In fact, for all concerned – particularly the money-seeking Johnson – it might be the perfect solution. On Thursday, Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock reported that the Kansas City Chiefs' star running back is asking for a new contract and is prepared to hold out from training camp to get one.
Fair enough. Johnson can choose whatever path he deems best to get his money. Furthermore, after registering an NFL-record 416 carries last season, even the Chiefs might prefer to give Johnson a few days off from the grind of training camp.
But the really smart move for the Chiefs would be to trade Johnson now while his value is at its peak. Around the NFL, that is. For the Chiefs, Johnson's value is not all that strong.
That's because Johnson is a premier running back on a rebuilding team. After last season, coach Herm Edwards talked openly about his team needing to get younger. As a result, quarterback Trent Green was dealt to the Miami Dolphins and when perennial Pro Bowl guard Will Shields retired, there was no outcry among Kansas City management to have him come back. At least nothing close to the begging the Chiefs did last season when left tackle Willie Roaf called it quits.
While Johnson is only 27 and has been starting for only the past two seasons, NFL running backs age faster than Hollywood starlets – particularly when they are worked harder than undocumented laborers.
Take a quick look at the four backs to carry 400-plus times before Johnson.
In 1984, James Wilder of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers carried 407 times to set the NFL mark at the time. He had a respectable 1,300 yards the next season, but his stats declined in every other significant category, such as yards per carry.
In 1986, Eric Dickerson had 404 carries. Dickerson, who was a physical marvel over his first six seasons, held up surprisingly well. He was traded the middle of the following season to the Indianapolis Colts and took advantage of a strike-shortened season to get some extra rest. Between 1987 and 1988, Dickerson averaged more than 100 yards per game. That makes him the exception among these four.
In 1998, Jamal Anderson had a record 410 carries as he helped the Atlanta Falcons reach the Super Bowl. In 1999, he tore up his knee. He had only more season with 1,000 yards and was done by 2001.
In 2000, Eddie George of the Tennessee Titans had 403 carries in the fifth of his first five outstanding seasons. During that run, George averaged 1,375 yards per season. However, in his final four years, his best season total was 1,165 yards in 2002.
Will Johnson be more like Dickerson or one of the other three? In the best-case scenario, he has a couple of seasons like Dickerson and then is done. In the worst, he's already shot.
Or, as Edwards said last season after Kansas City beat the Denver Broncos on Thanksgiving Day, "It's not like he's going to play for 10 years."
That quote was also after Edwards had Johnson carry 34 times for 157 yards against the Broncos and 65 times over a five-day stretch (Johnson had 31 carries on the previous Sunday in a win over the Oakland Raiders).
Johnson certainly isn't going to play anywhere close to that long under Edwards, a man who is your typical coach. Edwards talks long term in the offseason and acts shortsighted in the season when it's about winning games.
If Johnson is around this season with the Chiefs, he's going to be little more than elaborate protection for starting quarterback Brodie Croyle. The goal this season for the Chiefs is to develop Croyle, who is going into his second season. That's a fair plan.
It's also fair to assume Johnson, or whoever the Kansas City running back is this season, is going to see a lot of eight-man fronts until Croyle can prove he can beat somebody. With the declining offensive line in front of Johnson, that's a recipe for disaster and frustration.
In addition, Johnson isn't likely to be at his peak when the Chiefs start to get better under Croyle, if they ever get better.
Johnson gets that already. That's why he's asking for a big raise over the $1.7 million he's slated to make this season. It's hard to blame him for that.
Or as Johnson's agent Alvin Keels said in the Whitlock story: "The point I'd like to get out is that if we were to have to hold out, it would be for the sake of good business, not being greedy. … It's not good business for a player who rushes the ball 416 times in a season, back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, back-to-back 1,700-yard seasons, back-to-back broken Kansas City Chiefs records, it's not good business for him to come back in and play for $1.7 million. And that's a sensitive area because $1.7 million is a lot more than most people in Kansas City make."
Of course, plenty of people are going to rip Johnson on principle. Such is life. After watching guys like Earl Campbell carry a heavy load and end up practically crippled, it's hard to blame a player like Johnson for asking for more.
The bigger issue is that Johnson and the Chiefs would be best served if Johnson were traded to a contender that could pay him.
Enter the Eagles, who are one of 13 teams around the league with more than $10 million in salary-cap space.
Some Eagles fans might counter that Philadelphia already has running back Brian Westbrook. Westbrook is nice, but he's no Johnson, who is a premier power back. Furthermore, the Eagles have positioned themselves to win now with quarterback Donovan McNabb and have the money to get a top player like Johnson.
Likewise, the Giants need a running back to replace Tiki Barber. Brandon Jacobs is nice, but he looks more like a complementary player than a full-time guy. Green Bay has a bunch of interesting prospects, but no premier guy. Beyond that, if the Packers want to make quarterback Brett Favre happy, Johnson is a perfect salve.
New Orleans? Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush were a great combination last season. Johnson and Bush would be even better, allowing superior schemer Sean Payton to come up with even more great plays for his explosive offense.
Finally, the Chiefs should be able to get real value for Johnson at this point. When Dickerson was traded in 1987, he was part of a deal that netted the Rams three first-round picks.
That probably won't happen, but the point is that this is the time of the year when coaches and GMs are thinking big.
Johnson might allow them to think bigger.
- Eric Dickerson
- Herm Edwards
- Kansas City Chiefs