Cardinals running back Chris Johnson surprised many by turning down the Dolphins to return to the Cardinals.
Chris Johnson groggily awoke from his slumber one morning in March, reached for the phone in his offseason Orlando home and saw five missed calls from his agent.
This was good.
After spending all of the offseason prior without a team, the veteran running back re-emerged with the Cardinals in 2015 – compiling 814 rushing yards and three touchdowns through 11 games before his season was cut short by injury – and now had multiple suitors as he re-entered free agency.
The Dolphins wanted him to come in right away for a visit. Later, the Patriots called and asked him to make a trip to Foxboro. By the time Johnson left Miami, he had a contract offer and a chance to be a starting running back.
As he weighed the idea of switching organizations, Johnson said he spoke with Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer. It turned out the team couldn't offer the same amount of money as the Dolphins. There was also no guarantee of regular carries with burgeoning running back David Johnson cemented as the starter.
Johnson didn't care. He returned anyway on a one-year, $1.5 million contract.
"It was a situation where I just came from New York (after playing for the Jets) and I didn't want to keep bouncing around," Johnson said. "Have to go learn a whole new playbook, learn the town, find somewhere to live, all those different things. There's a lot that goes into it. They wanted me back. I wanted to be back. My whole thing was, if I went anywhere else, the deal that I was getting would have to blow this deal here out of the water. The other teams, they didn't offer me a deal to make me want to leave here."
It's the answer all fans want to hear. Many professional athletes are millionaires many times over. What does the money matter when you're that rich?
In reality, nearly everyone chooses the highest offer. Percentage-wise, one million dollars may not mean much when a player's career earnings are totaled. Then again, it's still one million dollars.
"It depends what state of your career you're in," Johnson said. "For myself, I done got a big deal. I done got deals. It wasn't a thing, really, where I was chasing the money. I wanted to be somewhere I was comfortable, somewhere that someone believed in me. When nobody else gave me a chance, Arizona did."
Johnson's choice shocked Arians, and it came on the heels of Jermaine Gresham making the same decision. The former Pro Bowl tight end signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals right before training camp in 2015 following offseason back surgery. He started slowly while recuperating from the injury, but showed enough that the Jets offered him a reported four-year, $23 million deal with $12 million guaranteed in free agency.
Gresham instead re-signed with the Cardinals for one year and $3.5 million.
"I've never seen it in the league before, to turn down guaranteed money to stay on the team they really enjoy playing with," Arians said. "It speaks volumes to the culture of the locker room."
When the Cardinals were showcased on Amazon Video's "All or Nothing" documentary this summer, it gave fans a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the type of chemistry within the locker room. It was that vibe that ultimately brought Gresham back.
"The players here," said Gresham, when asked what led him to return. "Carson, other guys. They have great leadership. B.A., of course. B.A. is a guy who is always going to be a straight shooter and someone you can always count on to put you in the best situation as a person."
Palmer actively recruited both Johnson and Gresham throughout their decision-making process. While it was certainly a blow when other teams made more lucrative offers, he didn't throw in the towel.
All three players are veterans of multiple teams and multiple regimes, and Palmer felt like Johnson and Gresham might appreciate the situation in Arizona so much that they would take less to stay. He was right.
"I get it," said Palmer, who agreed to a contract extension on Friday that will keep him with the Cardinals through 2018. "It always surprises you when you see something like that, but if you're here on the inside and you know how special this place is, I wasn't surprised. I had my fingers crossed. I knew they were being entertained by a number of teams because they're great players. But if you're part of this organization and you're on the inside, you see how great it is. More importantly, you've been elsewhere, and you see how it is. You understand how special this place is from the top down. I think everybody in this locker room gets why they're here."
Images from the seventh practice of training camp