Tennessee Titans Face $8 Million Question: Chris Johnson, Keep or Cut?

Thomas J. Harrigan Jr.Correspondent IJanuary 15, 2012

Chris Johnson (28) rushed for 1,047 yards in 2011, but he averaged a career-low 4.0 yards per carry, and his longest run was just 48 yards.
Chris Johnson (28) rushed for 1,047 yards in 2011, but he averaged a career-low 4.0 yards per carry, and his longest run was just 48 yards.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams has a big, potentially franchise-altering decision to make, and he has two months to make it. 

Chris Johnson, the Titans' game-breaking running back, is owed $8 million if he is on Tennessee's roster on the fifth day of the 2012 league year, which begins in March. 

The problem is that Johnson, a former 2,000-yard rusher with 1,381 total touches in his four NFL seasons, might be on the decline at age 26. 

There has been speculation regarding Johnson around the NFL since November, when NBC Sports reported on the potential of Johnson getting released, saying: 

Per a league source, several teams believe that the Titans could release running back Chris Johnson before the fifth day of the 2012 league year, at which time his base salary of $8 million becomes fully guaranteed.

Johnson staged a highly-publicized holdout in the 2011 preseason, and the lack of reps had a noticeable effect on him early in the season, as he rushed for just 366 yards in the first eight weeks. 

However, the larger issue might be Johnson's poor showing in the season's final month, after he had strung together three breakout efforts. The lackluster finish cannot be blamed on the holdout, so the Titans need to figure out who is at fault. 

Was it the offensive line not opening the holes for Johnson? Was it Johnson's lack of confidence in his ability to get through the holes that were there? Or, could it be that the back who once sprinted a 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds has simply lost a step? 

Regardless of which of those was the reason, one thing remains clear: the Titans cannot afford to cut Johnson. 

The team has built its offense around him, and cutting him would force the team to run an overhaul that it is not quite ready for.

The Titans will likely implement Jake Locker as starting quarterback next season, and taking Johnson away from this offense will not put Locker in the best situation to succeed. 

Sure, the New Orleans Saints have proven that a strong and reliable running game can be built with three or four complementary players who make less money, but that takes draft picks, time and a little bit of luck to find the right players. 

Plus, the Titans don't have Drew Brees to fall back on. 

They have put all of their eggs in the Johnson basket, both on the field and off.

In addition to building the offense around him, Johnson is also the Titans' most marketable and popular player, and cutting him would leave the team with no stars to sell to the fan base. 

Another concern is that Johnson may not be declining. The Titans would be risking a lot by letting go a player who has displayed significant game-changing talent. When teams play the Titans, defensive coordinators still have to design their game plan around stopping the running back. 

Getting Kenny Britt back will help spread the field more for Johnson, as the team will have two legitimate receiving options in Britt and Nate Washington.

Instead of worrying about saving $8 million, the Titans should go into the draft with the goal of improving their run blocking. 

Tennessee went 9-7 this season, and they can compete next year with Locker or Matt Hasselbeck as starting QB, so getting rid of Johnson would just be going backwards. 

Sure, it would save Adams $8 million up front, but cutting Johnson has the potential to cost the Titans money as the team will slip further into mediocrity and also will lack marketable stars. 

Instead, Tennessee should give Johnson one more year to prove that 2011 was an aberration. It will give Mike Munchak another year to try to compete with his current roster while also providing Munchak and GM Mike Reinfeldt with a full year to devise a contingency plan in case Johnson really is declining.