Is it time for the Titans to pony up and pay Chris Johnson?

Tennessee Titans Chris Johnson watches from the sidelines during the first half of their NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Jacksonville, Florida October 18, 2010. REUTERS/Daron Dean (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Contract holdouts used to irritate me in professional sports. An athlete and a team come together on a deal with the intentions of honoring said commitment. Then the athlete feels underpaid and holds his team hostage until he gets what he wants. Considering teams can’t ask for their money back when an athlete gives a Barry Zito-type performance year after year, the whole notion of a holdout didn’t sit right with me.

But that was a rather juvenile way of looking at the situation. In the NFL, teams can’t ask for money back but they can cut a player without honoring their commitment, so why shouldn’t athletes bargain for more money when they’ve outperformed their contract? At the end of the day, whether you’re a professional athlete or working out of a cubicle, you use the leverage you have to get as much as you can (within reason, of course) before that team or company decides it’s done with you.

Over the past week, there have been multiple reports that Chris Johnson will not report to training camp without a lucrative new contract. Set to earn just $800,000 this year despite being the NFL’s best back, it’s hard to blame Johnson for forcing the Titans into a corner. He still has two years left on his current deal, but it’s a deal in which he has outperformed.

There are a couple of reasons why the Titans shouldn’t give into Johnson’s demands (assuming he does holdout, that is), starting with the position he plays. Running backs just aren’t as valuable as they were 8-10 years ago. It’s a passing league now and if teams concentrate their efforts into building a decent O-line, they don’t have to break the bank for a top back. And considering the NFL is now a two-back league, committing a bunch of money to that position seems rather unproductive.

The Titans shouldn’t feel compelled to reward a player for holding out either. No team wants to set a precedent for allowing players to holdout in order to receive a new contract – even if it’s their best player. Plus, what happens the next time Johnson thinks he has outperformed his contract? Will he force the Titans’ hand again? If the team gives in now, what’s stopping him from holding out again down the road if he wants even more?

That said, at the end of the day it’s still more beneficial for the Titans to pay him instead of holding their ground. For starters, they have to look at Johnson’s situation as an isolated matter. They can’t assume that Johnson will holdout again down the road, or that his situation will encourage other players to holdout, or that Harold Camping punched in a “5” instead of a “9” on his calculator and the rapture is actually coming soon.

They have to deal with this specific situation and put everything else aside. And when they look at this specific situation, they’re going to see a player that is highly underpaid, who is only 25, and who can help usher in the Jake Locker era. Usually when a player holdouts age is a concern. But Johnson still has five more years before he reaches the dreaded age of 30 and his production has been off the charts.

There are pros and cons to any decision that teams make when it comes to player holdouts, and Chris Johnson’s situation is no different. But if the Titans were to pony up for anyone, why wouldn’t it be someone as young and productive as Johnson? Granted, the Titans can’t just give him a blank check – every team has their limitations. But a nice five-year deal with a large signing bonus should do the trick and then hey, everyone goes home happy. It makes sense to pay the man.

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