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Will Chris Johnson’s salary demands prohibit Tennessee from winning the Super Bowl?

Posted by Chase Stuart on August 18, 2011

Tennessee running back Chris Johnson is currently holding out of training camp because he wants more money. A lot more money. Some think that isn't a prudent decision for the Titans. As a running back, Johnson might wear down in a year or two and will therefore be overpaid over the life of his contract. I'll resist the urge to go on another rant on rookie salaries -- owners and GMs argue that rookies don't deserve big bucks because they're unproven and that veterans don't deserve big bucks because their future potential is limited -- and instead look at a question posed by Ryan Wilson at Cbssports.

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.... [Johnson'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. [T]here's no disputing that Johnson wasn't nearly as effective in 2010 as he was in 2009. ...

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 president and columnist Aaron Schatz told 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."

...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."

It's the last part of that article that inspired me to write this post. We all know that a great quarterback is more valuable than a great running back. And a great quarterback gives you a big leg up on winning the Super Bowl. My response to that is, what does that have to do with signing Chris Johnson?

Giving Johnson megabucks has no negative impact (and arguably a very positive one) on whether or not the Titans have a great quarterback for the next ten years. Tennessee drafted QB Jake Locker in the first round of this year's draft. If he's going to be a future star, well, Tennessee already has him locked up for the next four or five years. If the next great Titans QB is Matt Hasselbeck, well, the Titans have him locked up for the remainder of his viable days as a starting quarterback.

But the principle goes deeper than just the QB situation in Tennessee. Paying any star RB is much more closer to the "mutually exclusive" end of the spectrum than the "either/or" side when choosing between paying your RB and getting a franchise QB. Let's take a look back at the past 15 SB winners:

Aaron Rodgers - drafted by Green Bay
Drew Brees - signed as a free agent by New Orleans
Ben Roethlisberger - drafted by Pittsburgh
Eli Manning - acquired on draft day by New York
Peyton Manning - drafted by Indianapolis
Ben Roethlisberger - drafted by Pittsburgh
Tom Brady - drafted by New England
Tom Brady - drafted by New England
Brad Johnson - signed as a free agent by Tampa Bay
Tom Brady - drafted by New England
Trent Dilfer - signed as a free agent by Baltimore
Kurt Warner - signed as a free agent by St. Louis
John Elway - acquired by Denver following the draft
John Elway - acquired by Denver following the draft
Brett Favre - acquired via trade

Ten of the last 15 Super Bowl winners got their starting QB the same way the Titans grabbed Locker: on draft day (or shortly thereafter). Baltimore and St. Louis signed backup quarterbacks for chump change, then shocked the world by winning Super Bowls with those passers. Favre was acquired for the cost of a first round pick, but did not hit Green Bay in the wallet (just its soul).

Only two of the 15 QBs could be classified as big-money free agent signings, the sort of acquisitions that presumably would be prevented if one were to tie up huge money with a star running back. Johnson and Brees were big off-season signings and landed large contracts. But there were extenuating circumstances with both players.

In 2000, Johnson was a 32-year-old QB who threw 15 INTs against just 11 TDs; with the exception of a strong completion percentage (era-adjusted), he was entirely average that season. He was considered injury prone, and for the second time in three years lost his starting job to Jeff George. The Redskins elected to keep George for the '01 year and let Johnson test the waters in free agency. That much was a foregone conclusion after Johnson's coach was fired and the quarterback took shots at the owner in the press.

The Chargers dealt with a similar situation. San Diego decided it was time to give young Philip Rivers the starting job, a decision that doesn't seem unsound despite Brees' success in New Orleans. The decision was made even more obvious when in the last game of the '05 season, Brees suffered a serious injury to his shoulder. The Chargers chose not to franchise Brees, and the injured quarterback went to Miami to sign there. The Dolphins' medical staff did not give the front office the green light to sign the former Charger, as Miami was worried that the injury could ruin his career. Instead, Brees signed a big-money contract with the only other team that was looking: New Orleans.

In the end, New Orleans and Tampa Bay still threw big money to acquire their Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. But those were unique situations in that those quarterbacks came with more questions than answers. They were specifically allowed to hit the market via free agency. That rarely happens these days, however.

Think about the last big free agent signings at the position. Matt Hasselbeck was the biggest move this year; Vince Young (Phi) and Tarvaris Jackson (Sea) were the consolation prizes. Last year, it was Derek Anderson (Ari) and Jake Delhomme (Cle). In 2009 the only big noisemakers were A.J. Feeley going to Carolina and Trent Green going to St. Louis, before whatshisname went to Minnesota. The top free agents in 2008? Daunte Culpepper (Det) and Quinn Gray (KC). Rex Grossman (Chi) and Derek Anderson (Cle) stayed with their teams, weakening the class. In '07, maybe it was Jeff Garcia (TB), Brad Johnson (Dal) or David Carr (Car).

There are trades, of course. Kevin Kolb (Phi to Ari), Charlie Whitehurst (SD to Sea) Jason Campbell (Was to Oak), Matt Cassel (NE to KC), Kyle Orton and Jay Cutler (Den/Chi) and Matt Schaub (Atl to Hou) all switched teams via trade. But it should be glaringly obvious that elite quarterbacks that teams think are going to win Super Bowls don't become available. End of story.

Tennessee would be much better off if it had an elite caliber quarterback. But Tennessee isn't going to find one by throwing a zillion dollars at Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo or Matt Schaub anytime soon. If the Titans are going to have a top-five quarterback in 2013, they will do so in one of five ways:

-- Jake Locker will become a star
-- Matt Hasselbeck will find the fountain of youth
-- Tennessee will take a chance on a risky free agent QB
-- Tennessee will take a chance and trade for a risky QB
-- Tennessee will spend another draft pick on a QB

None of those options are going to be off the table if they sign Chris Johnson to a mega deal. And, of course, the team is going to be in much better shape if they do sign Johnson. The idea that elite quarterbacks are available if you have the money is a fallacy. Until that happens, there's no reason why Tennessee shouldn't shell out big bucks on one of the few truly elite players in the game.