|Tag, they're it? Could be for "franchise" quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Michael Vick.|
This much we know: Michael Vick wants to continue playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Eagles want to keep him. Likewise, Peyton Manning would like to be in a Colts uniform a few years down the road, when his full-on assault on the record books begins, and Indianapolis would be crazy not to have him.
And to take it another step, it's fairly obvious that it's good business for the NFL to have teams holding on to signature players like Vick and Manning.
OK, so four sides want to get two deals done, are willing to make commitments to one another, and that should be that ... correct?
Last weekend, as the number of teams left in the playoffs dwindled to eight, the Colts and Eagles joined 22 others going headlong into the great unknown of the 2011 offseason. The truly amazing thing is that, come March 4, absent a labor agreement, the NFL is likely to shut down and, at that time, Vick won't be under contract, and chances are good Manning will be in the same boat.
Both situations have their complexities. But each will be centered, first, around whatever decision the league comes to on the future of the franchise tag, both before a new CBA is reached and, in conjunction with the union, after the deal is struck.
Asked about how teams are being advised on the tag, and whether or not the usual 14-day period to tag players will take place as it normally does in February, an NFL spokesman responded that "it is under review" and any decision is "to be determined." Since the CBA will expire in the days following where that deadline would hit (Feb. 25), there's no framework for how teams should go forward.
But it's hard to envision a scenario in which teams like the Eagles and Colts won't be protected with star players. One high-ranking team official, not working for either Philly or Indy, opined over the summer that there is "a greater likelihood there will be two franchise tags than none" in the new CBA.
That would, of course, lead to Vick and Manning being tagged quicker than Vick can turn the corner on a defense. From there, things would get interesting.
One reason Manning carries superior leverage to almost any player in league history is because of the massive digits on the back end of the monster deal he signed in 2004. For franchising purposes, Manning's number is $19.2 million ($15.8 million in salary, $3.4 million in prorated bonus cash), and so his tag figure would be 120 percent of that, or $23.07 million, in 2011. Franchise him again under the current rules, and that number bulges to $27.64 million in 2012.
Add those two numbers, and you get $50.71 million, roughly $25 million per year, and that's without factoring in that the Colts want him locked up for longer than that.
So when you hear that Manning will be getting $22-23 million per year, know that those numbers might be conservative. What Tom Brady got ($18 million per year in new money from 2011 to 2014, $16.7 million per in total cash from 2010 to 2014) isn't really relevant to Manning's contract, because Manning's leverage points are stronger.
Manning was in a similar spot in 2004, when he was franchised at $18.4 million. He did a deal at $14.2 million per year, which still bettered the previous benchmark in annual average (belonging to Donovan McNabb) by nearly $5 million. Additionally, Manning played his deal out, assuming all the risk involved with that, rather than sign a new deal a year early like Brady or Eli Manning or Philip Rivers did.
The lesson to be learned: Peyton Manning has again put himself in a position to rewrite the salary rules, and justifiably so.
The Colts could actually bite the bullet and lock Manning up before a labor agreement comes to pass. It might be difficult to do, seeing where the context of a salary cap is important to judge your investment in a player (for example, $20 million looks different on a $125 million cap than a $100 million cap), but at least they have the option.
The Eagles don't. Vick took home a $3.75 million base salary in 2010, but his accumulation of approximately $2 million in incentives have triggered a little known mechanism in the CBA, according to sources, that makes a new contract impossible to do until a new CBA is reached. That doesn't mean a framework can't be designed, but it does mean the Eagles will have to let Vick's contract expire first.
Philadelphia coach Andy Reid played it coy this week, choosing not to commit to Vick as his 2011 starter while saying to the local press, "Do I want him back? I would like them all back." But according to sources on both sides of this one, the full intent is to have Vick back as the leader.
"We're big on quarterbacks," said one team source. "We're not in the business of letting them go."
On the other side, beyond just enjoying playing for Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg (who appears to be staying for another year), Vick feels that staying in Philadelphia is what's best for his career. Here's the thing, though: Vick also wants a deal. And it's important enough that he's probably not playing another game for the Eagles without one.
To be clear, this relationship has been a great one for all involved, and is built on a very sturdy foundation that is enough to have most believing strongly that it will be a long-term one.
But this situation, like the Manning situation, is complicated.
Manning and Vick aren't alone, of course. There's a backlog of free agents lying in wait, those fourth- and fifth-year players that would've been unrestricted in 2010 under the old rules, but were restricted under the regulations of the "final league year."
Should the league revert back its standard for players reaching unrestricted free agency from six years to four, there figures to be nearly double the normal number of free agents and teams with room to spend and, perhaps, the PR problem of a work stoppage to overcome.
Most of the names, though, are the kind you'd normally see on a free-agent list.
Manning and Vick, on the other hand, are screaming examples of just how strange the offseason ahead really could be. It's hard to come up with a gameplan for the Eagles or Colts, or the camp of either player on just how to proceed.
Which is why the final outcome in these cases isn't as easy as it normally would be to predict.