Friday, February 21, 2003

Franchise tag for Price was right

Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle

There was a time in the NFL when being called a "franchise" player was a good thing. Now, thanks to that never-ending toothache we know as free agency, what was once a badge of honor by a player is now considered a curse.

Better yet, a ball and chain. A free agent can see the pot of gold in the end zone, he just can't get to it.

Who do we feel sorry for?

The player who must "settle" for staying with his old team for a pay hike 12 times his old salary?

How about the general manager who can't win for trying?

In the case of Peerless Price, Buffalo Bills GM Tom Donahoe, to his credit, decided to use one of the few negotiating tools available to teams each year to keep a star player they drafted and developed from jumping ship unimpeded.

He slapped the franchise tag on the best free agent wide receiver available this year, averting a Price war. A shocking move? Try immensely logical.

Donahoe's been kneading Buffalo's salary cap for two years now and has managed to create a $10 million cushion to get creative with. Instead of purge, we're talking splurge.

Under these conditions, Price catching passes against Buffalo, say twice a year in a Dolphins' uniform, would be inexcusable without having explored all the ways to keep him as part of one of the NFL's top passing games or at least to get something in return.

So, Donahoe tagged Price, a prudent move that protects the club's asset and buys time to work on a myriad of down-the-road options.

Signing Price to a long-term deal is Donahoe's stated purpose but the man who swung the unlikely trade for quarterback Drew Bledsoe last year isn't exactly predictable. The juicy speculation has Donahoe signing Price, then trading him to a team out of Buffalo's division, perhaps recouping the first-round pick he gave up for Bledsoe. Pull that trick off and Copperfield's out of a job.

If things get nowhere and the Bills need cap room in the next month to sign someone else, they merely rescind the tag on Price.

Still, Donahoe's decision has made some fans fearful that committing a one-year salary of $5.01 million to Price has compromised the Bills' ability to address obvious defensive holes.

Not true.

If the Bills aren't afraid to go through a couple boxes of No. 2 pencils, they can have it all, a team official confirmed.

As is done frequently in the NFL, a long-term deal for Price can be back-loaded, giving the club low cap numbers early on that would complement those of receiving mate Eric Moulds.

If Buffalo can tie up $7 million in cap space for linemen Ruben Brown and Mike Williams in 2003, why not around $8 million or so for Moulds and Price?

About $7 million in additional cap space can be found by cutting fullback Larry Centers, strong safety Billy Jenkins, cornerback Chris Watson, linebacker Eddie Robinson and tight end Jay Riemersma, although Riemersma shouldn't be put to the curb with haste.

Furthermore, Bledsoe and Moulds are more than willing to restructure their deals to keep Price a part of Buffalo's Big Four, with running back Travis Henry.

Work the numbers and there's room for a top-notch linebacker and a defensive lineman to join the team as free agents.

Of course, it's never this easy. There are five young starters whose contracts come due in the next two years - Henry, tackles Jonas Jennings and Marques Sullivan, cornerback Antoine Winfield and defensive end Aaron Schobel.

Kicker Mike Hollis and punter Brian Moorman deserve rich new deals this spring.

A good GM and his bean counters are always thinking three moves ahead on the chess board.

Still, Donahoe had no real excuse this time around to say goodbye to a free agent of Price's stature without a fight, not like he did a year ago with linebacker Sam Cowart, who was coming off a bad injury.

Donahoe has said often he won't wind up holding a tin cup by overpaying for Price, but there hasn't been a player negotiation yet that hasn't been peppered with rhetoric. A $3 million offer was on the table Tuesday.

Better communication with Price and his agent could've smoothed things over, but Donahoe's never been one to send candy and flowers.

The franchise tag was his way of saying "I like you." Now it's up to Price to put his hurt feelings aside and work toward a long-term deal that benefits both sides.

There are many who look at Price and say he's not right at any price.

They see a volatile personality, not a rare talent who combined with Moulds to catch 194 passes for 2,539 yards and 19 TDs.

But where some see a temper, I see competitiveness. You wouldn't want a team full of Peerless Prices, but one is a lot of fun.

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