There is one holdout left in the NFL, and it's a safe bet that many fans have the wrong idea about Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew. They may say he's greedy and ungrateful. They may demand that he honor his contract. But those naysayers need to recognize that players too often become the villains in these bitter business disputes. The best thing Jones-Drew could do is take this fight as far as it can go, because that's how the NFL's business model works.
The rumors swirling around Jacksonville suggest Jones-Drew will cave on his demands for a new contract. That would be a disappointing submission. Other players were holding out when Jones-Drew decided to make his move -- including Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace -- but now Jones-Drew is the last man standing. It's as if everybody is waiting to see how deep his convictions run.
People need to understand that it's not easy to do what Jones-Drew is doing. There is an art to the holdout, a feel for how to play chicken with big money while in the prime of one's career. Players don't decide to hold out impulsively, nor do they choose the tactic out of sheer stubbornness. They do it because they have no other choice.
"A lot of people think it's easy to hold out," said Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, who held out last summer before receiving a four-year, $53.5 million contract extension 10 days before the regular season. "It's not. Some days you wake up and wonder what will happen if they don't pay you. You think about whether you have to sit for 10 games before coming in and playing in a place you don't want to be. It's a tough situation to be in."
Johnson knows all about the angst of holding out. He had two years left on his deal with Tennessee when last year's lockout started. The Titans already had given him a decent raise -- paying him an extra $2.5 million in 2010 after he made his second consecutive Pro Bowl -- and the plan was to discuss a long-term deal last summer. The lockout held everything up, and Johnson wasn't even offered a contract until right before the Titans played their third preseason game. He subsequently decided to withhold his services.
Johnson soon discovered that not everybody could relate to his plight. Haters told him he should be happy with his contract. They claimed he was demanding way too much from the poor Titans. It was the usual rant by fans disillusioned by the big money paid to athletes at a time when so many normal workers are struggling to make ends meet. Johnson was making more money than most people could ever imagine, and it should've been enough in most people's minds.
But the system has always been stacked against the NFL players. As one unnamed agent said, "Players hold out today for the same reason they did 15 or 20 years ago: It's the only option they have. Contracts in other industries can be bilateral -- meaning both parties have control in the agreement -- but in the NFL they are unilateral. All the power goes to one party. The reason for that is the risk of injury in football, but people forget that significant fact. Nobody was telling the Jacksonville Jaguars to honor [quarterback] David Garrard's contract when they cut him. So why should Maurice Jones-Drew honor his?"
The Jones-Drew case is intriguing because he clearly deserves a raise. He made the past three Pro Bowls, played the entire 2010 season with a torn meniscus in his left knee and led the league in rushing last season despite Jacksonville's anemic passing attack. Jones-Drew did all that as the 10th-highest-paid running back in the league and the 10th-highest-paid player on his own team. It's laughable that he's had to go this far --including being fined $30,000 a day for his absence -- just to be rewarded for his work.
There has been talk that Jones-Drew will have to work hard to mend fences with new head coach Mike Mularkey and new owner Shad Khan whenever he returns. The suggestion there is that Jones-Drew is hurting his team. Khan has made some incendiary remarks that certainly haven't helped the situation -- he told the Florida Times-Union, "The train is leaving the station. Run, get on it." Anybody who follows Jacksonville knows the Jaguars have been riding on Jones-Drew's back for most of the past three years.
But we live in a world where players seldom get the benefit of the doubt. It's even harder if you're a running back, because few players at that devalued position score the fat contracts that have gone to Johnson or Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.
"One of the biggest reasons I held out was because I play running back," Johnson said. "I couldn't risk playing in a game without my contract being settled. If I had gone through training camp and just expected a deal to get done, anything could've happened. And if I'd gotten hurt, I'm pretty sure the team wouldn't have paid me what I was hoping to get."
That is the same situation that Jones-Drew faces today. He could play the good soldier and hope that the Jaguars treat him right. He could go another season with 300-plus carries and countless nicks and bruises, and hear whispers about how much tread is left on his tires. This is the way it works in the NFL: Few people get rewarded for being nice guys.
The people who ultimately make their money are the ones who understand the business at its core. As Johnson said, "If you're going to hold out, you can't just do it for a few days or weeks. You have to be willing to go all the way." That's exactly what Jones-Drew should be thinking right now. That may mean fans won't like him as much, but here's something else that is true: Those same people would do exactly the same in his shoes.