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Franchise tag can lead to problems

When he awakens next Wednesday morning and rolls out of bed, Seattle Seahawks left offensive tackle Walter Jones can be forgiven if he feels a little like Phil Connors, the Bill Murray leading man character in the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day."

You know the flick, of course, the one in which every day is the same day for Murray. Long before he was lost in translation, and nominated for an Academy Award, Murray was lost in a time warp with actress Andie McDowell.

Well, in the case of Jones, one of the premier pass protectors in the NFL and a perennial Pro Bowl performer, redundancy has become a maddening routine as well.

Barring an unexpected breakthrough in contract negotiations, Jones for the third straight offseason will be labeled with the "F-bomb" -- no, not that "F-bomb" -- and will see his potential mobility in free agency evaporate. The "franchise" designation, created as a badge of honor when the league and the NFL Players Association finalized the 1993 collective bargaining agreement that provided labor peace and brought free agency, has only a decade later evolved into a dirty word.

Teams don't like to exercise the "franchise" marker on a potential unrestricted free agent because it has essentially come to define a negotiating impasse and, likely as important, it places undue burden on a club's salary cap. Players disdain the once meritorious tag since it blocks movement, deflects fat contract offers and characteristically signals lengthy and acrimonious negotiations with their incumbent teams.

Yet at the end of business next Tuesday, the deadline for clubs to apply the "franchise" tag and the only slightly less restrictive "transition" markers, there could be as many as 10 veterans designated in those two categories. And not many of the teams that are forced to resort to the tags, and even fewer of the players designated under the terms of the franchise and transition markers, will be thrilled with their shared plights.

"There is another word that begins with F-R that usually applies when a player is hit with the tag," acknowledged veteran agent Gary Wichard. "Try frustration on for size. The tags, well, they almost always end up being nasty. And it ends up that you don't get a deal done until late into the summer. Whatever the original intent of the franchise tag, well, that's not what it is now."

Indeed, the franchise marker was designed, in part, as a sort of medal of honor. When the league and the union were putting the finishing touches on the collective bargaining agreement, in fact, one of the sticking points that slowed approval was the contention of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis that each team have five franchise tags to dole out. A decade later, one franchise tag, management and rank-and-file might concur, probably is one too many.

Players have come to loathe the franchise tag so much that teams use it as leverage in negotiations toward long-term deals. There is certain to be plenty of saber-rattling over the next few days in Indianapolis, site of the annual predraft scouting combine, where cap managers and the agents for potential franchise players will be meeting.

Some of the high-profile pending free agents will sign new deals before the deadline for designating franchise veterans arrives Tuesday afternoon. Others will roll the dice and dare their current teams to impose the marker.

"There's a lot of gamesmanship that goes on, sort of a like a high-stakes game of liar's poker," said the general manager of an NFC team likely to use the franchise marker on one of its prized veterans. "Let's face it, [the franchise tag] is a last resort. I mean, no one wants the pain-in-the-ass implications that it brings. But, hey, it's one of the tools in your box and, if you're backed to the wall, sometimes you don't have a choice."

Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey has already been hit with the franchise tag. Among the other players who could be franchised: Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning; linebacker Julian Peterson of San Francisco; corners Chris McAlister of Baltimore and Oakland's Charles Woodson; St. Louis left offensive tackle Orlando Pace and Green Bay counterpart Chad Clifton; defensive ends Jevon Kearse of Tennessee and New Orleans' Darren Howard.

If the Colts are forced to apply the franchise tag to Manning, the co-most valuable player for the 2003 season, it will certainly be a pricey marker. The franchise label typically represents a one-year qualifying offer at the average of the five highest cap numbers for players at a given position. But because Manning already had a 2003 salary cap number considerably higher than the qualifying offer for a franchise quarterback, he will carry a cap charge of $18.3 million if the Colts tag him.

Colts management would prefer to strike a long-term deal with Manning, one that would lower his '04 cap charge to the $9 million-$10 million range, and agents Tom Condon and Ken Kremer of IMG Football will huddle with Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian this week at the combine. But while the two sides agree Manning will become the highest paid player in NFL history, they aren't close to an accord on the numbers that will catapult him to that perch, and it will be difficult to complete a deal before next Tuesday.

Translation: Manning will carry the highest price tag of any franchise player in NFL history and, it is believed, the highest single-season salary cap charge.

There are some teams that, taking a cue from the Buffalo Bills' maneuver of a year ago, will use the franchise tag to retain a player's rights just so they can trade him. The Bills kept the rights to wide receiver Peerless Price via the franchise marker and then dealt him to Atlanta for a first-round draft pick. Bailey, who probably will be swapped by the 'Skins by mid-March, is such a player. And the San Francisco 49ers will consider applying the franchise tag to recalcitrant wide receiver Terrell Owens rather than allow him to exit without compensation in free agency.

As for Walter Jones, well, he will pocket more than $7 million if he opts to accept the guaranteed money that accompanies the franchise tag, because he still feels Seattle has not yet made him a satisfactory long-term offer in three years. He may not be thrilled with the system but, as was the case with Bill Murray for much of the "Groundhog Day" movie, he hasn't yet figured out how to shake it.

His representative, Roosevelt Barnes, pointed out that, if Jones takes the franchise tag for a third straight year, he will have earned about $18 million in three seasons. "For a guy waking up on the same side of the bed for three years now," acknowledged Barnes, "that isn't all that bad."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.