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Chris Johnson Runs Out Of Bounds In Contract Dispute

Kate Rooney |
August 31, 2011 | 4:43 p.m. PDT

Senior Sports Editor


Johnson has good stats, but not good enough to warrant the league's biggest payoff. (AJ Guel Photography via Creative Commons)
Johnson has good stats, but not good enough to warrant the league's biggest payoff. (AJ Guel Photography via Creative Commons)
It’s not just any guy that will get a tattoo of his own face. 

Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans running back extraordinaire, happens to be one of the confident few. Not only does the athlete’s likeness adorn his left bicep, but it’s his favorite of the ink that covers most of his epidermis, according to a 2010 Sporting News interview.

Now, Johnson has proved that his inflated sense of self-importance extends to his business dealings.

The 4th year back is engaged in a contract holdout that has forced him to miss, to date, 35 days, 23 practices and all four exhibition games. That’s not to say anything of the nearly $1 million he’s amassed in fines, a total that exceeds the $800,000 he’s set to earn this season.

Is Johnson worth more than $800,000? Without a doubt. 

Is he worth more than the $2 million he would earn next season, the last of his current contract? Certainly, when the likes of Buffalo’s Fred Jackson (who has put together just one 1,000-yard rushing season in four years) command almost the same salary. 

But is Johnson worth the $13 million per year, $35 million in guaranteed money he is he reportedly seeking? 


That kind of money would make Johnson the highest paid back in the NFL, and the highest paid back in history.

Though Johnson ranks high among the league’s current elite, he is not the best back in history. He’s not the best back in the NFL. Heck, he’s not even the best back in the AFC South.

In 2009, Johnson was the best running back in the game. He rushed for 2,006 yards, good for 5th on the all-time single-season list and nearly 600 more than anyone else was able to muster. His longest carry that year was also No. 1, at 91 yards. His 14 touchdowns were tied for third most behind Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson. 

Johnson was not, nor has been, the best back in the game before or since that year. Though he made an impressive rookie debut in 2008 (1,228 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 9 TD in 15 games), which got him into the Pro Bowl, in 2010 he was able only to match or slightly best his rookie totals (1,364 yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 11 TD in 16 games).  In ’08 he finished the season ranked 12 overall; he finished at 6 in ’10. 

The fact that Johnson’s the best thing the Titans, who are entering what will likely be a few seasons of rebuilding after their failed Vince Young experiment, have going offensively helps his case. And right now Tennessee has the cap room to offer him a nice new deal. 

Johnson is 25 years old, and may well put together a career that will forever etch him into the record books at his position. He may yet be the best running back in the NFL.

History has shown, however, it’s far more likely that within a year or two, he’ll fall off in production and any team in the unfortunate position of paying him will be saddled with double-digit millions in guaranteed, but unearned, salary. The Shaun Alexanders of the world serve as a cautionary tale for management.

That’s why Tennessee is reluctant to pony up the biggest contract in history. The club would much rather hedge its bets with something in the more standard elite running back range of $7-10 million per year, with $20 something million guaranteed.

The overall salary scale for running backs hasn’t increased at a rate consistent with the position’s value in the league, as Andrew Brandt recently pointed out in the National Football Post. Johnson and his agents are aware of this, and are hoping he’ll be the player that forces the other shoe to drop.

But Johnson would be better served by spending the next two years proving that he’s underpaid. Proving that he’s better than Peterson, who himself will be fighting the contract battle a year from now. And proving to the fans, the league, and the people with the checkbooks that he’s as good he thinks he is. 

Do that, and there just might be a few other people walking around Tennessee with his face tattooed their arms.


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