Now that David Johnson has reported for Training Camp, the Cardinals and their fans can breathe a sigh of relief. But, let’s not forget what that felt like last month, and what circumstances caused that entire situation.
Just a few short weeks ago, David Johnson held out of mandatory minicamps, sending a message to the team that he was willing to take action to get the contract extension he feels he deserves. This holdout caused some (not all) Cardinals fans to lose some respect for our All-Pro running back. If it was just about any other player, I don’t think there would have been as much criticism or shock surrounding these actions. But David Johnson isn’t just “any other player.”
For the past 14 years, the Arizona Cardinals have reaped the benefits of their best player offering something not often seen in professional sports, humility. Larry Fitzgerald has been a fan favorite since he entered the league. He carries himself in a way we wish all professional athletes would. He understands the stage he has, and how important it is to be a positive example to those who look up to him. He has done all of this while putting up Hall of Fame worthy numbers on the field. While the stats from the last few seasons show Fitz isn’t slowing down just yet, we all know his inevitable retirement is near, and the Cardinals will have a large void to fill. Enter David Johnson.
While they may play different positions, Johnson and Fitz have very similar characteristics. Each of these incredible athletes can take over a game at just about any moment. They share the unique ability to give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares while simultaneously keeping them awake. And, they both have that rare trait I mentioned earlier, humility.
That humble nature is something we may be taking for granted, which is evident in the shock and surprise Cardinals fans felt at the news of Johnson skipping mandatory minicamp. While holdouts are nothing new in the NFL, and they are almost commonplace for running backs, Johnson isn’t the type of person we thought would do something like this. In the minds of Cardinals fans, David Johnson is supposed to be our humble third round draft pick that always puts the team above himself. He’s supposed to be our next face of the franchise, our next Larry Fitzgerald (not that anyone will ever replace Fitz), and Fitz certainly wouldn’t hold out. All I have to say to that is, don’t blame DJ. Blame the circumstances, blame the owners, but above all, blame the NFL Players Association.
The NFLPA is by far the least powerful union of the three dominant professional sports in the US, and they showed just how little power they had while negotiating the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. The most relevant aspect of that negotiation to Johnson’s situation was DeMaurice Smith and the NFLPA conceding in certain areas of a rookie wage scale to the owners. To be fair, rookie contracts were getting a bit out of control, and something had to be done to address contracts like the ones received by JaMarcus Russell ($61 million) and current Cardinals QB, Sam Bradford ($76 million). Unproven players were eating up cap space and handcuffing entire franchises. The worst part was a lot of them were not living up to their end of the bargain. For all intents and purposes, the last CBA did provide some logical relief in this area. The problem with the agreement is the one-sided nature in which it was written. It certainly accomplished what the owners wanted by protecting them from overpaying for underperformance. But it now keeps players who perform better than their draft slot dictated from getting paid accordingly. The players are the ones who are now handcuffed by contracts they essentially have no control over. They are tied down by specific salary parameters based on the slot in which they are drafted, and when players outperform that slot money, the CBA dictates they can’t even try to reach an agreement on an extension until after their third season.
Now, I am not advocating that every player going into their fourth season should holdout until their team offers them a contract extension. And, I believe in the notion that one should honor their commitments, and these players have obviously signed on the dotted line. My issue with the current structure of rookie deals in the NFL, is the players have absolutely no say in what was in the contract terms they agreed to. Their options are to either sign, or don’t sign. So, when a player is drafted later, and makes as big of an impact as David Johnson has, shouldn’t they be able to question that process?
Johnson has finally reached the point where he is allowed to ask the Cardinals to pay him according to his performance. And, while a lot of fans may raise concerns over Johnson’s injuries, the fact of the matter is Johnson has outperformed his rookie deal. In a league where little is guaranteed, and any snap could be your last, Johnson is completely justified trying to get what he feels he has earned. Since signing his rookie contract, Johnson has scored 33 TDs, been an All-Pro, named to the Pro Bowl, and led the league in all-purpose yards behind an absolutely horrendous offensive line. Those accomplishments alone justify Johnson’s request to negotiate a contract extension, but they aren’t the only thing working in his favor.
To give some perspective into how little Johnson is making (in NFL terms), let’s compare his salary to his peers. Johnson has been paid about $2.1 million from the Cardinals over his career, which includes salary, signing bonuses, and other bonuses received along the way. Per Johnson’s current contract, he will make about $1.9 million in salary for 2018, which, when combined with all other bonuses, will essentially double his career earnings. To compare Johnson’s pay to other running backs, let’s look at his salary cap value of just over $2 million. This value ranks Johnson as the 27th highest paid running back in the NFL, placing him between Duke Johnson and Charcandrick West, who aren’t even starters for their respective teams. It also slots him well behind some incomplete backs such as Jerick McKinnon (#7 - $6 million), Theo Riddick (#15 - $4.1 million), and Chris Thompson (#22 - $3.2 million), who can’t provide value to their team on an every-down basis the way Johnson does. These backs also carry with them injury concerns similar to Johnson’s, and DJ is clearly more valuable to the Cardinals than any of the running backs listed above are to their respective teams.
While I strongly believe Johnson’s on-field performance has earned him the right to ask for more money, I also believe other factors played into our humble running back’s surprising holdout. Since entering the league, Johnson has had a lot more going on than just running between the tackles, and catching passes out of the backfield. Shortly after his rookie season, Johnson married his longtime girlfriend, Meghan. Then, in January of 2017 the couple welcomed their first child, David Jr. As a husband and a father, Johnson now has very different priorities. He is responsible for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of a family. Combine the pressure that comes with fatherhood, with the risk these players take every time they step on the field, and it isn’t hard to see why Johnson doesn’t want to wait until his rookie contract is up. He doesn’t know when his career will end, and he wants to make sure his family is financially taken care of.
This brings me back to my original comparison between Fitz and DJ. It’s not fair to question Johnson’s humility in a situation like this. While the truth of the matter is only Fitzgerald can answer the question of whether he would hold out or not if he were in a comparable situation, I think he would. The glaring difference is Fitzgerald was never even close to being in Johnson’s shoes. He was drafted third overall, and received roughly $60 million from his rookie contract. Another reason I feel Fitz would react in a similar manner is the unwavering support he has shown his teammates that have utilized similar tactics to try to get what they feel they deserve.
I guess what this all comes down to is I don’t think we should lose faith in Johnson because of this situation. I don’t think he is becoming greedy, or arrogant, or any of the other adjectives typically associated with NFL holdouts. We need to put ourselves in Johnson’s shoes, and ask what we would do in a similar situation. I am sure most, if not all, of us would do exactly what he is doing. I am confident that Johnson is the same humble, respectful, and hard-working guy we have come to know and love in the Red Sea, and I believe he and the Cardinals will do what is right. With Johnson back on the field for training camp, I have faith they will work out a deal that makes sense for both sides, and we will still have a face for our franchise when #11 moves from the field to the rafters.