head to the table wanting that longer-term deal done, it's a great starting position.
For players with that Troy Vincent level of self confidence, this isn't a bad thing...
"We all have egos as professional athletes," Vincent said, "so for someone to acknowledge that you’re one of the best at your position—I think it says a lot when an organization determines to tag an individual....Most times, it's a compliment."
Brandt believes the key in negotiation is in determining whether the team sees that tag as how they want to proceed in that particular year (see: Haynesworth) vs. simply a placeholder for long-term action. Once a player is tagged, that team has until July 15 to sign him to a longer deal, giving the team a few extra months with that player off the free market. And, as Brandt always says: "Deadlines spur action."
Corry mentioned the situation of a player currently facing a potential tag, that of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston. For Houston, Corry said that it might be better to hold off signing the tag, as it would give him leverage (and the ability to not work out with the team and risk injury).
"From a practical standpoint, what you’re seeing is that players sign that thing immediately to guarantee it, but teams rarely revoke the franchise tag. Once you sign it, you’re obligated. You have to show up. It seems like if there’s the threat of you not showing up, sometimes it helps you get a better deal right around the deadline. If Houston doesn’t sign it right away and they revoked it, his agent would be jumping for joy. He could be the highest-paid defensive player in football."
The one problem Brandt brought up with that scenario is if a team purposefully held on to the rights of a player before revoking the tag right before camp (and after the free-agency money has dried up).
The "rest of this story" (as Paul Harvey used to say) is that the contrast between a one-year tag and a bigger, long-term deal is largely a false distinction. Deals in the NFL are never quite as lengthy or quite as lucrative as they might seem in the press release.
Or, as Brandt put it: "These long-term contracts aren’t really ever long-term contracts."
Corry added: "In some cases, a long-term deal doesn’t have as much security as it seems." Here, Corry brought up Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, whom Corry believes would be better off going year-to-year at massive dollar amounts, which Corry believes would get him far more money than the long-term deals the Cowboys have reportedly been offering, according to Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk.
This brings up some practical matters that players have to think about on a one-year deal.
Though Vincent treated every year the same, some of that had to do with his incredible work ethic and his constant drive to treat football as a stepping stone to something greater. For other players, the money they make in the NFL has to take care of themselves and their families in a much more substantial way.
"You gotta play best-case scenario/worst-case scenario," McCartney said. "This is a one-year deal—no future guarantees. You never want a player to come back and say, 'You never warned me.'"
Ultimately, the player is going to do what the player is going to do, and just about every agent can tell horror stories of guys who "borrowed" money against their next hypothetical contract only to have the bottom drop out on their career at the worst possible moment.
Along those same lines, Corry said, "You tell the player that you’re going year-to-year, don’t make any huge purchases or life-changing financial decisions. The player mentality, of course, is that everything will go well."
Brandt even suggested that a player take some of this big money in a deferral, spreading the dollar amount over the entire year rather than in just 16 game checks—something teams are always happy to do—saying, "Money goes fast."
The tags, in and of themselves, are not positives or negatives. For players, they can represent a large windfall of cash. For teams, they can help keep the best players in town and from resting on their laurels. For both, they can also create a lot of leverage at the negotiating table.
Yet the tags also have their own sets of challenges for both sides, and the amount of preparation that goes into planning for the tags can have a huge impact on whether the year is the end of something special or only the beginning.
Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained by the author.