The tumultuous relationship between Larry Johnson and the Chiefs ended Monday when the team terminated the controversial running back (not him, just his contract). This followed a two-week suspension for conduct detrimental to the team, which caused a grievance to be filed by Johnson and the NFL Players Association, which led to a settlement between Johnson and the team to split the financial penalty in half while keeping him off the field. Now the hammer has dropped for good, ending a contractual relationship that was scheduled to last through 2012, at least according to the contract.
As I wrote last week, the fact that Johnson was on the team to open the 2009 season was a surprise in itself. As a result of a landmark decision in April by the special master -- who rules on Collective Bargaining Agreement issues -- Johnson was able to keep money earned to that point. But the Chiefs, if they had released Johnson, would not have owed him future guaranteed salary as a result of two nightclub altercations last year. Special Master Stephen Burbank ruled that Johnson had not yet earned the $3.75 million in guaranteed salary and bonuses due him in 2009 and 2010. With this ruling in their pockets and a new regime trying to set a tone in Kansas City, the stage was set for Johnson to be released with no financial obligations due, as long as the release was prior to the start of the season. Surprisingly, however, Johnson was on the opening-day roster, ensuring his full 2009 salary.
Johnson can be claimed today through the waiver process or become a free agent and sign with any team for whatever he’s able to negotiate. Double-dipping is allowed because a vested veteran who clears waivers can claim termination pay for the balance of his salary from his incumbent team and receive whatever salary he negotiates from a new team. This "double-dip" happens to a few veterans every year, one being Allen Rossum, who is now being compensated by the 49ers and the Cowboys. If he’s claimed, Johnson is still under contract through 2012; if he clears waivers, he will likely sign a one-year deal for the remaining eight games, keeping his options open as a free agent in 2010.
The Chiefs certainly were benevolent toward their division rivals, the Chargers, last week in claiming Chris Chambers and saving San Diego $2.4M in potential termination pay if Chambers had not been claimed. They certainly hope someone -- it won't be the Chargers -- does them a similar favor and relieves them of their $2.6M obligation to Johnson.
Finally, the Chiefs, the one team in the league hovering around the cap minimum for spending of $108 million, jumped above that number in the Chambers claim. If Johnson goes unclaimed, they will continue to count the balance of Johnson's salary. If Johnson is claimed, they will accelerate the remaining unamortized bonus into this year's cap. With a $12M signing bonus in 2007, there would be $8M of unamortized bonus brought into the 2009 cap. The Chiefs certainly have the room to absorb it.
The $42M extension between the Chiefs and Johnson two years ago is certainly one the team would like to have back. They could have cut their losses in September, but they chose to move forward with someone with a history of off-field issues. I'm sure they would love a mulligan on that one.
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