PHOENIX – Defensive end John Abraham was paid $6.66 million by the New York Jets in 2005, and he resented every cent of it. That same year, the Indianapolis Colts paid Edgerrin James more than any running back in the league. And as coach Tony Dungy remembered, "He was mad the whole time." Former New Orleans Saints defensive end Darren Howard? He spent the season "slapped in the face" $7.8 million times.
Ask any of those players who have been hit with the franchise tag and they'll tell you what it's like to earn the worst one-year salary bonanza in sports. A fate that is apparently so terrible, it has Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs considering a 10-game boycott next season.
"The only thing good about it," insisted Abraham, now with the Atlanta Falcons, "Is the guaranteed money for one year. After that, there really isn't anything."
Surely, the financial gains are considerable. Next season, only four positions – safety, tight end, punter and kicker – will demand less than a mandatory one-year contract of $6.775 million under the franchise marker. And if you had been tagged as a defensive end, offensive lineman or quarterback in 2007, your deal would range from $8.6 to $12.6 million. But weigh the big dollars against the lack of a long-term contract and the possibility of injury, and players view the franchise tag as far and away the worst free-agency loss they've ever suffered.
Yet there's plenty of evidence to the contrary.
While the one-year franchise tag has become the most hated bargaining tool in the league by agents and players, the financial reality of the tag cannot be denied: One way or another, it makes players rich. And for some, it arguably brings a more lucrative financial windfall than had the player hit the market.
"It's hard for me to give a player that kind of money in a single year and feel sorry for them," Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "And at the end of the day, time after time, it tends to work out pretty good. So I don't know why there's that stigma."
While most agents and players would vehemently disagree, the numbers are hard to deny. Over the last five years, 14 players have actually spent a season drawing paychecks under the tag. And those same 14 players all eventually shed the tag and landed long-term contracts that combined for nearly $200 million in bonuses and guaranteed money.
Even the worst-case scenario players – guys like linebacker Julian Peterson and quarterback Drew Brees, who were both injured while playing under the tag – reaped massive rewards. Peterson? He received $18.5 million in guaranteed money when he finally signed a long-term deal with the Seattle Seahawks. Brees? He'll make $25 million in his first two seasons with the Saints.
In fact, the players who receive multiple tags before landing their long-term deal commonly are looked back upon as being the most lavishly paid players at their positions – if not the league – at that time. In Peterson's case, his two seasons under the tag and the ensuing guarantees in his long-term contract essentially delivered a guaranteed minimum of $31.6 million into his pocket. Cornerback Charles Woodson? He made more than $29 million over the last three seasons. Howard, who called the Saints "cheapskates" in an interview with Yahoo! Sports last summer and now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, was paid over $14 million his last two seasons by the Saints.
And then you have Seahawks offensive tackle Walter Jones, who had one of the most acrimonious, albeit bank-breaking, experiences ever with the tag. Jones was tagged every year from 2002 to 2004 – a span that was marked by an icy relationship with Seattle's front office, and his refusal to report to training camp. By the time it was all over, Jones raked in almost $18 million in base salary before signing a long-term deal that delivered a $16 million signing bonus. In essence, he earned almost $34 million in a little over three years.
"But Walter Jones is kind of the exception to the rule," Abraham said. "He stayed healthy all of those years and made the Pro Bowl in them. You can't guarantee it's going to be like that."
True enough. But players and agents don't have a hardened example over the last five years of an athlete who saw his career wiped out under the tag. Instead, what they have are projections – the theory that there is no way to know how much a player could have made in guarantees had he hit free agency in any given year.
"The player is saying, 'I had to take that risk every year to make that money. I had to play well, I had to stay healthy. Yes, for me, it happened. But what if it hadn't?'" Dungy said. "Three years ago, could we have predicted [a player would get a big deal]? It usually does, but that's no guarantee that it will. … They feel like they're having to take a big risk to get what other guys aren't having to take a risk to get."
And as free agent salaries shoot through the roof this offseason, the acrimony may only get worse. Never mind that the NFL Players Association still grumbles that the franchise tag was supposed to be a measure to protect franchise quarterbacks. Or that, as Seattle coach Mike Holmgren put it, "[Agents] implant this thing in a lot of players that if a team franchises you, they are disrespecting you." Indeed, the real issue is – and always will be – how much cash is guaranteed to go into the player's pockets.
A perfect snapshot may be that of Briggs, who at 26 is staring at a base salary of $7.2 million next season under the tag. He's said previously that he believes he deserves to be one of the highest paid players at his position over the long term. And now he's watched as the Miami Dolphins gave linebacker Joey Porter, who turned 30 last week, $20 million in guarantees.
"Weigh that $20 million guaranteed compared to that $7 million for that one year, and that's a big difference," Abraham said. "I got franchised when I was 26 or 27 years old. Nobody wants to be franchised when they are that old. You don't know how many years you have left in the NFL after that point. I played out five years of my contract [with the Jets] and then I got franchised, which was six. And then I got my deal after that. That's a long time in football.
"Who knows what's going to happen? Who knows how long you're going to play? There's nothing guaranteed."
Nothing beyond several million dollars in one season, that is. But in today's market, even with a history that suggests otherwise, that may never be enough.