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'Hawks, Alexander latest cautionary tale

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

Earlier this week, upon learning that Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald had agreed to a four-year contract extension with the Arizona Cardinals that includes an astounding $30 million in guaranteed money, Edgerrin James was the second-happiest guy on the roster.

As a player who has helped Fitzgerald compile gaudy numbers over the past two seasons, James successfully persuaded the newly minted wideout to quantify the value of his sacrifice. Cha-ching. Though the veteran halfback wouldn't say exactly how he'll be paid by Fitzgerald – Hard cash? Goods and services? A Caribbean holiday? – he couldn't conceal his excitement about the impending compensation.

"I'm a good negotiator, and we've got something private we're working on," James says. "Because the bottom line is, he owes me. We joke about that all the time, but it's real also. If you look at the film, before I got there teams never put eight guys in the box against them. Now it happens all the time, and Fitz has it good."

A nine-year veteran who turns 30 on Aug. 1, James knows that he, too, has it better than most men in his position. As evidenced most recently by the saga of Seattle Seahawks halfback Shaun Alexander, expected to be eventually released in the wake of the team's offseason signings of free agent runners Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett, even the most productive backs can be discarded when they're perceived to have too much tread on their tires.

James, currently ranked 13th and within 1,132 yards of seventh place (12,739) on the league's all-time rushing list, is one of the lucky ones: After the Indianapolis Colts decided not to place the franchise tag on the four-time Pro Bowl selection following the 2005 season, he scored a four-year, $30 million contract from the Cardinals a few days into free agency.

Less than a month later Alexander, coming off an MVP season in which he ran for 1,880 yards and a then-NFL-record 27 touchdowns and led his team to its first conference championship, re-signed with the Seahawks for $62 million over eight years. At the time, Seattle faced a conundrum that is common in today's NFL: Part ways with a star runner in his prime, or risk making an unwise financial commitment to a player who could quickly end up on the downside of his career.

"Shaun was playing at a real high level at the time, and he was showing no signs of decline," says Alexander's agent, Jim Steiner. "But really, the fact that he was the MVP allowed the contract to soar to his level. Otherwise, I don't know where we would have been."

Steiner wouldn't comment on Alexander's current situation or what the immediate future might hold for the eight-year veteran, who turns 31 on Aug. 30. Seattle general manager Tim Ruskell was unavailable for comment, but the franchise clearly isn't getting much bang for its buck. Plagued by injuries and seemingly living down to his reputation as a soft runner, Alexander has gained just 1,612 yards over the past two seasons while averaging 3.5 yards per carry. (In his MVP season Alexander's per-carry average was 5.1.)

Over those two seasons, Alexander has earned $18.525 million. By designating him as a post-June 1 cut, even if they were to release him earlier, the Seahawks can save $4.775 million against the salary cap for '08.

Other teams who may end up paying for their recent decisions to give substantial contracts to veteran runners include the Kansas City Chiefs (28-year-old Larry Johnson averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and missed the second half of the '08 season with a foot injury after signing a five-year contract extension that included $19 in guaranteed money) and the New Orleans Saints (Deuce McAllister, who signed an eight-year, $50.1 million deal in '05, suffered a second ACL tear last season and will be 30 by the end of '08.)

"Running backs over 30 are almost extinct," Steiner says.

There are exceptions, of course. In 2004 the New York Jets' 31-year-old Curtis Martin won a rushing title, though a knee injury essentially ended his career shortly thereafter. In '06 the New York Giants' Tiki Barber, in his final NFL season, ran for 1,662 yards at the same age. The league's oldest halfbacks currently on rosters are 33-year-old Warrick Dunn, who recently returned to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after being released by the Atlanta Falcons, and the Jacksonville Jaguars' 32-year-old Fred Taylor, who played in his first-ever Pro Bowl last February after rushing for 1,202 yards in 2007.

"It really depends on the guy," says Vinny Cerrato, the Washington Redskins' executive vice president of football operations. "Guys that take care of their minds and bodies can usually last longer. Look at Fred Taylor – he's a workout fanatic, and the changes he made in his diet and offseason training gave him extra years of production. Ricky Watters lasted a long time because he was a workout freak; the same with Garrison Hearst, even though he'd had a bunch of knee injuries. Elite receivers like Jerry Rice and (Terrell Owens) are the same way."

When faced with a decision on whether to pay a veteran runner, Cerrato says, "It really comes down to the specific situation. If he's your runner, you know him better than anybody. If you think he's the kind of guy who can last, then it might be worth the risk."

Increasingly, however, teams are adopting the mindset that giving a lucrative deal to an established franchise back is a dubious proposition. They look at the success teams like the Denver Broncos have enjoyed while plugging in a slew of different runners, most of them not highly drafted, into an established system. Last year's strong showings by first-round picks Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings) and Marshawn Lynch (Buffalo Bills) reinforced the notion that younger is better. And more and more, teams like the Super Bowl champion Giants are succeeding with multiple-back systems in which the workload – and, thus, the productivity – is split between two or more ballcarriers.

None of this is good news for a halfback hoping to be rewarded after years of taking hard knocks for the team.

"It's one thing to be loyal, and it's another thing to be stupid," says one scout for an NFC team. "After five or six years, you have to be careful about paying any running back. I'd even say you have to be careful with guys who have 900-plus carries coming out of college; that’s a lot of wear-and-tear. And the bottom line is that running back and receiver are the easiest positions to fill through the draft, even in the later rounds."

Things have become so twisted that, Steiner suggests, it may actually be more advantageous for a back not to be drafted in the first round.

"It's almost better to be a second-round pick, or later, and negotiate a three- or four-year deal," Steiner says. "Say you're a late first-rounder and you end up signing a six-year deal. If you play that contract out, you're right in that danger zone where you might not get another one because teams will think you're too old to commit big dollars. If you're free after four years, you have a better chance of landing that second (long-term) contract."

All of this, at least in the context of the NFL, makes the veteran runner a relatively sympathetic figure. No other player gets hit as frequently and as brutally, and cashing in is becoming tougher than ever.

Last year James gained 1,222 yards while averaging 3.8 yards per carry, up from 1,159 and 3.4 in 2006. Though there are whispers from many NFL talent evaluators, including some in his own organization, that James is slower and more hesitant than he was during his seven stellar seasons in Indy, he sees his declining numbers as merely a symptom of his surroundings.

"Running back is one of the most dependent positions in football, and people don't realize that," he says. "So much of our ability to succeed has to do with the quarterback, the line, the receivers and the way defenses are playing us. I know I'm still the same runner I've always been, because my strength and speed numbers are as good as ever. But when you run against more men than your team can block, how many times can you break a tackle? When they're cheating up, what can you do?"

James' personal challenges are a constant source of dialogue with Fitzgerald. "I always mess with Fitz," James says. "I tell him, 'What the (expletive) – I didn't come here for this (expletive). Man, look, I'm taking a pounding – on the field and in the media, with everyone saying I've lost it.' Running against teams that are stacking the box, with a less experienced line that is just coming together, is not gonna help my fantasy numbers. But it helps the passing game, and I'm all about teamwork."

Damn straight he is – for a fee.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

After going from being coached by Bobby Petrino to playing for Jon Gruden, Warrick Dunn will be among the NFL's happiest players in 2008. … Though he won't wear No. 80, Isaac Bruce will be the closest thing to Jerry Rice that the receiver-poor 49ers have on their roster this season. … In his most honest moments, Giants owner Steve Tisch will admit that the thrill of winning the Lombardi Trophy surpassed that of winning a best picture Oscar largely because "Forrest Gump" is the most overrated film in the history of American cinema.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Badgered by Senator Arlen Specter and inspired by the sudden availability of a prominent ex-prosecutor, Roger Goodell commissioned an investigation of Spygate II and promised that "the Spitzer Report will leave no scandalous stone unturned."

2. Nothing stresses me out more right now than the prospect of an owner lockout jeopardizing the 2011 NFL season.

3. If bitter rivals Cal and Stanford can enthusiastically join forces to further stem cell research, ultra-conservatives can join the rest of America in embracing it.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

When it comes to mushers, Jeff King is my man. I interviewed the four-time Iditarod champion back when he was a relative no-name (even in Alaska, where mushers are like Elvis), and it's my understanding that no one knows how to guide a pack of exhausted sled dogs through treacherous frozen territory more expertly. But after reading about the way King got played in this year's race, I'm wondering how a dude so in tune with his dogs could be tricked into catnapping at the worst possible time.

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Holly McPeak, one of the great beach volleyball players in the sport's history, who announced earlier this week that she will retire at the end of her 18th professional season this fall. Vivacious, funny and obviously whip-smart (I met her at Cal, where she was the NCAA Freshman of the Year way back in the day), the 2004 Olympic bronze medalist will continue to thrive in her post-athletic endeavors.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

onion how we can make war

ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS

And the final score from Madejski Stadium last Saturday: Reading 2, Manchester City 0. How y'all like my Royals now? OK, so Reading remains locked in a late-season fight to escape relegation, the Royals now sitting at 14th in the English Premier League standings with a payback game at Liverpool looming. But the victory over Man City was a huge boost for the formerly struggling club, which has now won consecutive games after enduring a dismal seven-game losing streak. Reading took command on a Shane Long goal in the 62nd minute, which came after an expertly placed low cross by fellow striker Kevin Doyle, and the Royals put it away when substitute Dave Kitson slipped one home in the 88th. Good times.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

It was a rough week for Long John Daly, what with the public flogging by former swing coach Butch Harmon (who complained that "the most important thing in his life is getting drunk") and the missed tee time and subsequent disqualification from the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. Daly, in pretending to take responsibility for the mishap, said, "I'm thinking of writing a new song. I'll call it, 'I guess it's my fault, even when it's not my fault.' " Here's a better idea: Rewrite Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" and, while he's at it, grab a brew and slip into a XXXL Hawaiian shirt.

Chowin' some cupcakes
Watchin' the greens bake
All those spectators wearin' sunscreen
Missin' my six iron
Just don't give a darn
I am an eatin' and drinkin' machine

Wasted away again in Arnold Palmerville
Searchin' for my lost beverage o' malt
Some people claim that there's addiction to blame,
But I know it's Butch Harmon's fault

Don't know the tee-time
But Happy Hour's me-time
Keepin' it goin' from then till last call
Grabbin' my toothbrush
Tryin' hard to rush
While startin' my day with two Budweiser talls

Wasted away again in Arnold Palmerville
Searchin' for my lost beverage o' malt
Some people claim that there's Jon Gruden to blame
Now I think, hell it could be his fault

I blew out my golf spikes
And blew off my ex-wives
Callin' me as I hit the Hooters tent
But there's wings and bartenders
And soon they will render
That bubbly cold liquid that helps me get bent

Wasted away again in Arnold Palmerville
Searchin' for my lost beverage o' malt
Some people claim that there's a golfer to blame,
But I know it just can't be my fault
Yes, and some people claim that it's John Daly to blame
But I know it's old Arnold's fault

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