Tennessee Titans: Chris Johnson's Best Days Are Behind Him

Nate DunlevyGuest ColumnistMarch 19, 2012

Will Chris Johnson hit the hole or hit the wall?
Will Chris Johnson hit the hole or hit the wall?Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Chris Johnson is a superstar.

Chris Johnson is the worst investment a team has made in years.

Which of those statements is true? 2012 should reveal the answer.

In 2009, Johnson had one of the greatest seasons in NFL history, but has seen his production and esteem drop over the last two years. After signing a hefty $53.5 million extension before the 2011 season, Johnson's productivity fell off noticeably. More troubling than the raw numbers was the impression he gave to fans and teammates.

Johnson was afraid to run to contact. He missed holes. He was out of shape.

Whispers began about whether the Tennessee Titans had made a critical mistake in extending his deal. His final tally for the season included career lows in yards, carries, yards per carry and touchdowns. He did increase his output in the passing game, but not nearly enough to offset his slump running the ball.

With the Titans looking to add Peyton Manning to the offensive mix, Paul Kuharsky and I recently debated Johnson. Paul is optimistic Johnson can return to form as a runner, while still expressing concern over his fit with Manning as a pass blocker and receiver.

What worries me about Johnson is this: There have only been 15 running backs rush for 1,800 yards in a season. What they did after that is a decidedly mixed bag.


  Age for Best year First 1,800-yard season 1400-yard seasons after that 1000-yard seasons after that Best year after 1800-year
Jamal Anderson 26 1,846 0 1 1,024
Shaun Alexander 28 1,880 0 0 896
Tiki Barber 30 1,860 1 1 1,662
Jim Brown 27 1,863 2 2 1,544
Earl Campbell 25 1,934 0 2 1,376
Terrell Davis 26 2,008 0 0 701
Eric Dickerson 23 1,808 3 7 2,105
Ahman Green 26 1,883 0 2 1,163
Jamal Lewis 24 2,066 0 4 1,304
Walter Payton 23 1,852 5 8 1,684
Barry Sanders 26 1,883 4 4 2,053
O.J. Simpson 26 2,003 2 3 1,817
LaDanian Tomlinson 27 1,815 1 2 1,474
Ricky Williams 25 1,853 0 2 1,372
Chris Johnson 24 2,006 0 2 1,364


It's a scary list, to be honest. Three backs (Barber, Brown, Sanders) retired while still posting elite seasons. Three backs (Davis, Alexander, Anderson) were never the same after rushing for 1,800 yards.

Half of the 14 backs who gained 1,800 yards never again topped 1,400 any year in their career.

What works in Johnson's favor is that he's among the youngest backs on the list. Only Dickerson and Payton were younger than Johnson when they topped 1,800 yards, and both of them went on to have huge years later in their careers.

On the entire list, the only backs to top 1,400 yards more than once after having an 1,800-yard year are Dickerson, Payton, Simpson, Sanders and Brown—in other words, arguably the five greatest backs in NFL history.

This is the crossroads at which Johnson finds himself. His production has declined for two straight seasons. He can either turn it around and have one of the truly spectacular careers in league history, or he can join the ranks of Anderson, Alexander and Williams as backs who had big years, but never again matched their previous production.

If Manning does choose the Titans, it will be the defining moment of Johnson's career. He'll either follow Manning's lead and become a phenomenal worker and student of the game, or continue to shy away from contact and see his influence and playing time drop.

Titans fans cannot simply assume that Johnson will bounce back to form. It's possible, of course. He might be a bronze bust waiting to happen.

It's more likely that his days as an elite, high-volume runner are already over.