Chris Johnson walks a fine holdout line
1. Is Osi Umenyiora doing the right thing?
2. Or is Chris Johnson doing the right thing?
Umenyiora, the Giants' best defensive player, ended his holdout and returned to the field this week with no significant changes to a contract that -- to him -- is borderline disrespectful.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Wade PayneChris Johnson isn't even watching from the sidelines so far. He's staying far away from the Titans' practice fields.
Johnson, arguably the best back in the NFL, apparently wouldn't think about doing what Umenyiora just did. He still hasn't reported to the Tennessee Titans.
Who's playing the game? Who's getting played?
There is an art to a holdout. When to hold, when to fold, when to blink. When to make a decision that could change the arc of a career.
"You can't look at it from the perspective of breaking [a contract]," C. Lamont Smith, a player agent, says. "It's adjusting it to changing market conditions. At the time Chris Johnson entered his [original] contract, he was an unproven rookie. He is no longer an unproven rookie. He is an established player that is easily one of the two or three best running backs in the league. Same thing with Osi [Umenyiora]. He's outperformed the contract that he's under."
So Johnson sits. Umenyiora, the opposite. Without, at least in his mind, compromising his position.
"What has been offered is unacceptable," Umenyiora said in a statement to AP. "And shows that [the Giants] don't really respect the fact that I sacrifice my health for the franchise. I will play under my current deal because I love and respect my coaches, my teammates, the fans and myself -- not for those incentives."
Johnson's situation is a little thicker, depending on your perspective.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Julio CortezOsi Umenyiora's new-contract strategy now includes a return to full-time status as a member of the Giants.
"Again, we are willing to make him the highest-paid running back in the history of the NFL. That's where we are," Titans GM Mike Reinfeldt told reporters last week. All it will take, Reinfeldt says, is for Johnson to report to camp.
Yet the player still refuses to get on the field, or report to training camp. Refusing, in other words, to do an Osi. Saying in the Tennessean the other day, "Maybe [his agent and the team] talked, but I guarantee we never received any offer."
The line is frog's hair fine. Johnson and Umenyiora are taking different routes as they walk it, searching for the same results. They are both trying to make sure the business of the NFL doesn't play them any more than it already has.
There is a high risk involved. The public hardly ever favors the player in a holdout. And even when the reasons for holding out seem 99.999 percent valid, the process for the athlete can be unforgiving and irreversible.
So even if it's successful, even if it results in a new and improved contract, a holdout often comes at a cost. A cost without a dollar amount. Which may partially explain Umenyiora's decision to cross his own picket line. He knew that the longer a holdout lasts, the more the player comes off as the bad guy. The cost can come in burned bridges, maybe a trade.
Among the more notable examples: Cornelius Bennett and Eric Dickerson in 1987; Keith Jackson in 1995. People in Indianapolis and Los Angeles still speak ill of Bennett and Dickerson, respectively, for forcing trades via their holdouts. In a massive three-way deal, Bennett went from Indy (where he was holding out as the Colts' No. 1 draft choice) to Buffalo, where he helped the Bills make four Super Bowl appearances, while Dickerson came to Indianapolis after walking out on the Rams as part of the same trade. Both players got the contracts they wanted, but it cost them dearly in terms of their images in their former cities.Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesIn the mid-'90s, tight end Keith Jackson was a popular player in Miami until he forced a trade to Green Bay by holding out.
There are still some places in Miami where you can't mention Jackson's name, even though in Green Bay he became like a god, one of the puzzle's missing pieces that got put in place just in time to get the Packers to the Super Bowl in the '96 and '97 seasons.
That's the darker side to a holdout. Some agents caution their clients about it before they take the step of withholding their services as a negotiating tool. The player has to recognize the role the media can play in shaping public perception, both during the holdout and once the holdout is over. Like the public, the media generally favor the organization over the player.
"There are coaches and general managers that I've seen over the years that hold vendettas against the press," says Smith, the representative over the years for players such as Barry Sanders, Jerome Bettis and Eddie George. (Smith does not represent either Umenyiora or Johnson.) "It's not even a matter of journalists not siding with the player. It's a matter of calling it the way that [the media] sees it and being objective the way journalists are supposed to be. But the most blatant reason [the media side with the organization during player holdouts] is that they are afraid of being denied future access."
"It's the arbitration process," Poston says of the media's role. "If you have an arbitrator that is paid by one side and selected by one side, that's who [they] are going to have drinks with after work. The same thing applies with respect to the media in cases such as [these holdouts]. They for the most part are normally on the side of ownership because, who gets you access, the player or the owner?"[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Frederick BreedonSo far, Titans fans don't seem to be turning against Johnson. But the regular season hasn't started yet.
Several NFL general managers declined or did not respond to ESPN.com's requests to speak about the role of the media in shaping the public's perception of a holdout.
So far, neither Umenyiora nor Johnson has caught that side of the game. Umenyiora is playing it safe; but the longer Johnson's dispute goes unsettled, the more the public perception will shift away from his favor. Once actual games start being missed, especially if the Titans are losing, the tolerance and understanding the team's fan base seems to have right now for Johnson's stance might begin to disappear.
It's a risk, one that has been taken by hundreds over the seasons. Last year, Vincent Jackson and Darrelle Revis survived it. Before them, NFL players from Bo Jackson to Joey Galloway to Michael Strahan to Philip Rivers to John Hannah to John Riggins to Emmitt Smith to Walter Jones and Jerry Rice survived the same drama.
Umenyiora and Johnson, it seems, are déja vu-ing Revis and Jackson. Those two also took drastically different approaches in trying to force their teams to appreciate their market value. Revis got a new deal from the Jets before the season opener; Jackson let the season get eight games deep before he returned to the Chargers with no changes made to his contract.
Again, the line is fine. Maybe there is no blueprint for a successful holdout, no one way to get paid and at the same time avoid the antagonism from the fans and the negative portrayal by the media.
But maybe Johnson and Umenyiora can pull it off, in their own separate ways. Maybe in their cases, the public will side with the player as opposed to the guys writing the checks.
Or in this case, the guys not writing them.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.
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