We interrupt the wall-to-wall Michael Vick coverage that is going to last all summer to present another football story.
The biggest training camp battle isn't going to be between Kansas City quarterbacks Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard. It's going to be between Kansas City running back Larry Johnson and the Chiefs.
Over the past month, the two sides have been on vacation, not having had any contract talks since around mid-June. But each side returned this week, the first contract proposal was sent to the Chiefs, and now the game within the game begins.
Johnson is said to be dug in, entrenched, refusing to report to training camp until he has a new contract.
The Chiefs believe Johnson already has a contract, which has one year remaining on it, scheduled to pay the running back over $1.9 million this season.
Johnson is seeking somewhere in the vicinity of $28 million in guaranteed money, which is an easy enough number to trace. Three years ago, San Diego gave running back LaDainian Tomlinson a deal that included $21 million in bonuses. Since then, the salary cap has increased about 35 percent, which would make the guaranteed money in Tomlinson's deal worth about $28 million. At this time, Johnson is unwilling to take much less.
The Chiefs have countered with an offer of guaranteed money somewhere between $11 and $14 million, which is the bonus money paid to some of the game's other highest paid running backs, including San Francisco's Frank Gore, who received $14 million worth of guaranteed money last spring; Seattle's Shaun Alexander, who received $13.5 million worth of guaranteed money last year; Arizona's Edgerrin James, who got $11.5 million worth of guaranteed money last year; and New Orleans' Deuce McAllister, who landed $11 million worth of guaranteed money in his extension in 2005. At this time, the Chiefs are unwilling to pay much more.
Johnson feels like the $1.9 million that he's scheduled to make this season – a $1.7 million base salary, plus a $200,000-plus escalator he triggered in his contract from past performance – is not enough of an incentive to come in and play when a severe injury could rob him of millions more. The potential lost wages are enough to keep away Johnson.
Kansas City takes an opposite view. Johnson is scheduled to make more than $111,000 per game, wages he would lose if he has not reported. Plus, the Chiefs could opt to fine Johnson $14,000 each day he is not at training camp while also purusing a pro-rated portion of his initial signing bonus that could amount to as much as $660,000. The potential lost wages could prove to be enough to bring back Johnson.
Johnson thinks, correctly, that salaries from premium NFL players are skyrocketing. Just last week, Indianapolis showered $30 million in guaranteed money on defensive end Dwight Freeney. This off-season, defensive stalwarts such as linebackers Adalius Thomas and Joey Porter, as well as cornerback Nate Clements, each received at least $20 million in guaranteed money. Even Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez commanded an $18 million signing bonus just last year.
The Chiefs know that while the "franchise" number for running backs this season is $7 million, it is projected to drop next season to $6.5 million, a number that indicates that running backs are not valued the way defensive ends and cornerbacks are.
Right now the two sides are somewhere $14 million in guaranteed money apart. Neither is in a compromising mood. Should the staredown continue, speculation about a trade will increase. Green Bay, Tennessee and even the New York Giants each have questions at running back that Johnson would help answer. A trade is a possibility here, an outcome that could appease all sides.
But right now, each side has its stance, it is a strong one, and neither is willing to budge. Now. But the Chiefs are not scheduled to report to training camp until July 27. The two sides have until then to continue to try working out a deal.
Kansas City already proved this off-season in its dealings with quarterback Trent Green how headstrong it can be. Johnson is said to be equally resolute, an attitude matching his physical gifts.
It sets up a showdown that could be the most compelling one of the summer.