by NFL Gimpy
Happy Franchise Tag Day! It’s a magical day where pending free agents sweat that they’ll be stuck playing on a 1 year contract instead of testing the market. The franchise tag causes a lot of ill feelings on the player’s side typically while NFL GMs, owners, and coaches love it. The ability to throw a 1 year contract on a player with no risk beyond that season is a very enticing offer, even if the player is paid an average of the top players at that position. If you tag a player and it doesn’t work out, rarely does it affect the team long term. If the player meets or exceeds your expectations that made him worthy of the tag, it is money well spent.
There always seems to be a bit of fan backlash when a player holds out or gripes about the franchise tag. The lowest paid franchise tag for non-kickers/punters is $6.066 million, which is for tight ends (assuming they actually are one, more on that later). That means TEs get paid roughly $6M for one year of work, why would anyone complain about that? The reason you’d complain is because you’re risking tens of millions of dollars for that one season. NFL players have a very short shelf life. The average career is between 3 and 4 year; the average player never receives a second contract. The second contract is normally more valuable because it represents your actual value as an NFL player. When you’re drafted, your first contract is pretty much set in stone. So if you’re a 5th round pick, that potential second contract is huge.
A great example of how devastating the franchise tag can be is Falcons CB Brent Grimes. A little background on him: he was a UDFA out of Shippensburg (small state school in PA, D2 football) and spent some time in NFL Europe. He played his way onto the Falcons as a special teamer, then worked his way up to consistent playing time in 2009, then ended up in the Pro Bowl in 2010. After an injury plagued 2011, Grimes received the franchise tag and earned $10.281M in 2012. Not bad, huh? Grimes injured his Achilles in the first game of the season and went straight to the injured reserve. Tough luck.
What did Grimes potentially lose out on? Without comparing players too much, another corner, Cortland Finnegan, hit the market in 2012 at the same time Grimes could have. Finnegan is a talented, undersized, corner but he has a few discipline issues. Grimes is only a few months older, but they’ve both made one pro bowl and if you ask 10 scouts, I doubt all 10 would say when healthy Finnegan is drastically better than Grimes. They may say the opposite though; many considered Grimes to be one of the top CBs in the game headed in to 2012.
Finnegan received a 5 year, $50M contract with $27M guaranteed from the Rams. Finnegan got nearly triple the guaranteed money Grimes did and should see most of that $50M before his career is over. We’ll see what Grimes gets this offseason, but NFL teams are going to be hesitant to commit a lot of $$ to a player coming off of an Achilles injury. Grimes will most likely sign a one year “show me” kind of deal to prove to a team that he has or will recover from the injury before they commit real $$ to him. By the time the 2014 season starts, Grimes will be 31 years old. Do you think an NFL team is going to spend a lot of $$ on a player on the wrong side of 30? Most likely not.
It is a pretty good bet that Grimes will never see anything close to the amount of $$ Cortland Finnegan (or Brandon Carr) will earn from 2012 on. Even with the $10.281M he earned from the franchise tag, it’ll be tough to catch up. While I’m not suggesting you shed a tear for a guy who made $10M in 2012, consider his perspective. The franchise tag cost him a chance at $20M-$28M guaranteed and another $15M-$35M in non-guaranteed salary. You’d be pretty upset too if someone prevented you from earning double or triple your current wage. Imagine how happy Tommy would be if he could afford 14 cases of PBR a week instead of 7? 24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case, not a coincidence.
I mentioned earlier in the column about more on the TE franchise tag. A problem that came up with Jermichael Finley previously and Jared Cook this year is whether or not they’re TEs or WRs. Why would a player and his agent argue that a player is a WR and not a TE? The franchise tag for a TE is $6.066M. WR? $10.537M. $4.5M is a big chunk of change.
The argument is based off of where the player lines up a majority of the time. A TE traditionally lines up directly next to the OT on the line of scrimmage with his hand on the ground in a 3 point stance. A WR rarely does. So if a TE lines up in the slot and not with his hand in the dirt a majority of the time that means a he’s playing the role of a WR, not a TE. Cook lined up in the slot (a WR position) 56% of the time in 2012. Using this argument, Cook is a WR more than a TE, so he should receive the WR tag instead of the TE tag. The new collective bargaining agreement uses “the position in which the player participated in the most plays” to determine what position you play. Using that statement, Cook has a strong argument.
The Packers and Jermichael Finley compromised with a two-year contract that paid him roughly the middle ground between the two positions. I don’t see Cook compromising. There’s a big difference between playing for a Super Bowl contender with a top QB and a QB who is at best a work in progress with a head coach on the hot seat. As Andrew Brandt says, there will be lawyers. The Titans will argue that lining up in the slot is still within the positional role of the TE. Cook and his agent will argue that if he’s lined up in the slot and not on the line with his hand in the dirt most of the time, he’s a WR.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. One thing is certain: I doubt Cook will want to play for the Titans beyond 2013 if he has to sue them for money he feels he deserves. I wonder if they’ll pay Cook the $10.537M if he wins. If they don’t, that would be one heck of a dick move. The Titans could drag this out until after the draft and if Cook wins, rescind the tag. Then when there’s a smaller market for his services, he won’t get the $$ he would have if he became a free agent in March.
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I went on a little Twitter rant last night regarding Joe Flacco after his new contract brought up the old stories of Flacco’s time at Pitt from 2003-2005. For those who don’t know, Joe Flacco started off his collegiate career at Pitt before transferring to Delaware. He is a drastically different player since his short tenure there. Sadly, like pretty much everything that has happened at Pitt since the early 80s, it had a bad ending for Pitt fans. When Flacco committed, the head coach at Pitt was Walt Harris. Harris was his coach for his redshirt and redshirt freshman years. At that point, Harris’ contract expired and Pitt hired Dave Wannstedt in 2005. Before any games were played that season, Flacco left Pitt and went to Delaware after Palko kept the starting job for the second year in a row.
So, what happened during Flacco’s tenure at Pitt? There’s a lot of revisionist history that has happened, almost entirely because people have only heard Flacco’s side of the story and given that he is now the highest paid QB in the NFL, most are apt to take his side as the truth. The problem his story doesn’t match up with a lot of what happened. I was at Pitt from 2004-2008 and I casually knew a few players and one of my fraternity brothers worked for the team as well. Almost all criticism has been levied on Wannstedt because he never gave Flacco a chance to start. Let’s look at the history of this.
When Wannstedt took over at Pitt, they were coming off of a Big East title and their first (and to date only) BCS Bowl game appearance. The best player on the offense in 2004 was QB Tyler Palko. Palko’s NFL career never panned out, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a good college QB. Palko simply lacked the physical gifts necessary to stay in the NFL for long. That season, he was the first QB to ever throw 5 TDs against Notre Dame in South Bend. Throwing for 5 TDs doesn’t seem impressive now in an era where a 50-45 game doesn’t garner a raised eyebrow, but it meant a lot more in 2004. How many players can say they were the first to do something at South Bend? That’s a historic moment. With a BCS Bowl on the line, he led Pitt to back to back wins to end the season, including another 5-TD performance to clinch it.
Flacco was going to be a redshirt sophomore after that season with a grand total of 1 completion under his belt. He chose Pitt over Virginia Tech and Rutgers during his recruitment because he wanted to play for Harris.
His redshirt freshman year, Harris gave the starting job to Palko (redshirt sophomore ) over Flacco and as I mentioned, Palko led them to the Fiesta Bowl, so it’s hard to question that decision. When Wannstedt came in, how could you possibly consider benching that QB? He didn’t and Flacco got upset and transferred.
Where Flacco is now is irrelevant. I specifically recall in 2008 talking to a player who was a senior at Pitt about Flacco. He didn’t deny Flacco was extremely talented, but this player suggested he had a reputation as a whiner. The point is that no one saw Flacco as a player so good he just had to get on the field. That’s not just players. That’s fans, analysts, writers, anyone with knowledge of the situation. People understood that he didn’t want to sit on the bench and only get one year to play. No one said Pitt let their best QB transfer in 2005 other than the Flacco family. No one. Flacco wanted an open competition but didn’t make the effort to force the issue. In order for a coach to consider benching a successful starter, you have to prove you’re worthy.
Flacco didn’t understand that for a coach to bench a successful starter, you have to take the job from him. To use a boxing analogy, if you go toe to toe with the champion for 12 rounds and it’s an even fight or even slightly in your favor, most likely the champion will retain his status. Why? In order to be the man, you have to leave no doubt that you’re better and that you beat him. Past performance gives the higher up benefit of the doubt when it’s close.
A lot of writers still seem to think Pitt played nepotism with Palko, the son of a local HS coaching legend. I think the problem is they’re only hearing one side of the story. Yes, hindsight is 20/20 and certainly Flacco is a better QB than Palko now. With the benefit of that prism, a lot of teams have made bad decisions that you’d find ways to say were wrong at the time too. For example, the Chargers should have known Ryan Leaf was a headcase in interviews. The Raiders should have known Jamarcus Russell has major issues just by digging a little. Pitt should have benched Palko for Flacco since it should have been obvious he’d be a first round pick and Super Bowl winning QB. That’s why Tom Brady was a first round pick and didn’t have to fight to keep Drew Henson from taking his job, right? Coaches never miss out on great talent or why players are highly flawed.
Obviously Flacco has turned out to be a pretty good QB. But the point is that he has improved drastically from his time at Pitt in order to become one. Keep in mind for all of his drama over the situation, all he got was 2 years starting at Delaware instead of 1 year starting at Pitt. There’s no doubt he made the right decision transferring, Delaware brought the best out in him.
That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to take a look at what would have happened if Flacco stayed. Flacco would have started in 2007 over Bill Stull, Kevan Smith, and Pat Bostick. He would have had some guy named LeSean McCoy at RB, I think he’s in the NFL; I’ll have to double check. Pitt was 5-7 that season and with better QB play (Stull won the gig but missed most of the season) it would have looked a lot different. 4 of those losses were by just one score. Pitt finished the season by upsetting #2 West Virginia, which caused a chain reaction that can still be felt in college football today. Flacco easily could have led Pitt to a 10-win season. I don’t know if he would have developed the same at Pitt as he did at Delaware or if he would have been a 1st round pick, but it’s fun to speculate.
Unfortunately as time goes on, Pitt will likely look worse and worse. There’s no incentive for anyone to set the record straight. If a coach or player takes a stance beyond “hindsight is 20/20, Palko was a good QB, no way to know how this would pan out,” they’ll appear bitter. Palko’s solid college career will be ignored because he didn’t pan out in the NFL and obviously Flacco did. But why can’t both parties win? Palko was the better QB in 2005 and Flacco is the better QB in 2013 (well, 2007-retirement). But, revisionist history will say Pitt messed up. Trust me, Pitt has messed up a lot of things: Todd Graham, Dave Wannstedt, playing games at Heinz Field instead of an on campus stadium, dropping the “Pitt” moniker for several years and going by Pittsburgh, awful logos and uniforms, etc. But Palko vs. Flacco in 2005?
Well, I guess unless someone has a time machine, we’ll never know.
-The woman who tried to show she could be a kicker at the one NFL regional combine was a sad PR stunt by the NFL. She had no idea what she was doing and shouldn’t have been there. There’s a difference between a woman getting extra hype because she’s a woman in a man’s sport and then there’s forced good will.
-I’m working on my free agency preview column for next week now. Once franchise tags are all placed (Randy Starks was tagged as I edit) we’ll have a clear picture of who is hitting the market.
-I’ve criticized Mike Florio and PFT for many things they have sensationalized (especially the suggestion that restricted free agents are never signed is a clear indication of collusion between teams), but I give them a ton of credit for being on the forefront of gay player advocacy. Statistics suggest it is virtually impossible for all current NFL players to be straight. There are absolutely a few gay players, none of which are publicly open about it. PFT has been out there attacking NFL teams who are trying to find out if potential players are gay and suggesting the NFL needs to do more to protect player privacy. Kudos PFT.
-Rumors are swirling that the Bills may cut QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Something that has always amused me about Fitzpatrick is that his #1 problem is decision making. He makes too many bad calls on when and where to throw the ball. Fitzpatrick is a Harvard grad. It just goes to show you that football smarts and book smarts are not inclusive.
-And on final edit, 49ers are releasing David Akers. No surprise, he had a rough 2012 and I’m surprised he didn’t have a mistake that cost them in the playoffs.
Follow Gimpy on Twitter. One day Peter King will be Palko to Gimpy’s Flacco so jump on the bandwagon now to get a good seat.