No easy answer to contract dispute between Johnson, Titans

As contractual disputes go, the one between Chris Johnson and the Tennessee Titans is as fascinating as any that has occurred in the NFL.

That's because there is no real bad guy.

True, Johnson has a signed contract, and it's easy to say he simply should honor it. But we all know that contracts have a way of becoming outdated, and it isn't always the player who initiates the process of getting it up to date.

Johnson has a legitimate beef with his salary. The Titans understand that. They also have a legitimate reason for not coming up with the kind of money that would satisfy their star running back.

Consequently, the Titans recently held a veterans minicamp with their most prominent veteran conspicuous by his absence: Johnson.

Here are the reasons it makes sense for him to stay away:

» 1. His base pay for this year (the third of a five-year, $12-million deal he signed after the Titans made him a first-round draft pick in 2008) is scheduled to be $550,000.

» 2. One of his backups, Alvin Pearman, is due to be paid $630,000.

» 3. The St. Louis Rams made Steven Jackson the league's highest-paid running back in 2008 when they gave him a five-year contract worth $48.5 million.

» 4. Johnson performed better than Jackson and every other back in the NFL last season.

Here are the reasons the Titans can't help but feel that their hands are tied when it comes to restructuring Johnson's contract so that his pay is on a par with Jackson or even Maurice Jones-Drew, to whom the Jacksonville Jaguars gave a five-year, $31-million deal last year:

1. The NFL puts a 30-percent limit on how much a player's base salary can increase from one season to the next.
2. Although the Titans could get around the 30-percent rule by heavily loading a restructured agreement with guaranteed signing bonus money, the risk of guaranteeing the vast majority of what would amount to about $40 million rather than having a healthy portion of it in base salary is too great for them or any team to even consider.

After rushing for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns, Johnson understandably wants to cash in. For a running back, the timing doesn't get any better. He is at the absolute top of his game.

However, the Titans would be crazy to reward that performance with a bonus-based contract that puts all of the risk on them.

Johnson is a great player. He's deserving of far more money than he is due to receive. He should be paid every bit as well as Jackson and other offensive players whose income currently puts them on a different planet from Johnson.

Johnson has talked about wanting to be the top-paid offensive player in the NFL. That's probably taking an otherwise strong case too far.

But the reality is that there won't be a resolution to this conflict any time soon. Johnson might very well choose to avoid working out with the Titans through the balance of the offseason. He worked out on his own much of last offseason as well, and it certainly didn't hurt his performance when it counted.

Understanding the dilemma that the Titans face in dealing with Johnson, coach Jeff Fisher told reporters in Tennessee that he hoped Johnson was "taking good care of himself" while he was away from the team's practice facility.

Now, Johnson could stage a holdout that runs all summer. That wouldn't be pleasant for the Titans. And it wouldn't likely do a thing to improve his chances of getting a massive pay raise.

Holding out for the entire 2010 season isn't an answer, either. All it would mean is that Johnson wouldn't be paid and he would lose a year that he would never get back. It could, in fact, turn into two years with labor uncertainty putting the 2011 season at risk.

This is a dispute without a bad guy … and, unfortunately, without much hope of a happy ending.

Backup woes

It seems fairly clear that new Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz is uncomfortable with his team's quarterback depth.

He expressed to reporters in Chicago that he was "a little nervous" having third-year man Caleb Hanie as the understudy to Jay Cutler. In the past two seasons, Hanie has appeared in two games and has made no starts.

Martz's concern is understandable. If Cutler is injured and misses any significant time, the Bears' hopes of dramatic offensive improvement under Martz are likely dead. He no doubt would like the team to sign an experienced backup, such as Marc Bulger (whom Martz coached in St. Louis). But the Bears' brass might be concerned that an established name at the position would possibly put too much pressure on Cutler, particularly if he were to struggle.

In Philadephia, meanwhile, Michael Vick expressed some discomfort with being the Eagles' No. 2 quarterback behind Kevin Kolb.

Being a backup is apparently more of an issue for Vick this year than it was when he joined the Eagles last season as a "Wildcat" option who would enter games in special situations. After Donovan McNabb was traded to the Washington Redskins, Vick became the most experienced and established quarterback on the roster. Yet, the Eagles gave Kolb the starting job and a new contract.

Part of Vick has to feel grateful that the Eagles took a chance that many other teams weren't willing to take by signing him last year after he did jail time for dogfighting and was reinstated by Commissioner Roger Goodell. He has to appreciate the fact the Eagles gave him a chance to rectify himself and reconstruct his game.

Yet there is another part of Vick that has to be feeling that as long as he's back in the NFL, he should be starting -- just as he once did for the Atlanta Falcons. It would seem impossible for him to look at Kolb and feel inferior, although in the eyes of the Eagles' coaching staff, Kolb has the better pocket presence and understanding of their West Coast-style passing attack.

Bradford needs reality check …

OK, it must get tiresome for Sam Bradford to constantly hear questions about the shoulder injury that prematurely ended his final season at Oklahoma.

But he's going to keep hearing them, because that's how it is when you are the No. 1 overall pick of the draft. How that shoulder holds up holds the key to Bradford's future and the future of the St. Louis Rams.

Neither Bradford nor the Rams will get the answer to that until he starts to take some hits, which won't happen until the preseason. He insists he is looking forward to that time because, as he told reporters, "hopefully it will kind of calm everyone down, because I think everyone is freaking out about it."

True enough. But the reality is that people -- especially fans and everyone else connected with the Rams -- are going to be on edge until they see how well Bradford can take a hit.

… So does Steve Smith

Wide receiver Steve Smith told reporters at the Carolina Panthers' minicamp that he didn't like people assuming the team's younger roster meant that it was in a rebuilding year.

Sorry, Steve, but that's exactly what it does mean. The Panthers' youth movement clearly puts them in a position where they are in the early stages of construction and not a finished product.

It's a surprising strategy for a general manager (Marty Hurney) and coach (John Fox) who are each in the final year of a contract. Usually, decision-makers in that position make moves designed for immediate success. Not Hurney and Fox. Their defining draft pick was Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, their franchise quarterback of the future (and, for good measure, they grabbed former University of Cincinnati QB Tony Pike in the sixth round).

The Panthers' best hope for having any sort of success this season is for their running game to be strong and their defense to excel and for Smith to consistently perform as one of the top receivers in the NFL. But with so much youth around him -- including Matt Moore, the quarterback likely to start this season -- Smith can pretty much count on being part of what people widely assume the Panthers are in for: A rebuilding year.

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