David Johnson is the latest casualty in a cruel profession

Jun 12, 2018, 8:22 PM | Updated: 11:05 pm
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)...
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The NFL is more than risky business. It’s one of the cruelest professions on the planet. It devours the weak, callousing the purest of hearts.

David Johnson is just the latest casualty.

The Cardinals’ star made a prudent, surprising and costly decision when choosing to skip three days of minicamp in search of a new contract. Two months after claiming his salary wasn’t an issue, Johnson’s power play has disappointed fans who believed he was the rarest of jewels.

A small-school star who scrubbed toilets and removed asbestos for spending money, wholly unfamiliar with entitlement, endearingly different in talent and temperament.

Today, he’s just another football player. The perception shift is understandable, temporary and extremely unfair.

During his NFL tenure, Johnson’s production has far outweighed his compensation, even if he played only one game during the 2017 season. He’s underpaid in the same realm as Paul Goldschmidt, except the Diamondbacks slugger chose to sign his five-year, $32 million contract.

By contrast, Johnson is playing on a rookie contract, under terms slotted for third-round draft picks. His position guarantees frequent collisions and severe attrition. He has been ridden like a rented mule, injured in his last two NFL games, never losing his manners or pleasant disposition.

That’s why this story seems so full of sadness.

Under former head coach Bruce Arians, Johnson could light up a scoreboard only to get berated for a handful of mental errors. The running back would dutifully nod, never rolling his eyes, agreeing that he had to get better. He knows he’s living a dream. In a country full of braggarts and bullhorns, Johnson was viewed as more than humble. He was naïve, sincere, always eager to please, willing to conduct official post-game interviews in his soiled uniform, without showering and shifting into expensive clothes. Does anyone really think money matters to this guy?

But a professional football player must be smart. Johnson is now a husband and a father, responsible for more than just his aches and pains. Successive injuries prompted a frightened wife to broach the subject of retirement. And he recently raved about lessons learned from Larry Fitzgerald, the most beloved athlete in Arizona history.

For many, Johnson’s unscripted rebellion doesn’t sound like anything from Fitzgerald’s playbook. Skipping minicamp has created a sense of disharmony. It’s a heavy distraction to new head coach Steve Wilks, who must handle the situation with authority and empathy. The Cardinals can’t acquiesce too quickly, lest they set a bad precedent. Meanwhile, Johnson’s stomach is surely churning at the headlines he’s generated and those he’s alienated.

Remember this: Fitzgerald became an NFL superstar while gaming the system. His Super Bowl victories come in the form of massive contracts. He knows money like he knows the end zone. And part of his advice to Johnson was “how to be financially smart.”

In other words, inside the locker room, where Fitzgerald’s voice matters most, a future Hall of Famer will surely have Johnson’s back.

This story also feels strangely comforting. In another era, the Cardinals were loathed for their frugality. Money was tight, holdouts were common. In a terrible show of form, the team allowed Kurt Warner to make a free agent visit to San Francisco before offering him a fair contract.

Things are different now. We trust these Cardinals. They are considered among the NFL’s best in fairness and workplace culture. To his credit, Michael Bidwill understands the value of player-friendly ownership, frequently bending to make his players happy.

There’s no chance that a people-pleaser like Johnson would take this sit-down strike into training camp, disrupting and marginalizing a rookie head coach, and possibly Fitzgerald’s final season in Arizona.

The fix is easy. Johnson doesn’t need to attend minicamp, and all fines should eventually be waived. The Cardinals should give Johnson a large chunk of guaranteed money, and in return, he discounts the price. Along the way, the team needs to nurture their star through this awkward intersection, cognizant that he is loyal, deeply in love with football, and only doing what he must. They can’t let public opinion turn on him now, not when the wounds would cut him deep.

Maybe fans won’t be so forgiving. Maybe Johnson is wondering how a great life became so complicated. That will all change when he scores his next touchdown.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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David Johnson is the latest casualty in a cruel profession