Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew can't celebrate day of jackpots for elite RBs

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

 

The deals came down in dizzying succession, a three-and-a-half-hour rush of deadline-skirting, tax-bracket-busting drama.

A pair of star running backs, the Chicago Bears' Matt Forte and the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice, got the lucrative long-term contracts many predicted they wouldn't, highlighting a Monday afternoon that marked the final day for players who'd been franchised to strike multi-year deals until the completion of the 2012 season.

Sometime in between those two relatively meaty developments, a kicker, Josh Scobee, scored a four-year, $13.8 million contract from the Jacksonville Jaguars, continuing a curious offseason in which dudes with the skimpy facemasks get their portfolios fattened beyond reason – and, quite possibly, prompting Scobee and his wife, Melissa, to reenact the iconic Demi Moore/Woody Harrelson love scene from "Indecent Proposal."

[More NFL: Pats reportedly tell Rob Gronkowski to tone it down]

Though it can be argued that Forte and Rice derived slightly less satisfaction from their respective signings, essentially having traded maximum market value for security and peace of mind, this was certainly a day of celebration for them. Whether they'll be happy two or three years from now is an entirely different matter.

Let's consider the perspective of another terrific halfback, the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew, who undoubtedly came down with a severe case of the Mondays. The NFL's leading rusher in 2011 was already unhappy with his contract; now two more backs are ahead of him on the salary charts, and the Jags just coughed up cash for a teammate who, if he so chooses, can devote much of his workday to online shopping.

In 2009, Jones-Drew was the player headlining a news conference at the Jags' training facility with a just-got-paid smile, having agreed to a five-year, $31-million contract extension. Now that a mere $9.4 million remains to be paid out over the final two seasons, MJD is MIA. Jones-Drew has been a no-show since the end of last season, and in June he skipped a mandatory minicamp.

As many of you know, I'm often sympathetic to the player's perspective in disputes such as these. Given that teams routinely cut (and/or threaten to cut) players at the first sign that their market value has decreased, I believe it's justifiable for employees who believe they've outperformed their contracts – and have the leverage to pull it off – to push for upgraded deals. I've said it before and I'll say it again: It's just business, and the degree to which some fans get emotional about contract disputes between teams and athletes is laughable.

[Related: Bears RB Matt Forte gets four-year deal]

In Jones-Drew's case, I have zero belief that the Jaguars will budge – general manager Gene Smith has said as much publicly, and new owner Shad Khan shares that stance – and I can't say that the team's logic is flawed. As good as Jones-Drew has been, and as anxious as new Jacksonville coach Mike Mularkey might be to have his star player in the fold for the start of training camp, there are a whole lot of reasons for the team to stand firm:

• Jones-Drew isn't that underpaid. Sure, in a vacuum, his base salaries of $4.45 million in 2012 and $4.95 million in '13 are below market value. But Jones-Drew's frontloaded deal was crafted to give the player more money early on, as a means of increasing his sense of financial security at a fungible position with a high rate of attrition. The 2012 and '13 base salaries are the tradeoff, and you can't blame the Jags for not feeling overly sympathetic. Similarly, I suspect the New York Jets will be much less motivated to take care of star cornerback Darrelle Revis if he holds out for the second time in three summers, which reportedly is a possibility.

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Maurice Jones-Drew might want more money, but the Jaguars are unlikely to give it to him. (US Presswire)

 

• He's a running back. They may dominate fantasy drafts, but backs have struggled to cash in on their marquee value for nearly a decade, and things are not trending in their favor. Sure, Chris Johnson got paid last year after a messy holdout, and Rice and Forte joined the Philadelphia Eagles' LeSean McCoy, the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch and the Houston Texans' Arian Foster in scoring long-term deals since the 2011 season ended. Still, getting a second contract always seems to be a struggle for most backs, largely because so many of them tend to decline around the time they turn 30. Jones-Drew, who's looking for a third contract, is 27 and entering his seventh season. Over the past three years he has averaged 318 carries. Though it's inspirational to see him thrive despite standing 5-foot-7, his smaller stature works against him when it comes to contract math. When it comes to perception of a player's durability, size does matter – except, of course, when it comes to place kickers. Five were franchised this offseason, and three (Scobee, the Bucs' Connor Barth, the Broncos' Matt Prater) came away with long-term deals. So did punter Steve Weatherford, who was franchised by the Giants. (On a side note, I wonder if Scobee got a congratulatory call Monday from the Eagles' franchise player, DeSean Jackson, a.k.a. the "Tiny Bastard." But I digress … )

• The Jags aren't close to contending for a Super Bowl, and even if they were, it's tough to make the case that having a beast in the backfield correlates to winning it all. Let's look at the champions from the past 20 seasons. During the first decade in question, it can be argued that eight Super Bowl winners ('92, '93 and '95 Cowboys/Emmitt Smith; '94 Niners/Ricky Watters; '97-'98 Broncos/Terrell Davis; '99 Rams/Marshall Faulk; 2000 Ravens/Jamal Lewis) had elite running backs. In the decade since, at least from my vantage point, there have been zero. Go ahead and make the case that Willie Parker, Ahmad Bradshaw, an aging Corey Dillon or the Warrick Dunn/Mike Alstott duo qualifies as elite, but I believe strongly that a shift has occurred. As productive as Jones-Drew has been over the past three seasons, when he became the team's unquestioned top runner, Jacksonville hasn't done better than 8-8 during that span. With 2011 first-round pick Blaine Gabbert coming off a dismal rookie campaign, the quarterback position is the franchise's biggest concern. Granted, Jones-Drew's presence would be beneficial to Gabbert, but wideout Justin Blackmon, the team's top 2012 draft pick, would seem to be far more significant. And for what it's worth the Jags believe their No. 2 back, Rashad Jennings, is a pretty good player.

• The wrath of Khan. OK, that's a forced attempt to jam the title to an old "Star Trek" movie into a column. I don't believe the Jags' new owner is angry that Jones-Drew has pulled this power play. That said, Khan didn't get into position to purchase the team from Wayne Weaver by being a meek businessman, and I'm convinced he views this standoff as a significant tone-setter. Jones-Drew tested his new bosses – Khan and Mularkey – by shunning them, essentially cleaning out his locker after the 2011 season ended. That's his prerogative, and it surely isn't personal, but he could have taken a less confrontational approach to demanding additional compensation. Surely, Khan doesn't want to give the rest of his employees an indication that Jones-Drew's gameplan is an effective one. I expect the owner to take this opportunity to send a message, even if it costs him in the short term.

The Jags might actually benefit from a Jones-Drew holdout. If the halfback stays away from training camp or even has the stomach to skip regular-season games, it would give the franchise a built-in excuse for struggling early and take some pressure off of the new coach and owner. Meanwhile, in addition to fining Jones-Drew $30,000 a day, the organization could go after the player's signing bonus (the prorated share of his $17.5 million bonus is $3.5 million for each of the next two seasons). Any money recovered could be used to pay one of the young core players who'll form what Khan hopes is the nucleus of a consistent contender in the coming years.

It's tough to make the case that Jones-Drew's absence would be anything but a negative for the Jags, but it's hard to imagine that the player will have the resolve to stay away for any protracted period. Under this system, he has too much to lose. My money is on Jones-Drew blinking first.

With training camp looming, his best option is to show up, put his head down and have another strong season – and hope that he stays healthy. Perhaps, at that point, Khan will be more sympathetic to Jones-Drew's plight.

In the meantime, he can always take up placekicking.

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