Chris Johnson: Why Did He Struggle in 2011, and Can He Bounce Back?

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Chris Johnson: Why Did He Struggle in 2011, and Can He Bounce Back?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Many Tennessee Titans fans or fantasy football lovers out there may be wondering what happened to Chris Johnson last year following his mega-contract signing, where he received a four-year, $53 million contract, with $30 million of that guaranteed. I know I have been, so I decided to find out for myself.

Motivated by the mysteries surrounding such causes and the desire to predict his future output, I’ll attempt to break down why a guy like Chris Johnson could have such a dramatic drop-off from his 2009 and 2010 seasons.

The following questions will be addressed:

  • Did missing training camp and the preseason hurt his conditioning and productivity?
  • Have defenses loaded the box on Johnson so much that he can’t produce?
  • Should we blame the Titans’ new offensive coordinator, Chris Palmer?
  • Is Johnson on the decline?

In order to answer these questions, I watched every single snap Chris Johnson took in 2011, as well as numerous games from 2009 and 2010. It's clear that several factors affected his performance.

 

Did missing training camp and the preseason hurt his conditioning and productivity? Yes

There is clearly a rhythm and speed to an NFL football game that cannot be replicated by training in a gym at home, or whatever Johnson utilized while holding out of training camp.

In watching the comparative play of Johnson's first three games of 2011, it seemed apparent that he was struggling to find his groove. There seemed to be something missing in his vision and ability to follow blockers and hit holes.

He was definitely more cautious and insecure in his approach to the line of scrimmage. In his first game, he didn’t break a single tackle in rush opportunities.

In those first few games, Johnson did a lot of uncharacteristic lateral movement, bouncing out and running prematurely to the sideline. He also looked to be much slower changing directions and in his stop-and-go movements. This could be a sign of not being in the shape he needed to be.

There were other obvious effects on his level of comfort, particularly when you consider the coaching change and that Johnson had to learn a completely new offensive system without a summer of practice and exposure.

But there must be a much more going on here, considering Johnson did have his ups and downs throughout the course of the season.

In fact, his final four games may very well have been his worst stretch of games ever. This is clear evidence that the issues surrounding Johnson’s production transcend beyond just missing preseason and training camp.

 

Have defenses loaded the box on Johnson so much that he can’t produce? No

In the 2011 season led by offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and new quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, the Titans became a pass-first team who also heavily favored passing formations. These types of offenses are nearly impossible to stack the line against successfully. The Titans were constantly lined up in three-wide receiver sets with one back in the backfield.

Ironically, last year may have been the least run-focused that defenses have ever been since Johnson’s arrival. This is an interesting realization and perhaps a rather telling one.

 

Should we blame the Titans’ new offensive coordinator, Chris Palmer? To some degree

From my tape study, I couldn’t help but notice Palmer's poor decision-making in terms of how best to utilize the talents of “CJ2K” and how to keep defenses guessing and off-balance.

The Titans' formations were very telling as to whether the play was going to be a run or a pass. They lined up in a lot of spread-gun formations that limited any run options.

Then, when they would line up in more traditional two-back, two-receiver sets, the defense could hone in on the run. When they attempted runs from passing formations, Johnson appeared lost and unable to gain any momentum.

Handout/Getty Images
In addition, the choice of running plays seemed to indicate that Palmer had not done his homework, nor had he consulted with CJ2K regarding what types of runs he prefers and thrives in.

Despite his small stature and speed, Johnson is most productive in a downhill running style that hits fast with distinctive holes and a lead blocker. He also thrives in pitch plays that are intended to hit just off tackle in a downhill fashion.

Lastly, CJ2K is very effective in counteraction, where he is given designed cutbacks and the ability to outrun the defense, which is often caught flowing away from the run.

Instead, Palmer seemed to favor stretch and zone plays, where Johnson is expected to choose his own holes as they develop. This also takes away from any ability for him to beat the defense to the corner and turn upfield. This style of run game clearly threw CJ2K off balance and exposed certain deficiencies in his game.

Johnson struggles whenever he is asked to wait and be patient. He also has a hard time finding holes that are not clearly drawn up. Despite perception, Johnson is not very good at side-to-side movements. He is a straight-line runner who thrives when he is given a lane to do just that.

Palmer should have collaborated better with his star running back in regards to what he feels most comfortable with, and he should have paid more attention to the running style of his most dangerous offensive weapon.

Instead, he was a robotic play-caller, oblivious to the strengths and weaknesses of his players—at least, such was the case with regard to Chris Johnson.

 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Is Johnson on the decline? Yes

Dare I say that, at the age of 27, Johnson is on the decline? I’m afraid it seems to be the case.

I’m not saying that Johnson can’t be a highly productive weapon for the next three to four years. What I am saying is that he will never have a season of more than 2,000 yards again, nor will he even come close to that.

When you look at the numbers according to Pro Football Focus, Johnson’s yards-after-contact average has declined for over the last three years:

Year

2009

2010

2011

Average Yards After Contact

2.99

2.83

2.11

His breakaway percentage, which determines the percentage of yards gained from runs of 15 yards or more, has also dramatically decreased:

Year

2009

2010

2011

Breakaway Percentage

50.4

42

36.9

His average yards per carry have dropped as well:

Years

2009

2010

2011

Average Yards Per Carry

5.7

4.3

4

And finally, his overall elusiveness rating, which determines how hard he was to bring down independent from blocking, has been on the steady decline:

Year

2009

2010

2011

Elusiveness Rating

40.3

38.5

25.1

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
From watching tape, there are a few reasons for his statistical decline.

One reason is that CJ2K appears to be much more protective and cautious of his body. He continuously ran out of bounds prematurely, he tip-toed his way through the line of scrimmage, and he would very often give up on the play at the first sign of contact.

Also, Johnson seemed to have even lost a step or two, which still makes him one of the fastest players in the league, mind you, but that step can be the difference between 44 runs over 20 yards (2009) and 11 runs over 20 yards (2011).

In 2009's games, Johnson was much more decisive with his running style and would ward off defenders with an effective stiff arm. That stiff arm completely disappeared in 2011. Instead, he kept both hands on the ball while reducing his body before every tackle.

On the plus side, Johnson rarely fumbled the ball. However, his big-play ability was dramatically compromised. In years past, he was often seen running through arm tackles and driving his legs through contact. That type of hard-nosed effort was a rare sight last year.

You have to admire the way this 5’11”, 191-pound running back has been able to prove himself as an everyday back in the NFL while maintaining his health and proving to be extremely durable. Guys of his body type are not supposed to be able to do those things.

He has accumulated 936 rushing attempts alone over the last three seasons. This type of workload is simply not meant for a skinny, thin-legged speedster. He may be only 27, but for his body-frame-to-workload ratio, he is a very old 27.

It's nothing short of miraculous how he has managed to stay healthy throughout those three long seasons. But it seems that the mileage is starting to take its toll.

 

How many yards will CJ2K have rushing this year?

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What does this all mean for Johnson’s future?

I predict Johnson will start the 2012 season much better than his 2011 campaign. Johnson should also be fully capable of racking up 150-yard rushing games on any given Sunday, but without any consistency or predictability.

It's doubtful that Johnson will ever receive 300-plus carries in a season again. He should continue to slow down yet still be relatively fast for his position for the next three years at least. Johnson most likely will never rush for over 10 touchdowns again, but he will continue to be a great pass option on screens and check-downs.

I don’t expect him to rush for more than 1,400 yards in a season, nor is he likely to average more than five yards per carry for an entire season ever again.

Considering Johnson has never been very good at breaking tackles, speed was his No. 1 ally for avoiding contact. Without that unmatched speed, he should be forced to deal with tacklers on a much more frequent basis, thus contributing to his fatigue.

With all that said, Johnson can still be a deadly weapon for the Titans and should be considered a valuable asset for fantasy owners out there. However, I would avoid him in the first couple of rounds on draft day.

One major wild card in all of this is Chris Palmer. Will adjust his offense to better suit Johnson's strengths? Will he continue to favor pass-friendly formations?

For CJ2K, the best years seem to be behind him. But he will still keep defensive coordinators up all night, at least for a few more years. This is the sad but necessary part of professional football—that inevitable decline every player must face. For running backs, it seems to come much too fast.

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