There's no doubt in my mind that Chris Johnson is the second coming of Gayle Sayers in the....National Football League. Blessed with unreal speed and uncanny vision, the man has set all defenders ablaze since he touched down from East Carolina, back in 2008.
However, what has been chronicled with Chris Johnson and his persistence on getting paid has forever been relegated as background noise, in my opinion. I usually do my best not to worry about contract disputes and financial matters, because like my Uncle Bill would tell me from time to time, "Stay out of grown folk's pockets." So when Johnson became one of the highest paid players in the league, signing an extension with the Titans through 2016, worth up to $53 million with $30 million guaranteed...Johnson is now set for life (deservedly so) and will ball out for the Titans.
There's just one problem...Chris Johnson is a pitiful, pathetic, putrid, and poor excuse of a tailback in the National Football League.
It seems like every year, there's a running back that wants to be paid. Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, Deangelo Williams and Steven Jackson are all backs that I can remember having contract issues. They eventually get paid, and they continue to perform. In 2011, the man up to the plate that wants to get paid is Matt Forte, the man who has been the life force for the moribund and decrepit Bears offense for the last three-plus years. Forte, who was picked just 20 spots lower than Chris Johnson, is at the end of his four-year rookie contract and wants to get paid. The Bears have said, "We're going to wait until the end of the season. Do well, and we'll pay you."
So what has Forte done? He's balled out. The third-leading rusher coming into Week Eight, along with being number one in total yards from scrimmage, with 1,091. Forte's on pace to gain 2,493 yards from scrimmage this season, which would put him second all-time behind...
Here's the thing about running backs...
...you can find a running back anywhere. If you have the physical tools to play running back in the National Football League, you can go out there and do work at a decent level. The position of running back is one that only truly thrives in a system that is sound. Think about all of the elite teams in the National Football League for a second...
Patriots - Consistently use 3-4 RBs.
Packers - Ryan Grant and James Starks carry the ball equally.
Saints - Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Mark "Yeff" Ingram all carry it.
All three of those teams have tailbacks that fit specific roles and, in some ways, they're all interchangeable. It doesn't allow for anyone to truly become superstars, but those three teams have a winning model of success. Moreover, when we do see successful teams that have one main back, it's usually because they've already built a sound team and understand who they are. The Ravens with Ray Rice, Steelers with Rashard Mendenhall and the Chargers with Ryan Mathews all come to mind.
For an offense, getting an elite running back is the icing on the cake. If you can't run block, then you're just wasting precious years off of a runnning back's life (hello, Steven Jackson.) If you can't throw the ball effectively, then you're just wasting even more years off a tailback's life (hello, Adrian Peterson.)
The hope is that you can get an elite tailback in a system where he can truly thrive. A tailback is elite when his physical tools are in line with his instincts and mental capacity. Houston gives Arian Foster the ball plenty, they can run block, and they throw the ball plenty enough to give him room to operate. Same with Adrian Peterson a few years ago when Lorenzo Favre was back there, or when Chris Johnson and Vince Young were cooking together.
Great tailbacks are the icing on the cake. Everyone loves the icing, but you can do without it. The cake is what people came for; the icing puts them over the top.
The Bears face a conundrum, because it seems obvious that they need to pay Forte. Like I said earlier, he's on pace to finish second all-time in all-purpose yards for a single season. They look up and see what's going on with Chris Johnson, and they have to be somewhat concerned. Chris Johnson is known for his speed, running a 4.24 40-time, and what not. Watching Chris this season, he looks like he runs a 4.64 instead of a 4.24. He doesn't look into it this season, is probably out of shape and mentally doesn't seems ready to play.
I blame the Titans all the way on this, but every organization faces the same dilemma.
Chris Johnson is the face of the franchise. If you don't pay Johnson, it's not a good look for the fan base, season ticket purchases and other folks in the locker room who will want to get paid in the future. It's a real conundrum. Yet, the Titans also knew that they have a bevy of other issues on their team. Their defense is a shell of what it used to be. Their offensive line is downright porous, compared to recent years, and they're lacking for playmakers, outside of Kenny Britt. That $30 million in guaranteed money could've been put to good use in solving some of those issues.
The Bears are a good, but not great team. They've got issues. Their secondary is terrible. Their offensive line is terrible. Their wide receivers are average, at best. Their star middle linebacker's getting old, too. Matt Forte is going to command money very close to what Johnson got (Johnson's only out gained Forte by 195 yards from scrimmage in their career), and if he gets that money, great for him.
If I'm the Bears, I make the most financially feasible offer I can make. If Forte doesn't like that, then we have to keep moving. The Bears aren't title contenders right now, but with a few additions and retooling, they could be right there. Forte, without a shadow of a doubt, makes them a MUCH better team, but how much better is that really worth in the National Football League?
I'll guess we'll find out in 2012.
P.S. - If you thought it was annoying how much I used "the National Football League" in the post...good. Irks the hell out of me hearing football analysts saying that all the time. That might be the new drinking game: take a shot every time someone on countdown says, "the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE!"