Running to the bank
Green's value rises with elite status Sunday, August 29, 2004
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Green's value rises with elite status

By TOM SILVERSTEIN
tsilverstein@journalsentinel.com

Posted: Aug. 28, 2004

Green Bay - Green Bay Packers running back Ahman Green can go only so many more places in his profession.

An NFL rushing title? He's knocking on the door.

The 2,000-yard threshold? He's in the neighborhood.

A Super Bowl? It's in his sights.

The highest salary for a running back? The journey continues.

Coming off a season in which only one other player - Baltimore's Jamal Lewis - out-rushed him and only two other players - San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson and Lewis - produced more total yards, the 27-year-old Green has reached elite status at his position.

The higher Green takes his game, the better for the Packers. But if they can get another 1,883-yard rushing and 367-yard receiving season out of him - or anything reasonably close - they know they will be in the playoff hunt again.

At the same time Green's star rises, so does his financial value, and soon the Packers will face the prospect of whether to make a major investment in him. They do have the benefit of Green being under contract for this season and next, but they know they have to take care of their second-most important player soon or risk creating some hard feelings.

As important as the Packers believe it is to hold players to their contracts - see Mike McKenzie - they have to know you make exceptions for guys who account for 44% of your offense.

While much will be made in the coming months about re-signing a host of free-agents-to-be such as Mike Wahle, Bubba Franks, Marco Rivera, Al Harris and Hannibal Navies, Green's future will be discussed more than any other player's.

"It will take care of itself if I keep playing the way I do; it will all fall into place," Green said after a recent practice. "I don't even worry about it. I just worry about staying healthy and playing hard."

The Packers breathed a sigh of relief Friday night when Green was able to walk off the field after suffering a painful knee injury in a 9-7 loss to Jacksonville. Green suffered a knee bruise when a Jaguars player fell on top of his leg, but both Green and team officials deemed it a minor injury.

As long as Green stays healthy - something he was able to do last season - there's little doubt he will remain part of the elite class of NFL running backs and be in line for a contract that far eclipses the five-year, $21.57 million deal ($5 million signing bonus) he signed in July 2001. It will be up to the Packers to decide whether to pay it.

Green's value rose considerably this year when two other franchise backs - Washington's Clinton Portis and San Diego's Tomlinson - each negotiated record-setting extensions with two years still remaining on their existing contracts.

In March, Washington acquired Portis from Denver in a trade, tore up his rookie deal and paid him $17 million in guaranteed signing and roster bonuses as part of an eight-year, $50.5 million deal. Then earlier this month, the Chargers tore up Tomlinson's rookie deal and delivered a $12.4 million signing bonus and $21 million total in guaranteed money as part of an eight-year, $60 million extension.

According to Green, the Packers already have spoken with his agent, David Dunn, but it appears to be more of a discussion than a negotiation, a possible laying of the foundation. How serious the Packers get depends on a number of factors, some of which are out of Green's control.

"Anything's possible," Green said. "I just know they're talking. I don't really know where they're at. I'm very comfortable where I'm at. Everything else will take care of itself."

Dunn did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Green said he wasn't growing impatient or feeling neglected, and laughed off various news reports that he was peeved with his contract after seeing what Portis and Tomlinson received. But those close to him say he is acutely aware of those deals and feels strongly that he deserves to be compensated equally.

As undeniable as Green's elite status is, there are no easy answers in determining how the Packers should proceed. They probably need to resolve the McKenzie issue before they even consider addressing Green, simply because one matter could complicate the other.

McKenzie has three years left on his deal and the Packers are drawing a line in the sand when it comes to tearing up existing contracts. The safe move would be to begin negotiations with Green later this season when he essentially is a year away from becoming a free agent.

If the Packers strike between now and the end of the season, they actually can lower Green's cumbersome salary cap numbers of $4.882 million this year and $5.615 million next year, giving them valuable room to re-sign some of the other free agents.

In addition, they would not have to sweat out the off-season risking the possibility that Green would become increasingly frustrated if other backs such as New Orleans' Deuce McAllister and Seattle's Shaun Alexander hit the jackpot first.

Still, they would be making a major investment in someone who won't be an unrestricted free agent until 2006, and that requires some thought.

"I'm sure everybody, whether you're a football player or a writer or you're working at Ford Motor Company, you want as much as you could possibly want," Packers coach Mike Sherman said of Green. "I don't think he's any different than anybody else. I think he understands the situation we're in as an organization and what our policy is in regard to that."

There could be a lot of rewards in guaranteeing that Green finishes his career with the Packers, especially considering how much pressure he can take off 34-year-old quarterback Brett Favre. Green is at his peak now and is producing as much as those players who are making double his salary.

At the same time, Green will be 29 when his contract expires and probably on the downside of his career. Running backs who continue to produce big numbers past age 30 are few and far between, mostly because after about 2,500 carries their bodies begin to break down.

Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders were still running with steam when they hit 30, and Kansas City's Priest Holmes remains perhaps the best in the game as he approaches his 31st birthday. But for every Payton, Smith or Sanders, there is an Eddie George, Jerome Bettis or Eric Dickerson, players who faded as they approached that threshold.

Green has benefited from the fact he didn't become a starter until after his trade from the Seattle Seahawks to the Packers in 2000. He carried only 61 times during his two seasons with the Seahawks, and though only four backs have more carries than him since 2000, his career total of 1,269 is fairly low for someone in his seventh year in the NFL.

"You have to watch him run and also what does he do in the off-season," Sherman said when asked if there was a predictor for longevity. "In both cases with Ahman Green, this is a guy who came out of college early, didn't play a lot in Seattle while he was there, so he has a lot of miles left in him.

"I thought last year he was as explosive as I've seen him and he finished the season healthy, so I think you have to evaluate him each year because he does take care of himself. He's very particular in his workout regimen. This is not a guy who in the off-season is lying around here, there and everywhere."

If the Packers extended Green's deal this year, they would be doing it two years before he hit age 30. There are several notable backs who were older than Green is now when they received lucrative, long-term deals.

In 2001, the Steelers signed the then 29-year-old Bettis to a six-year, $30 million deal that included a $6 million signing bonus. Bettis was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent immediately when the deal was struck.

In 2002, St. Louis signed 29-year-old Marshall Faulk to a seven-year, $44 million deal ($9.3 million signing bonus). Faulk had a year left on his deal plus a three-year option. About a month later, the New York Jets signed 29-year-old Curtis Martin to an eight-year, $46 million deal ($10 million signing bonus). Martin had one year plus an option left on his contract at the time.

And last year, the Chiefs tore up the last two years on Holmes' deal several months before his 30th birthday and rewarded him with a seven-year, $48 million deal ($10 million signing bonus). Holmes, because he was a late bloomer, had just 999 career carries when he signed his new contract.

There will be seven or eight 30-year-old backs in the league this season, but with the exception of Holmes none is expected to be as dominant as Tomlinson, Portis, Lewis and Green. Faulk, Bettis and Martin have combined for one 1,000-yard season since their contracts were signed.

Green, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, acknowledges that there are no guarantees that in three years he'll be the same back he is now, especially given his brutish running style. But he argues that he delivers more big blows than he takes, keeps himself in top condition and still runs like a track star, all pretty good indicators for continued success.

"The biggest thing is overcoming injury if you do get hurt and staying away from injury," Green said. "Just keep your body healthy, staying in shape, working out, eating the right foods. That's what I know, what got me to where I'm at. It's worked for me now, I guess it will work for me when I do hit my 30s, if I'm still playing."


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