Chris Johnson wants to get paid. We don't blame him. It's just that the Titans can't do it. Not because they're cheap, or Johnson is undeserving, but because running backs are fungible. We're not willing to say they're a dime a dozen, but it's close.
Look, there's no disputing that Johnson and Adrian Peterson are the two best running backs in the NFL. But the difference between them and the NFL's 32nd-best back is negligible when compared to the differences between, say, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning and whoever your candidate is for the league's worst starting quarterback. The same holds for wide receivers, left tackles, cornerbacks, safeties -- basically every position but running back.
So why is that?
For starters, the shelf life for a top-flight running back is remarkably short. A study by Doug Drinin of Pro-Football-Reference.com found that RBs usually decline by age 28, WRs by age 30 and QBs by age 32.
In a story published in January 2005 in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Carl Prine explained that the sheer brutality of the position coupled with overuse has also played a role.
"The average career of an NFL back is 2.6 years and falling, according to the National Football League Players' Association. Players, coaches and historians interviewed by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review blamed the mayfly careers of rushers on the … high number of carries they get in an age of free agency," Prine wrote. "Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, teams rarely asked their backs to touch the ball more than 230 times in a season.
"Historically, every time a player gets more than that many touches in a season, his production declines the following year by 50 fewer carries and 1.2 fewer games. Nearly three out of every five of these backs are out of the league within four years."
Then there's the research by FootballOutsiders.com which suggests that rushing success is more dependent on the offensive line, but pass protection is more dependent on the quarterback. Put differently: teams can find productive running backs -- no matter when they were drafted (or if they were drafted at all) or how much they're making -- if a good offensive line is already in place. A great quarterback, however, can mask an o-line's shortcomings.
(See Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, for examples. They play two totally different styles -- Manning relies on his ability to assess defenses and quickly get the ball out of his hands; Roethlisberger takes hits, extends plays and waits for his receivers to come open.)
A great running back, in general, is wasted on a mediocre offensive line.
|Chris Johnson's Holdout|
So what does this mean for the Titans? General manager Mike Reinfeldt said last week that the organization is willing to make Johnson the league's highest-paid back. Johnson is looking for something more than that. This is certainly his prerogative. After all, he's rushed for more yards since 2008 than anybody in the league.
That also means Johnson logged a lot of carries, too. In three seasons, he's carried the ball 251, 358 and 316 times. Johnson's yards per carry have gone from 4.9 to 5.6 to 4.3 over that time. And whether you believe in the Curse of 370 or not (basically, the theory states that if a RB carries the ball roughly 370 times or more in the regular season he will usually suffer a major injury or drop in productivity the following season), there's no disputing that Johnson wasn't nearly as effective in 2010 as he was in 2009.
It's not altogether surprising that Johnson wasn't able to duplicate his 2009 numbers (2,006 rushing yards, 14 TDs, 503 receiving yards), but he wasn't even close. He finished with 1,364 rushing yards, his yards-per-carry dropped by 1.3 to 4.3, and he had 258 fewer receiving yards.
More than that: even with his jaw-dropping performance in '09, the Titans won eight games and missed the playoffs. In 2010, they won just six times.
We could blame that on the precarious quarterback situation, but that's our point.
Here's what FootballOutsiders.com president and ESPN.com columnist Aaron Schatz told CBSSports.com about Johnson's demands for a substantial pay bump. "When was the last time a team with a big-name, big-money back went to the Super Bowl, or even had the best regular-season record in the league? I suppose the 2009 Vikings came close. Otherwise, do you have to go back to the 2005 Seahawks? The best offenses in the modern NFL simply aren't built around a single running back."
Ah yes, the 2005 Seahawks. Here's what we wrote earlier this summer about Shaun Alexander:
"The Seahawks re-signed Alexander to an eight-year, $62 million deal in 2006, six years into his career. At the time, it was the largest contract ever signed by a running back. Alexander, who had 370 carries for 1,880 yards (27 TDs) in '05, managed just 896 yards on 252 carries (7 TDs) in '06. He gained 716 yards a year later, and by 2008 he was out of the league."
Johnson does have supporters, however. CBSSports.com's Gregg Doyel wrote last week that paying him is the right thing to do.
And Jerome Bettis, one of the most bruising running backs in the modern era, also thinks the Titans have to pony up for Johnson.
"You've got to have a feature [back] because what happens is that when you have that one guy, he becomes a threat all over the field and the defense has to respond to him a lot differently," Bettis told CBSSports.com last week. "I think that's where the difference comes in in terms of a feature back."
But Bettis thinks Johnson's worth to the Titans transcends what he's able to do on a football field.
"The problem is, if you lose [Johnson], now what do you have? You gotta have two things," Bettis continued. "In the absence of a quality football team, you've got to have a superstar for people to come see. If you don't have the quarterback, you better have the running back. If you don't have a quarterback and you don't have a running back then you don't have fans in the seats.
"You can load your team up with players, but who's going to come watch them? Because the NFL is run by superstars … and when you don't have that therein lies the problem. So [Johnson] is not only worth money ... just necessarily (for what he does) on the field, but off the field as well because you don't have the quarterback to position as your franchise guy."
And this is the dilemma facing the Titans. Do they pay Johnson because of not only what he means to the team but to the surrounding area and fan base? Or does the organization try to put butts in seats by using that large chunk of change to shore up other positions?
This reminds us of something Schatz wrote as part of his "Football Outsiders Basics" series: "By and large, a team built on depth is better than a team built on stars and scrubs. … Every team will suffer injuries; the only question is how many. The game is too fast and the players too strong to build a team based around the idea that 'if we can avoid all injuries this year, we'll win.'"
If you're still not convinced, how about this (from something we wrote earlier this month): "The previous eight Super Bowl winners didn't have a high-priced, top-5 running back on the roster. What they did have, however, was a franchise quarterback. Teams can survive without one but not the other."
For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter and subscribe to our RSS Feed.