The news that Indy is getting ready to tag Peyton Manning is not surprising or alarming. Let me answer a few quick questions that I've been getting from readers:
1. Does the franchise tag mean the negotiations are going poorly?
NO. It means they are going slowly, and there's a difference. The Colts have used the franchise tag to buy time for longer term deals repeatedly over the past several years, including with Manning in 2003.
2. Can they use the Franchise Tag?
Because there is no CBA, there is some dispute as to whether or not the franchise tag can be used. The owners, correctly I think, argue that no collective bargaining agreement means that the last set of rules that were in place continue. The players argue that no CBA means there are no rules. Ironically, these are the OPPOSITE positions from what both sides are selling to the public about the rest of the CBA fight. The players 'want to play' because they are being 'locked out'. A lock out means that if the owners WANTED, the players could just come to work, and the old CBA would be automatically extended. There ARE rules for them to play under, but the owners don't want to play under them, so they will prevent the players from playing. To me, that indicates that the use of the franchise tag is acceptable. The last set of rules apply.
3. Is there a risk to using the Franchise Tag?
Normally, the answer is no. The only risk is that the player will get angry about being tagged and negotiations will suffer. That's not going to happen in this case. Manning has been tagged before. Indy's going to offer him a lot of money. No one's feelings are getting hurt here. However, if Manning's people wanted to play hardball, they could sue the Colts, claiming there is no franchise tag, forcing Indy to deal before deadline in March. I can't see that happening, however.
There is a second risk, though it is a small one. If the Colts tag Manning and then wait for the new CBA to get a deal done, the new CBA could eliminate the tag system. If the tag system was eliminated entirely, Manning would immediately become a free agent. However, this is extremely unlikely to happen. The owners love the tag system, and though the players hate it, the owners have all the leverage in these negotiations. This fight is more over money than over how to structure the contract system of the league. I wouldn't expect radical changes to free agency, except possibly as a concession for rookie contracts. The odds that the franchise tag would be thrown out as part of the deal are very long. This is not something to worry about.
4. Is there any advantage to waiting until a new CBA is done?
Yes, actually there is a massive advantage to waiting. The first advantage is that Indy will KNOW how to structure Manning's deal for the new cap and cap rules. Right now, they are just guessing about what the rules MIGHT be. If they wait until after the labor crisis is over, they can move forward with confidence.
The second advantage is that it takes the pressure off Manning to sign the biggest possible deal. It will still be important to the union that Manning not take a low-ball contract, but right now, the Manning negotiation is one of the few pressure points the union has over ownership. They have to score a big win on this contract, and you can be sure Manning has been told exactly what they need from him. If the deal doesn't get done until there's a new CBA, that pressure is gone. Manning's deal becomes just another high profile player contract. This could feasibly free Manning up to sign more of a club friendly deal than what he would have otherwise. It won't be cheap, and he still will be the highest paid player, but there would be less pressure that it be a 'clear win' for labor.
5. What's the worst case scenario?
The worst case scenario is that Indy tags Manning, but then courts rule the tag is invalid. Then the union 'decertifies' and takes the owners to court. The courts then determine that the owners have negotiated in bad faith, and impose new rules. These new rules give broad freedom to the players and don't include a tag system. Peyton Manning then becomes a free agent and is upset over being tagged and takes it out on the Colts by signing with another team.
6. What's the best case scenario?
The tag holds, and Indy waits to sign Manning until new rules are in place. With a better understanding of the cap (assuming there is one) and without pressure from the union, Indy and Manning sign a team friendly deal that leaves plenty of cap room for other moves.
7. Which is more likely?
I don't know that the absolute best case scenario is going to happen, but it's vastly more likely than the worst case scenario.
So to sum up, this isn't a big deal. This is completely expected. It's not a sign that anything bad is going to happen.