Those conversations have spiraled into arguments over several subtopics that when all said and done are about one issue: How much money is Larry Johnson worth? Today we’ll explore those subtopics and I’ll make a conclusion.
What are the subtopics? I’m glad you asked.
1. Is LJ doomed after carrying the ball 416 times last year?
2. At 28 years old, is LJ too old to receive the lucrative contract he wants?
3. Is trading LJ the best course of action for the Chiefs to take?
4. What leverage does each side really have in this negotiation?
Let’s get started.
Sub Issue #1: Herman Edwards ran the life out of Larry Johnson last season.
We all know the history of NFL backs who carry the ball 400 times in a season. The national media won’t dare let us ignore it. Four-hundred carry backs break down and don’t regain the rushing prowess they once exhibited. Why should Johnson be any different?
I’ll tell you why. His 400-carry experience was different than those of other backs.
Jamal Anderson ran the ball 410 times in 1998, but suffered an injury in 1999 that sidelined him for 14 games. He would return in 2001 but play in just three games. Here’s the difference - in addition to Anderson’s 410 regular-season carries, he carried the ball 70 more times in two playoff games and the Super Bowl. That means Anderson had 50 more carries than Johnson in 2007 (LJ had 16 carries in the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts). Perhaps more importantly, Anderson played meaningful football three weeks longer than LJ did. That means he had close to a month less of recovery time in the 1999 offseason. The recovery period is crucial to an NFL running back and Johnson had much more on a smaller workload compared to Anderson.
You can contrast that with Eddie George in 2000. George carried the ball 430 times in 2000, including a playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and had about the same amount of recovery time Johnson will have this offseason. The next year, George played in all 16 games and carried the ball 315 times for 939 yards. Not quite as productive as 2000, but a much better rebound than Anderson. The next two seasons, George went over the 1,000 yard mark.
What also must be factored in is that Johnson worked with trainer Joe Carini this offseason. I have no idea what kind of training Anderson and George went through, but we do know Carini helped Tiki Barber excel over the final three years of his career. Barber averaged over five yards a carry three times in his career, and two of those years came during his final three seasons.
Sub Issue #2: Larry Johnson is too old to give the Chiefs production worthy of a large contract.
Some facts are indisputable. Johnson will be 27 years old when the season begins and will turn 28 in November. Honestly, this argument baffles me. A 28-year old NFL player is in the prime of his career. It’s certainly not the age of a running back on the downside of his career. This is even more baffling when applied to Johnson.
Most gravitate back to Sub Issue #1 - LJ carried the ball 416 times last season. However, he has only 892 carries in four seasons. In contrast, LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers had 1,363 carries in his first four years in the NFL and has followed that up with 687 carries over the next two seasons. The question of the freshness of LJ’s legs gets even more intriguing when his previous four years are considered.
Johnson spent the first three years of his collegiate career at Penn State University riding the pine, only getting carries during mop up time. It wasn’t until his senior year that he got legitimate playing time. He responded with 2,000 yards. What does all this mean?
In the last eight years of meaningful football, Johnson has been virtually inactive for five and a half of them of them. Think about that. Five and a half years of virtual inactivity. How is it possible this guy is considered to be too old or on the downside of his career?
Sub Issue #3: The Chiefs are rebuilding and would be better served by trading LJ.
Without a doubt the Chiefs could add major talent in future drafts if they were able to get significant value in a trade for Johnson. However, there are three problems with that line of thinking.
Problem #1 is that it’s unlikely the Chiefs would get the significant value that LJ is worth. His value is probably somewhere between the second-round pick and Champ Bailey that Denver got for Clinton Portis, and the huge bounty that Dallas got for Herschel Walker. It’s probably less than the entire draft New Orleans traded for Ricky Williams.
The rumored price of three first-day draft picks is probably close to reality if two of those picks are first-rounders. I don’t think there is a team out there that will pay that price, however. If that’s true, the correct call is to keep Johnson.
Problem #2 is that even if the right price is found, trading away a dominant player isn’t smart. Chiefs fans who are staunch believers that trading Johnson is the way to go either have a short memory, or are too young to remember the bleak days of KC’s running game.
Before signing Priest Holmes, the Chiefs were turning over rocks looking for productive running backs. They drafted backs and failed. They signed free agent backs and failed. They signed un-drafted rookie backs and failed. As a result, the team suffered miserably.
Now the Chiefs have one of the most dominant running backs in the league and there are those that want to trade him. Would the Chiefs have entertained trading Will Shields in his prime? What about Tony Gonzalez? What about Derrick Thomas or Neil Smith? Absolutely not! They shouldn’t entertain trading Johnson, either.
Problem #3 is that LJ is the ideal running back for the Herm Edwards offense. Johnson runs hard and effectively (3,500 yards the last two seasons), has a nose for the endzone (37 rushing touchdowns the last two seasons) and doesn’t miss days in the tub. Is that type of production easily replaced? Look at the Chiefs history, look at NFL history and the answer is simple - NO!
Sub Issue #4: Leverage Abounds
I don’t like the way Johnson’s agent, Alvin Keels, is handling this negotiation. Sure, he has some leverage by holding LJ out of training camp. However, that is neither the best course of action nor his strongest leverage point. Going to camp and threatening to hold out of regular season games, ala Priest Holmes, would be wiser. Both Holmes and Eddie Kennison went to training camp wanting a new contract and got it. Holmes put real pressure on Carl Peterson by threatening to sit out the season opener. No GM wants to enter a season of new hope and expectations with his star walking out in Week 1.
Holding out of training camp would accomplish two things for Herm Edwards. He’d get to evaluate his young backup running backs behind the first-string offensive line, and he’d be able to rest Johnson without showing preferential treatment. A camp holdout plays right into Edwards’ hands if he wants to reduce LJ’s leverage.
The national media might believe LJ has leverage because he’s a free agent next year, and Kansas City may lose him. If they do, they’ve forgotten about the franchise tag. The truth is the Chiefs basically have Johnson on lockdown for the next three years. They can force him to play out his current contract and then franchise him for two seasons. After those three years are over, LJ will be almost 31 and looking for a contract to retire on.
Time gives Peterson significant leverage. This is the contract that will likely secure LJ’s retirement portfolio. He is best served to get the deal done now.
If LJ should hold out, the Chiefs can come after a portion of his signing bonus, up to $600,000. This is basically a non-issue. Johnson’s camp is looking for guaranteed money around $28 million. A few hundred grand is an acceptable risk in return for $28 million.
There are rumors that Priest Holmes may make a return, providing even more leverage for Peterson. This is also absurd. Having been away for a year and a half, Priest cannot be counted on as an every-down running back. He’s certainly not the long term answer that Edwards will look for. At best, Holmes would be a third-down back.
The Main Issue: How much should Johnson be paid?
The astute fan recognizes that contract negotiations in today’s NFL are all about guaranteed money. The total value of the contract is only relevant to the posturing of the agent in landing future clients.
There are reports out that say the Chiefs and Camp LJ are about $14 million apart. We don’t know if that’s true or not, but let’s say it’s true Johnson is seeking $28 million in guaranteed money, and the Chiefs are offering $14 million.
What’s the right number?
Frankly, I like the analysis Peter King applied to the Dwight Freeney deal – he used the franchise money for a defensive end over the next two seasons as a baseline for what the guaranteed money should be.
The franchise number for a running back this year is $7.5 million (a 15 percent increase over last year). If it increases another 15 percent over the next two years, the result would be $8.6 million in 2008 and $9.9 million in 2009, for a total of $18.5 million over two seasons. Speculation is that next year’s franchise number will actually drop to $6.5 million, likely making the 2009 number around $7.5 million, for a two-season total of $14 million.
Let’s assume it’s somewhere around $16 million over the next two seasons. The guaranteed money the Chiefs are offering Johnson now would have to be at least that amount.
He’ll likely sign a five or six-year deal. The additional three to four years should add a few more million in guaranteed money ($4 to $6 million), making the total guaranteed money somewhere around $20 million. To me, that seems fair to both sides. Tony Gonzalez recently received $18 million in guaranteed money. A few million extra for a guy who will be more than 50 percent of the offense seems reasonable.