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.