The Chargers decided not to use their Franchise Tag option on Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson, or anyone else. Had they chosen to franchise Jackson, they would have owed him $13.6 million, guaranteed, for the 2012 season, and bought another year of time to try and negotiate a long-term contract with their number one wide receiver.
Instead Jackson (who averaged 18.4 yards per catch and scored 9 touchdowns in 2011 and is without question the #1 wide receiver on the team) is now a free agent. The Chargers will make one more contract offer, but so will several other teams. Shortly after Monday's NFL-imposed deadline to use the Franchise Tag, I spoke with Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith, who outlined the team's thought process in coming to a decision that right now is not very popular with Chargers fans. Here is the transcript:
NBC 7 San Diego: Why did you decide against using the Franchise Tag on anyone on the roster, specifically Vincent Jackson?
A.J. Smith: “Well, Vincent’s number was very, very high. We were uncomfortable with that from the very beginning, so we took until about 30 minutes before and decided we’re not going to do that. We’ve got so much to do that we weren’t comfortable with that number. As far as taking that and putting it on another player, we just want to hold that and just move on. So some of the players that we have to do, we’ll have them long-term, or we won’t have them at all, rather than a one-year stop-gap.”
NBC 7 San Diego: $13.6 million is a big number for a single player. The question a lot of people have is how did it get to this point? How did it get to the point that you would have to ante up that much for one player?
A.J. Smith: “The number for wide receivers in $9-plus million right now, but because we Franchised him before, they increased the number. We knew last year the number would increase. It’s just some of the options you play to keep him in place for a year, or do a long-term deal. I think the fans know that, for a couple of years, we were uncomfortable with crossing over to that long-term. Last year we were very comfortable with the Tag, and now we’re comfortable to move on. We’ll engage him. He’s free to go anywhere in the National Football League.”
NBC 7 San Diego: Obviously you have the desire to bring him back on the field.
A.J. Smith: “We’d love for him to be here, but we know it’s a business. We’ll come up with a number that we’re comfortable with in years, and wait to see. They’ll take that, say thank you so much, and check around the league.”
NBC 7 San Diego: So, what is the reality he comes back to San Diego?
A.J. Smith: “I have no idea because that will be a business decision on their end once we give them what we’re comfortable with. Like I said, hypothetically, if there are 14 teams, they’ll say thank you so much for your contract, they’ll lay all the contracts across the table, and they’ll do what’s in their best interest. They’ll check back with us, because my understanding is he’d like to remain here. Just because you say that, I don’t know if that’s true. I tend to think it is true.”
NBC 7 San Diego: When long-term contracts were getting worked out in recent years, I believe there was a pecking order. It was Antonio Gates, Marcus McNeill, Vincent Jackson fell in somewhere after that. Is he now at the top of the pecking order of your free agents, and if he’s gone, how does that affect the rest of the list? Guys like Nick Hardwick and Mike Tolbert?
A.J. Smith: “We have a lengthy list. I won’t tell you what the order is. We do have an order, who’s first, who’s second, who’s third and down the line. To begin with we have an order, but that’s flexible, meaning somebody could join your team, how much is that? There’s a trickle-down. If someone doesn’t join your team you have shift your money around. We would just like to have Vincent back, I can tell you that.”
NBC 7 San Diego: Public perception is going to be, the Chargers gave us this lip service saying we want to spend more money, we want to win, but then the first thing they do is let their top wide receiver walk. You are privy to behind-the-scenes information that we’re not, but how much would you like fans to know, to have a greater understanding of the decisions you make?
A.J. Smith: “There are a lot of reasons why we do what we do. I certainly couldn’t have a press conference every day and engage all of the questions on radio, TV and the fans. Generally you just go out from time to time and explain yourself a little bit. There are a lot of things behind-the-scenes that take place, and we just do what’s in our best interest. We make those decisions all the time. Sometimes people like them, sometimes people don’t like them. I’m not really concerned with all that. I’m just trying to build a football team here. All of our moves are done to win.”
If you're looking to find who's right and wrong, or who's to blame for this development, it's a case of six in one hand, a half dozen in the other. Jackson's two arrests for Driving Under the Influence, as well as at least one more documented run-in with the law, made him nearly impossible to make a long-term commitment to.
However, Jackson has kept himself out of trouble for the last two years, and he so thoroughly outperformed his rookie contract that he really has earned a long-term deal.
This is one of those situations where nobody is right, nobody is wrong. It simply, as the popular sports cliche says, Is What It Is.
Bottom line ... something tells me Vincent Jackson will end up back in a Chargers uniform in 2012 and beyond. He knows how good he has it in San Diego. He gets to live in paradise, catching footballs from one of football's best quarterbacks in an offensive system that fits his skill set perfectly. Maybe that's just wishful thinking, but stranger things have happened.