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Wednesday August 17th, 2011

Titans running back Chris Johnson isn't in the wrong for seeking a raise. (Kevin Reece/Icon SMI)

In 2009, the NFL adopted a set of rules designed to protect its players from injury. The league did the same prior to the 2010 season, and just this offseason tweaked the rulebook again in the name of player safety.

This is the world in which Chris Johnson lives -- one where the average NFL running back's career lasts less than three seasons. Johnson's already topped that mark, on the verge of his fourth year with the Titans. That is, assuming he eventually gets the pay raise he's asking for.

Tennessee, for its part, has held the line that it won't renegotiate with Johnson until he reports to camp. And in a shortened offseason with a new Titans coach in charge, Johnson's holdout probably sets him back more than most years.

But if you're looking for someone to chastise Johnson for not showing up, you're in the wrong place. Because, honestly, why wouldn't Johnson ask for more?

He tried to cash in prior to last season, when he was coming off a 2,006-yard year, the fifth-highest single-season rushing total ever. The rules in place at the time only allowed him a moderate raise, from $385,000 to $500,000.

Think about that for a second: The same league constantly warning players that their own livelihoods are at risk each and every time they set foot on the field wasn't allowing Johnson, arguably the NFL's best running back, to seek a fair market value.

What's fair? Well, Adrian Peterson, who averaged 1,480.3 yards in the past three seasons, will make $10 million-plus in 2011. Johnson, averaging 1,532 yards rushing since 2008, is presently in line for an $800,000 paycheck. He wants that bumped up significantly and reportedly has asked for $39 million guaranteed over the next three seasons. (Titans GM Mike Reinfeldt did say the franchise is "willing" to make Johnson the highest-paid RB ever, but only if Johnson reports to camp first.)

Running backs get hurt all the time -- there's a reason most NFL teams carry three, four or more guys capable of carrying the football. Johnson's missed one game in his career, Week 17 of his rookie season when the Titans voluntarily sat him against Indianapolis in anticipation of the playoffs.

You can chalk most of that durability up to Johnson being an incredible physical specimen. But when you're taking hits, violently and on a regular basis, some of it is just luck. Peterson, while we're in comparison mode, had to sit out Week 15 last year with knee and ankle injuries.

And for Johnson -- who's made it through three healthy seasons at a position where the average player doesn't have a career that long -- you have to figure it's only a matter of time before he gets banged up as well. Maybe not a season-ending or career-threatening injury, but certainly something that sidelines him for a couple weeks or hampers him enough to drag his stats down.

So he's trying to strike while the iron is hot. While he can still point to his nearly unrivaled durability at a position that often doesn't go hand in hand with that trait.

The NFL and the NFLPA have created a culture not of fear, but of reality when it comes to injuries. That's why the rule book changes annually in an effort to keep more guys on the field for longer.

In that reality, though, an elite talent like Johnson has to earn whatever money he can, while he can. As the league has warned its players over and over again, there are dangers lurking on every snap. You can't blame Johnson for wanting to secure his financial future before putting himself at risk.

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