"There's a war goin' on outside no man is safe from."
Mobb Deep penned those classic words for the aptly titled "Survival of the Fittest." The year was 1995. Like that of its hip-hop counterpart, the NFL landscape was dramatically different then; what fans look around and see as the kickoff of the 2012 season fast approaches bares little resemblance.
The war being waged in 1995 was in Queensbridge, it was literal. The war being waged in 2012 is in NFL front offices, it is figurative.
But no less bloody.
Just ask Maurice Jones-Drew, the most recent addition to a lengthening line of superstar running backs that have had to claw tooth-and-nail for the contracts they think they deserve. And in Jones-Drew's case, who's to say he doesn't?
The every-down stud tailback has amassed 6,854 yards and 62 touchdowns on 1,484 carries, and what's more is that he's missed only three games in the process.
That kind of durability has been integral to the Jaguars' offensive efforts, especially apparent when you evaluate the striking lack of playmakers in Jacksonville since Fred Taylor slowed down considerably in 2008 before leaving for New England.
And the wide receivers? What wide receivers?
Since 2006, no Jaguars wideout has registered in a single season more than Mike Sims-Walker's 869 yards in 2009. It doesn't matter whether it's Quinn Gray, David Garrard, Cleo Lemon or Blaine Gabbert throwing the ball; if there are no playmakers at wide receiver, it's that much easier for opposing defenses to stack the box and hone in solely on Jones-Drew. They've done so for years.
And it's yet to slow him down.
So what is it exactly that makes new Jaguars owner Shad Khan feel that his franchise's cornerstone is expendable?
It's two different things: It's the proverbial wall that running backs invariably smash into at 30, and it's the running-back-by-committee approach that has allowed so many teams to eschew the traditional one-back offense.
To the latter, consider 1995. Consider names like Emmitt Smith, Curtis Martin, Ricky Watters and Barry Sanders—workhorse backs that had no issues shouldering the bulks of offensive loads. Backs that, in some cases, were the offensive loads.
It's something that should feel familiar to Jones-Drew, who would have fit in nicely in '95 with his 343 carries in 2012. That made him one of two backs—Michael Turner was the other with 301—that broke the 300-carry mark last season.
In 1995, there were nine 300-carry men.
It's just a different landscape now. Teams like the Panthers, Chargers and Saints have had great success in recent years running the ball with a plethora of backs. Speed backs, power backs, short-yardage backs: They've all got places.
Jacksonville could employ a similar approach—Deji Karim is a stocky but deceptively shifty back, and Rashad Jennings is a 6'1", 230-pound bruiser that complements him well.
Jennings' preseason performance has made some take notice and may have let Khan feel that he's holding all of the cards.
In a recent interview with Gene Frenette of The Florida Times-Union, the to-the-point owner spelled the situation out clearly:
Train is leaving the station. Run, get on it.
The second reason Khan seems to be so confident about not having Jones-Drew—and it's important to note that it could all be bluster to maintain the upper hand—is that shortly after the conclusion of the 2012 season, the tailback turns 28.
Only two years from 30.
While that not may seem a big deal, recent NFL history is littered with the remains of running backs left on the side of the road shortly before or after hitting that age. Shaun Alexander. Priest Holmes. Edgerrin James. LaDanian Tomlinson. Brian Westbrook. The list goes on.
Some of that can be attributed to spending the bulk of their careers before the passing game boon of the last few years; there were few carries being split and few quarterbacks throwing the ball 550 times in a season. Their bodies bore the brunt of every difficult yard.
In that way, Jones-Drew is a throwback. A throwback to a time when a running back carried the ball 330 times in a season, racked up the league lead in yards and touchdowns and was rewarded for it.
But that's not Shad Khan's NFL.
Khan knows that when Jones-Drew's current five-year, $31 million deal expires in 2014, he very well may not be negotiating with the same caliber of running back as he is now. That's the reality of the situation, a situation growing more ugly and contentious by the day according to MJD's agent, Asida Bakari (via The Huffington Post):
Obviously, he's not happy that what started as a very cordial and private conversation is now public and contentious.
This contention has led to rumors of trade talks, extending the holdout into the regular season and numerous other scenarios favorable to neither Jacksonville nor Maurice Jones-Drew.
At the end of the day, this is about more than a contract. It's about a culture change for the NFL and the way in which its owners do business. It would be foolish to crown a victor in this situation or label each party right or wrong.
No such distinctions exist.
Along with Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew is one of the last beacons of the one-back offense that may ever exist, so this is about much more than a contract. It's about much more than a power shift or an owner-player tug-of-war.
It's about the erosion of the premier running back in the NFL.