Maurice Jones-Drew was running for paydirt. Now, he needs to do what he does so well...and reverse his field.
The Jacksonville Jaguars running back watched nearly every single one of his peers collect a new contract this offseason, the NFL's first full break since the league and its players signed a collective bargaining agreement last summer. Arian Foster re-upped, despite a leg injury that sidelined him earlier this season. Ray Rice got a renewal. Even Matt Forte got paid.
Jones-Drew asked for more money—to be paid not only for his effort relative to the league, but also to his own team. Nobody in the NFL had more yards from scrimmage last year than Jones-Drew, and yet every other offense in the league was more productive than his. One could argue over the merits of asking for more money as opposed to more help, but it was his right to ask.
MJD's team has changed a lot since his rookie season, when he spelled Fred Taylor but also returned kicks. In 2007 the Jaguars made the playoffs and played well before running into the Patriots, who would eventually win the AFC. The Jaguars haven't had a winning season since.
The $31 million extension he signed before the start of the 2009 season made him the third-highest-paid running back in football, behind Steven Jackson of the Rams and Larry Johnson of the Chiefs (remember him?). The extension money came after the Jaguars released Fred Taylor, another great running back that spent his days in teal bursting through the line with an entire organization on his back.
He still has two years left on that contract. But his chances of having a 2012 like 2011 are small, even for him. Of the 82 NFL seasons in history, only 47 players had better rushing yardage totals than MJD's 1,606. The iron for renegotiating was hot; there would be no better time to strike.
MJD's most productive game during his most productive year as a pro happens to be his most recent one. Jacksonville's 2011 season finale against the Colts was a game that neither team had much incentive to win. Indianapolis was 2-13 and on the road; their eventual loss would guarantee them the first overall pick in April's draft. It would be the pick that would bring Andrew Luck to Indiana and send Peyton Manning and his injured neck westward into John Elway's waiting arms.
Anyway, Jones-Drew ran for 169 yards in that final game, a 19-13 win in which the Jags never trailed. MJD would win the league's rushing title, and his team won its fifth game of the season, a season that could reasonably be considered a washout.
"He's a special talent with great work habits and deserves to be rewarded as such," Taylor told the Associated Press after that game, offering a vote of confidence to his former teammate, his apprentice in many ways.
The Jaguars honored Wayne Weaver and his wife at that game; the original owner and curator of football in arguably the NFL's worst city had been bought out. Shahid Khan, the team's incoming new owner, had promised to keep the team in Jacksonville. Other than that, no one was sure what to expect from him.
Khan had spent plenty of his own money just to get the team—$760 million, in fact. The Pakistani-born American had made his money in auto parts, an arena not dissimilar to professional football. Khan's mastery of interchangeable parts came after working for a manufacturer out of college, one that he would eventually buy out in 1980. That company, Flex-N-Gate, takes in $3 billion in annual revenue.
With inlays like that, one can wear his mustache however he likes.
Additionally, one can presumably handle the contract squabbles of one's employees in similar fashion. Jones-Drew's current contract runs through the 2013 season; he'll turn 29 shortly thereafter. And while many players often look to renegotiate by holding out of training camp, so rarely has such a holdout been addressed so bluntly by ownership. "The train is leaving the station," Khan said in a recent press conference (h/t ESPN). "Run. Get on it."
As if MJD hadn't done enough running for his organization.
The rest of the Jaguars team expected Jones-Drew to return to the fold, but the wrath of Khan could send ripples through that locker room before the UCLA product can even unpack his bags. Khan surely never had any of his custom-made auto bumpers ask for more money; whether he decides to dial back the rhetoric or make himself the next Jerry Jones remains to be seen.
What is clear is that Khan won't budge; his proverbial train had already left the station after dropping three-quarters of a billion dollars to become the first man of color to own his own seat at one of the most exclusive tables on planet Earth—the NFL owners' table. Nobody can blame Jones-Drew for wanting a piece of that pie. Nor should they.
The suggestion from MJD's camp that he'd be "open" to a trade (from ESPN) was almost immediately rescinded, a quick shudder step even from him, but ultimately a a smart (if reluctant) admission. "Things are going to work out," MJD said Wednesday, via NFL.com. And the time has come for MJD to reverse course, to find another hole, one that leads back to Jacksonville for his seventh NFL season. One can hope that Jones-Drew will have more success on the field this season, and at the bargaining table before the next.
Hopefully at that point, in either arena, he'll find a little help.