Arbitration is, quite possibly, the most boring, frustrating process in professional sports. No one likes to discuss the legal aspect of the games that they so love, and so when those legal aspects are shoved into their faces, it can make for a very tedious stretch of fandom.
So the 2014 offseason has gone for the New Orleans Saints and their fan base. Ever since they lost to Seattle back in January, the focus of the local media and fans alike turned to #80: Jimmy Graham, something.
That "something" is indicative of Graham’s position, and it has been talked about to death. Is he a tight end, or a wide receiver? That isn’t for me or, indeed, us as fans to decide, and it isn’t the point of this article, but it raises a point that warrants discussion: what precedent does this set? Graham’s arbitration hearings are now in effect as his agent is in New Orleans, presumably to work out an actual contract that will make the discussion of TE vs. WR moot.
And so, as the debate continues, it may not matter in the scheme of the Saints cap situation (many of us have been saying for months that Graham’s agent will try to hammer out a long-term extension that is backloaded), but it does matter in terms of precedent.
After Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs was able to negotiate a compromise to be tagged as a DE/OLB, it changed the way that franchise tags were viewed by players or fans alike. This is the inherent flaw in the franchise tag: the NFL is an ever-evolving league that has amoeba like qualities in terms of how its positions are applied and utilized. Nearly every 3-4 defense now has a weak-side OLB that is reminiscent of the Terrell Suggs style. Receiving tight ends are a staple in about half the offenses in the NFL as well.
The franchise tag assumes uniformity in a non-uniform league. With every single one of the 64 strategic coaches in the league at any given time (offensive and defensive for each team, not to mention position, head coach, and hundreds of other personnel figures) comes a different set of expectations for how a position should be played. Thusly, those 64 coaches apply 64 different styles to each of the positions on the field. It simply isn’t fair to expect an unbiased evaluation from an arbitrator, simply because how a position should be played is relative to nearly every single individual fan and observer. Objectivity doesn’t even play into the equation, because it’s a naturally relative evaluation. Furthermore, positions evolve along with need. As corners become the premium paid players in the NFL to combat the passing era, offenses are forced to create options that allow them to look beyond a number one receiver. The league is cyclical, and positions will always be tweaked to give an edge.
The franchise tag was considered a huge win for owners, because it’s a one year get out of jail free card for negotiations with star players. It truly is a wonderful concept, but only as a concept. Players get paid top 5 money for their position and owners have them on the field for another season while they work out new contracts and sing Kumbaya together. However, there’s a reason that players go for long term contracts in addition to money. The NFL has horrible job security. All it takes is one injury, one twisted ankle or screwed up ACL, to brand a player. They could be branded as injury prone or something similar, and that can cripple them in negotiations, forcing them to take less than they would have had they been able to sign the contract that they wanted the previous year.
It’s no wonder that the NFLPA holds such disdain for the tags for these exact reasons. The players that they’re representing get good money, but they have the potential to lose a great deal more. Many fans have the "cry me a river" mentality when it comes to player rights, but these players have devoted their entire lives to a game that they will play until they’re 40 if they’re lucky. Fans want to see players that they love compensated, but paradoxically they don’t want to see that compensation negatively affect their team’s financial situation.
As a fanbase, indicting Graham is entirely unfair. There are some flaws in terms of his reasoning (listing yourself as a tight end on Twitter, accepting tight end records and going to the Pro Bowl as a tight end come to mind), but it is fair to want to be paid as much as you possibly can while you can be paid. Any of us would do the same in our job, and NFL athletes are no different. The only difference is that their negotiations are in the public eye (which is another issue in and of itself). Graham has also publically stated that he doesn’t want to play until he can’t anymore, and we all know about his extracurricular piloting by now which he seems to love and wants to pursue post-football (although that is largely speculation, I’m by no means able or trying to psychoanalyze the man), so who knows how long Graham is going to even be in the league. On the flip side, the Saints aren’t wrong for wanting to help themselves out. Year after year, the Saints are tight against the cap, so Mickey Loomis wants to have as much money with which to negotiate with free agents in the future as possible.
The negotiators themselves aren’t broken, the system itself is. The tag was introduced in 2007, and already it has faced instances of being dated and relative. Player value should be based on performance, not on position. The fact of the matter is that positions aren’t as black and white as the franchise tag assumes that they are. If Graham wins this and gets paid WR money, then suddenly the door is open for even more fast and loose interpretation of what players play what, which undermines the purpose of even tagging a player in the first place. Precedent is the most important factor to go off in cases like this, and the precedents that the tag has set to this point since its implementation have become more and more muddied as time has gone on.