The latter years of Al Davis‘ tenure with the Oakland Raiders was marked by a seemingly endless stream of draft picks who turned out to be terrible busts, highly overpriced free agents who failed to live up to expectations and re-signing players to mammoth contracts who then failed to play anywhere near the level they did during their contract year. It’s that sort of decision making that has led the Raiders to become the laughingstock of the league. And with running back Chris Johnson expected to be released by the Tennessee Titans, many across the Raider Nation are salivating at the prospect of picking him up. Signing Johnson would be the sort of mistake that Al Davis would have made, and the sort of mistake that can have a detrimental effect on the franchise. And that’s the sort of mistake GM Reggie McKenzie absolutely needs to avoid.
With the Titans looking to move in a different direction, they’re widely expected to part ways with Johnson and dump the $8 million he’s due. Johnson has already gone on record as having said he will not accept a pay cut. Meaning, if the Raiders hope to sign him, they’re going to have to pony up at least $8 million a season. Is Johnson worth that kind of money? He obviously thinks so. As do many of the Silver and Black faithful. The truth of the matter, however, is Johnson is absolutely not worth that kind of money. He’s coming off of a season in which he barely cracked the 1,000-yard mark and his average dropped to 3.9 yards a carry. While still a pretty good year for a lot of backs in the NFL, it was a very substantial drop off in Johnson’s production. And unless you are insane, a “pretty good year” is in no way, shape or form worth $8 million per season.
And oh yeah, let’s not forget that he’s also coming off a knee surgery after tearing his meniscus.
Let’s face the facts: In 2009 when he rushed for 2,000 yards, Johnson was absolutely electric. Since that season, though, he’s been “pretty good.” While pretty good by NFL standards, he hasn’t even come close to replicating that sort of electricity or productivity. He hasn’t been a running back who is worth $8 million a year.
Now, coming off of knee surgery, there is no guarantee that he’ll ever get back to “pretty good,” let alone be electric again. For his part, Johnson is downplaying the significance of the injury and has called it a “minor procedure” on several occasions. Perhaps. Perhaps not. That’s part of the problem though; nobody knows whether it’s a one-off sort of injury and now that it’s been fixed won’t be a problem anymore, or whether it’s an injury that could occur again and is perhaps a sign of more chronic injuries coming down the line. When you start operating on knees, things get tricky and you just don’t always know what to expect afterward.
McKenzie and the Raiders would do much better to re-sign Rashad Jennings, who in a backup role was nearly as productive as Johnson. He certainly had a higher per carry average (4.5) and despite getting more than 100 fewer carries than Johnson only finished 344 total yards behind him. He’s been with the team, knows the coaches and the system and excelled in it. Also, let’s not forget that Jennings isn’t coming off knee surgery and won’t be commanding $8 million a season. The Raiders have some room to operate under the cap but would be unwise to commit so much to one player with so many unknown variables at this point who has only been “pretty good” for the last few years. That’s not smart with so many other needs to fill and not when they have other, better options.
The only thing that seems certain is that coming off a down year, knee surgery and not being the same sort of electric player he was in 2009, Chris Johnson is a good running back — but not an $8 million a season running back. Not even close. Bringing him in would be the type of big gamble Al Davis would have been all in on, but it’s a gamble that McKenzie and the Raiders simply cannot afford to make.