Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Chris Johnson looks for a free agent deal in an era when kickers are better paid than running backs

A nightmarish offseason for free agent running backs continues with free agent Chris Johnson shopping his wares, hoping to land a deal that his brethren can be proud of.

So far, demand for the speedy running back seems to be limited to a few teams, with little of the fervour seen when wide receiverDeSean Jackson suddenly hit the market.  

Jackson signed a 3-year, $24-million deal with the Redskins days after being released by the Eagles and then continued on his merry way to vacation on a private villa in the Caribbean while his new teammates hit OTAs.

Jackson, at 27, is a year younger than Johnson and coming off a career-best season while CJ2K is not, but the discrepancy in the demand for the players shows the new cold, hard reality in the NFL: Momma, don’t let your sons grow up to be running backs.

That’s because NFL’s transition from a running league to a passing league is now complete. Not just on the field but in the way players are paid and drafted.

There are exceptions: Adrian Pederson in Minnesota, and Seattle and San Francisco employ run-first offences; but the rest of the league clearly values quarterbacks and receivers far more than backs.

How else can you explain the fact that kickers are now in the same pay scale as running backs, and, for the most part, received longer-term contracts.

Don’t believe me? Compare the top deals of 2014:

Graham Gano, 4 years, $12.4 million
Nick Folk, 4 years, $12 million
Steven Hauschka, 3 years, $9.15 million
Phil Dawson, 2 years, $6.1 million
Dan Carpenter, 4 years, $10 million
Adam Vinateri, 2 years, $5 million

Running backs
Ben Tate, 2 years, $6.2 million
Toby Gerhart, 3 years, $10.5 million
Donald Brown 3 years, $10.5 million
Rashad Jennings, 4 years, $10 million
Knowshon Moreno 1 year, $3 million
Maurice Jones-Drew 3 years, $7.5 million

Where have you gone, Walter Payton.

The league was built on the legs of runners like Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Payton, Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson. Super Bowls and playoff battles were won with 3 yards and a cloud of dust, the ability to keep the chains and clock moving with power football.

But today’s game features three- and four-wide receiver sets, running back by committees, where the passing game sets up the run and not the other way around, and the difference between a running back getting 3.8 versus 4.5 yards per carry doesn’t mean that much because a swing pass or a quick hitch is just as effective.

When did it all change?

I blame The Catch. For a lot of things.

Frozen in time, Dwight Clark's arms stretch skywards for a ball that should've been beyond his reach while Everson Walls trails feverishly behind. Ed 'Too Tall' Jones and two other Dallas defenders jump prematurely at a Joe Montana fake and watch as the upstart quarterback locates the ball exactly where his savvy coach wanted it during the previous timeout. All under heavy duress and a Super Bowl bid on the line.

What's forgotten is that the Cowboys got the ball back with 51 seconds left and if not for an Eric Wright game-saving tackle on a streaking Drew Pearson AND an ensuing Danny White fumble, Rafael Septien would've likely kicked the game-winning field goal. But I digress.

Over the ensuing decade San Francisco would establish itself as the team of the '80s while Dallas would slowly descend into the waiting hands of Jerry Jones.

Bill Walsh would be hailed as an offensive genius and his West Coast offence would become an integral part of the NFL. Tom Landry, and his 4-3 Flex defence, a league staple, would be overtaken by the 3-4 alignment and for a time, Buddy Ryan's 4-6.

Montana became a first-ballot Hall of Famer. White would give way to Steve Pelluer and Gary Hogeboom.

But it was the rise of Walsh's offensive system that forever altered the league. Not just in the way the game was played but also the way players were drafted and eventually, the way players got paid.
Up until that point, teams needed a superstar running back to win. Period. Needed a first down, you ran for it.

Now here came the 49ers in the championship game with Lenvil Elliott leading the charge -- Dallas was protecting against the pass and Walsh, with time winding down, ran the ball with Elliott to march down the field to set up The Catch.

Don't remember Elliott? Not many do. Elliott was filling in for the similarly unremarkable Ricky Patton. But people do remember Tony Dorsett on the other sideline.

Over time, coaches figured out that three or four Pattons or Elliotts could do a serviceable job instead of paying big money to the Dorsetts of the world, especially when you need to fork out $20 million for a franchise quarterback and $10 million for alpha receivers.

So there’s Chris Johnson, Dorsett-lite, hoping to snag a big paycheque in a league that just doesn’t hand them out any more, especially to older backs.

Yes, he’s a couple of years away from the age of 30, the so-called end of the running back’s productive years, but have a look at Dorsett. From the ages of 29 to 31 he ran 896 times for 3,817 yards, which matched the most productive years of his Hall of Fame career.

Can Johnson help a team? Absolutely. Will he get paid what he deserves? No, and like me, he can “thank” Walsh for that.