Friday, May 21, 2010

Chris Johnson's Holdout: Everyone's Got a Point

Usually, when a future Hall of Famer talks, today's players listen. (As opposed to when current Hall of Famers talk, in which case they get pissed and raise hell.)

In this case, we know Chris Johnson was listening when Marshall Faulk blessed his current tactic of skipping OTA's to agitate for a new contract.

Faulk said, "Chris has outplayed his rookie deal. He has beyond exceeded the expectation where he was drafted...after you play and prove your worth you are then paid as to how you play. He has exceeded the money he is making, the Titans know it and everyone in the league knows it."

None of this is off the mark. When you rush for over 3200 yards in two seasons while only making about $385,000 (ever notice that only in sports and politics can we say "only $385,000"?) your team has just gotten the bargain of the century. The Titans appreciate that, I'm sure.

Johnson's problem is bad timing. The NFL's uncertain labor situation has made it difficult to commit large sums of cash in the long term, especially to a 195-pound player who plays the most collision-prone non-line position on the field.

The Titans have some serious grounds to be cautious. Look at some of the other two-hit wonders (the music industry's big in Nashville, don'tcha know) that grace the NFL record books.

James Wilder: 2800 yards in '84 and '85, then injury and oblivion thereafter.

Joe Morris: 2800 yards and 35 TD's in '85 and '86, then a 1000-yard curtain call in '88 before somehow disappearing for three years and resurfacing in Cleveland in '91.

Larry Johnson: 3500 yards and 37 TD's in '05 and '06, now hanging onto NFL employment by his toenails. This season, Larry's joining the NFL's answer to the Power Station (speaking of our two-hit wonders) in the retread-laden backfield in Washington. My money's on Larry to be Robert Palmer since, given Portis's tendency to rock funny costumes, he'd fit better as one of the Taylor brothers there on the right.

But, I digress. Above all, the Titans have to be absolutely terrified of CJ repeating the Terrell Davis Scenario: 2000-yard season followed by catastrophic injury.

To CJ's credit, his original request to be "the highest paid offensive player in the league" included the caveat "besides the quarterback." This was smart. If a guy two years into the league wanted to be paid more than Peyton Manning or even Tom Brady (whose salary last year was less than 60% of Manning's), he'd be laughed out of the room, no matter how good those two seasons were. To continue the metaphor, it'd be like the Knack wanting to make more money than the Beatles.

But highest-paid running back in the league? Why not?

Apparently, the "30% rule" is why not. With this uncapped year, renegotiated contracts can only raise the base salary by 30 percent, which would put him just over $700K next season. Not the kind of hike he's hoping for, but if he gets $50 million, over $40M of that would have to be guaranteed. That kind of scale is a dangerous precedent for any team to set, and one that could bankrupt franchises if it became standard practice. Just imagine the Colts guaranteeing 80 to 90 percent of Peyton's next contract, then watching him suffer a career-ending injury.

There has to be a middle ground somewhere. I would hope that there's no NFL rule prohibiting the Titans from inserting a bonus clause that will allow them to cut Chris a check for, say, $6 or 7 million the moment he shows up for the opening game. There needs to be a gesture of good faith that shows the Titans' appreciation for CJ's rare season, while still reminding Chris of the shaky economic realities that the league faces today. Once a new CBA is in place and everyone understands the salary rules beyond this year, by all means, paydaman.

As a Colts fan, I realize that it's in my best interest for the Titans to stonewall Johnson and piss him off to the point that he stages a lengthy holdout. However, as a football fan, I can't go that route. I enjoy watching Johnson play the game too much to allow him to vacate the stage that easily.

(And no, this has nothing to do with the multiple fantasy leagues he's helped me win over the past two seasons.


Okay, but only a little.)

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