While nearly every NFL city has a contract squabble on its hands—from Darrelle Revis in New York, to Albert Haynesworth in Washington, and to a handful of still unsigned restricted free agents—the biggest might be in Nashville, Tenn., where star Titans running back Chris Johnson shows no signs of relenting in his battle with Tennessee.
Last season, Johnson became just the sixth man in NFL history to amass 2,000 rushing yards in a season, and he wants to be paid like one of the best running backs in the game. But the five-year, $12 million contract he signed in 2008 will only pay him a $550,000 base salary (his $3.86 million roster bonus notwithstanding) this fall.
So, instead of “honoring his contract,” Johnson is holding out in hopes that the Titans will restructure his deal and make him the highest-paid running back in the game.
The questions in this situation are who is right, who is wrong, and what do they each stand to lose if this impasse becomes impossible to resolve?
Obviously for Johnson, the problem is principle.
But the reason that problem exists is because of the harsh reality of NFL football: (almost) nothing is guaranteed, and careers can end in the blink of an eye.
Unlike in the other three major sports, the NFL has the luxury of not having to pay players their entire salary if the player is released. Only some (and in some cases, none) of the contract is “guaranteed,” meaning the player is out of luck if he’s let go before the end of it.
Take Johnson, for example. His $12 million contract includes only $7 million guaranteed, a good chunk of which the team has already paid out. If he were to be released, he’d still be owed roughly $2 million, which is much less than the total “worth” of the contract (which is about $3.5 million total of base salary for the next three seasons plus any remaining bonuses).
So, in essence, if Johnson were cut tomorrow, the Titans would take a nice cap hit (in theory, because no cap this year means no worries), but he’d be “losing” $4 to $5 million assuming no other team would snap him up in a heartbeat if he’s healthy (not going to happen, but work with me).
So what happens if Johnson trips while taking out his garbage, tears his ACL, and destroys his career? Financially, the answer is not much, and so Johnson wants to be paid accordingly.
Take into account the fact that running backs have one of the shortest shelf lives of any position in the league, and it’s a bigger problem.
Look at recent history: Shaun Alexander went from 2005 NFL MVP to unemployed at age 31, LaDainian Tomlinson looks to be on his last legs at 30, and Terrell Davis was a Super Bowl MVP at 26 and a bystander by 30.
So, for Johnson, the loss could be his future. While he’s looked at as a stud now, he could be done tomorrow. And even if he lasts 12 more years, he may never come close to 2,000 yards again.
Of the other five players to reach 2K, Eric Dickerson has the high water mark with 1,821, and Jamal Lewis never surpassed 1,364 yards other than his magical season.
But again, as recent history shows, Alexander got his money after his MVP season ($62 million with $15.1 guaranteed from the Seahawks) and a banged up Tomlinson still got $5.2 million from the Jets this past winter.
Heck, Jerome Harrison—who had a breakout year in Cleveland last season but is hardly a "star" yet—will make more than three times what Johnson does in base salary this season, despite the fact that his 1,310 career rushing yards are roughly two-fifths of Johnson's total (3,234).
So compensation is all Johnson wants, because he may not have an opportunity (or the leverage) to get it ever again—especially if a lockout looms in 2011.
What do the Titans have to lose?
Well, for one, Johnson, who would likely bolt when he’s able, because he didn’t get what he wanted.
For another, they’re afraid to give in because they “don’t want to set a precedent for the future” regarding contract re-negotiations. That’s understandable, although in some cases you kind of need to think about exceptions.
But in the interim, they lose offense…and a whole lot of it.
The Titans have six true running backs on their roster right now. Besides 2,000-yard rusher Johnson, they have two rookies with big-school pedigree (Oregon’s LaGarrette “Mike Tyson” Blount and USC’s Stafon Johnson), one rookie from Johnson’s alma mater East Carolina (Dominique Lindsay), 2009 fifth-round pick Javon Ringer, and sixth-year man Alvin Pearman.
So three have never carried the ball in the NFL, and the other two have a grand total of 66 carries for 286 yards. Adding in fullback Ahmard Hall’s 17 career rushes for 55 yards, Johnson still had six times their career totals last year alone.
Oh, and Pearman hasn’t actually carried the ball since 2007.
Yeah, I’d say that’s a step down.
Vince Young can run the ball, of course, but this isn’t college, and he’s got a fairly inexperienced receiver corps to bail him out.
Face it: If they lost CJ, the Titans might be even worse than last year when they started 0-6 despite Johnson’s record-shattering numbers.
The Titans, to their credit, have been fairly mum, saying only that they want to avoid the bad precedent.
Johnson, however, has been much more vocal.
His Twitter account has been blowing up, with various gems like these (all taken verbatim) coming in the past week:
“Just got off the phn w/ my agent & its not gd news I'm feeling lk @Revis24 (Darrelle Revis) rt now”
“Its like how u expect ur players to give they all and put their bodies on the line when you not willing to give them what they deserve”
“How do u wnt player 2 honor their contract but the team dont have 2 honor it. If u dont wnt 2 pay a player early dont cut a player early.”
Ah, Twitter, ruining America’s grasp of grammar 140 characters at a time.
Sure, he has a point, but those points came roughly 24 hours after CJ told the Tennessean that he has no hard feelings about the Titans’ unwillingness to renegotiate his deal and is focused on staying in shape so he can “continue to be the best running back in the league.”
CJ was in Nashville for his youth camp this week, but nothing new was breached on this subject.
Then again, it’s not really news for him to be anywhere but Music City during the offseason; he didn’t sign his rookie contract until the day training camp started in 2008, and last year he spent most of the summer working out in Orlando.
Honestly, all shenanigans and indiscretions aside, Titans owner Bud Adams (a.k.a. that strapping lad to the left) needs to open the purse strings and pay Chris Johnson.
Without him, their offense is almost zero-dimensional, at least until Vince Young becomes more comfortable as a passer. He can’t do it all with his legs on this level, and with a still-developing receiving corps, they’d be very easy to defend if CJ is on the sidelines.
Yes, it sucks that players have non-guaranteed contracts. But Johnson had a monster season last year, totaling the fifth highest rushing total and best yards-from-scrimmage total in NFL history.
If he does it again next season, or comes relatively close, he’ll be in line for an even bigger contract and could become even more of a distraction.
If it’s any solace to the Titans, Alexander had nearly 8,000 yards and 90 TDs—not to mention three Pro Bowl selections and an MVP award—when he got his big contract, so they can at least use that as a small piece of leverage.
But at the risk of setting a “bad precedent” for future players, it’s clear that the Titans need to make their franchise player happy.