Sources: Union to fight ‘franchise’ rule

Vick and Manning could be franchised in 2011.
(Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

DALLAS – The NFL Players Association took its first steps toward challenging the “franchise” tag, a move that could set free a talented group of players – including quarterbacks Peyton Manning(notes) and Michael Vick(notes).

The NFLPA, whose CBA with NFL owners expires on March 4, sent out a notice to agents on Thursday saying it doesn’t believe the league will be able to put the franchise tag on potential unrestricted free agents.

“We have received reports that the NFL is advising clubs that they can place a franchise tag on players whose contracts will expire at the end of the 2010 league year,” the union wrote in Thursday’s statement, according to three agents. “The current CBA provides that ‘each club shall be permitted to designate one of its players who would otherwise be an Unrestricted Free Agent [or Restricted Free Agent] as a Franchise Player each Season during the term of this Agreement.’ The 2011 season is not a ‘season during the term of this Agreement’ so the NFL has no valid basis for claiming the right to franchise players in 2011.”

League spokesman Greg Aiello, through an email to Yahoo! Sports, contends that teams’ “right to use the tag is in the CBA.”

If the union is successful at gaining unrestricted free agency – through arbitration or the courts – for a player like Manning, that could send shockwaves through the NFL. The possibility of Manning changing teams would be akin to the NBA’s LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers via free agency and could change the landscape of the NFL.

In addition to challenging the franchise tag, the union plans to decertify if a new agreement isn’t reached, regardless of whether the owners lock out the players or simply continue to play under existing rules while negotiating with the players, two sources said.

If the union – which would claim that the franchise tag is a restraint of trade and an anti-trust violation – gets its way, all players with six years experience or more whose contracts have run out would become unrestricted free agents without strings. In the past, NFL teams have had the power to designate at least one player as the franchise player, which significantly restricts the ability of that player to change teams.

This year, there are a host of high-profile veteran players who could become free agents, including Manning, Vick, Haloti Ngata(notes), Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) and Vincent Jackson(notes). None, however, is more important than Manning, a player with such appeal, drawing power and impact on the fate of a team that he could literally impact the value of the franchise. In the NFL, there are few such players and they are primarily limited to quarterbacks such as Manning, Tom Brady(notes) and Drew Brees(notes).

“With Peyton Manning, the Colts sell out all their games, all their high-end suites, they make the playoffs, they are one of the top franchises in the league,” a prominent agent said. “Without him, they’re a 5-11 team nobody cares about.

“If you think about it that way, what is Manning worth to a team over the next five or six years? Maybe $200 million? If he is a free agent, you don’t think a ton of teams would say, ‘I’ll make a run at him.’ They would have to or their fan bases would be screaming. Could you imagine what would happen to [Indianapolis owner] Jim Irsay if he let Manning get away?”

Conversely, the failure of multiple teams to approach Manning as a free agent would be grounds for a pretty simple collusion case.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Feb 3, 2011