After the millionaires (the players) and the billionaires (the owners) held football fans hostage for months during the NFL lockout, the last thing we were expecting this preseason was a prolonged holdout.
And if this were any other sport, you could make the argument that Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson is being selfish by putting himself before his team by holding out for more money.
But this is the National Football League and Johnson plays a position that’s often underpaid and replaced at the first sign of breaking down.
Johnson has yet to report to training camp as the NFL regular season gets underway in just three weeks. Last year, the 25-year-old held out for more money and the Titans eventually met Johnson’s demands by paying him $2 million for the 2010 season. He’s due to make only $1.065 million this season with two years left on his rookie contract.
This time around, Johnson wants to become the highest-paid running back in the NFL, with a contract extension that would pay him $39 million over the first three years. To put that amount in perspective, running back DeAngelo Williams signed a five-year, $43 million contract with the Carolina Panthers last month, including $21 million in guaranteed money.
Johnson’s numbers speak for themselves. His 4,598 rushing yards in his first three seasons in the NFL tops the likes of Adrian Peterson, who is set to make more than $10 million this season in the final deal of his five-year contract with the Minnesota Vikings. In 2009, Johnson became the sixth running back in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards. While his numbers fell back to earth last season, Johnson is approaching the prime of his career.
History has proven that running backs need to get that big payday from an organization much earlier than a star quarterback or wide receiver. Peyton Manning can get a $90 million contract at the age of 35 because the quarterback position isn’t nearly as taxing on the body as running back.
In the world of non-guaranteed contracts, running backs normally have one chance to strike it rich before hitting the magical age of 30. Only 26 running backs age 30 or older have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season — a feat nobody accomplished during the 2010 season. Even in their prime, the often electric players out of the backfield get the short end of the stick when it comes to guaranteed money and job security.
Tomlinson was the face of the San Diego Chargers franchise for nine seasons, rushing for more than 12,000 yards during his tenure with The Bolts. Eventually seven consecutive seasons of 300 or more carries caught up to Tomlinson, who saw a steep decline in his production when he turned 30. He signed a eight-year, $50.5 million contract in 2004 that made him the highest-paid running back at the time. Tomlinson was released in February 2010 with one year remaining on his deal and replaced two months later by rookie Ryan Mathews out of Fresno State.
The writing was on the wall in the case of Westbrook, who was released by the Philadelphia Eagles last February as well. A rash of injuries severely impacted Westbrook’s production on the field shortly after signing a five-year, $32 million extension with the Eagles. Faced with the option of paying Westbrook $7.5 million for the season or rolling the dice on a younger, more durable running back in then rookie LeSean McCoy, the decision was simple.
Running backs holding out for more money is hardly a new concept. Similar to Johnson, Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson ran for more than 2,000 yards (2,105, an NFL record) in just his second season in the league. After missing two regular season games, Dickerson settled his contract dispute with the Los Angeles Rams.
Plus, we can’t forget the infamous Emmitt Smith 1993 holdout where Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones caved after his team got off to a 0-2 start. Smith lived up to his new contract, leading the NFL in rushing in just 14 games.
For a position that is primarily filled by African-Americans (sorry, Peyton Hillis), running backs are often unfairly labeled as being greedy when it’s time to get their money.
Show me the column where the media rips owners for not living up to their end of the bargain when they cut running backs loose. That’s right — it doesn’t exist.
Johnson should be applauded for trying to cash in while he’s still physically able to dominate on the football field. No matter how much money we make within our profession, I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t want more.
Adrian Peterson, I hope you’re taking notes.