In 2009, Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans was the NFL’s best running back, and no other back was even close.
That year, Johnson ran for 2,006 yards, the fifth-highest single-season total in league history, with a fantastic yards per carry average of 5.6 and 14 touchdowns. The next-highest rushing total that year was 1,416 by Steven Jackson, 590 yards less than Johnson.
With an additional 503 receiving yards (and two receiving touchdowns), Johnson became the only player in NFL history to gain more than 2,500 yards from scrimmage in a single season with 2,509.
Johnson’s numbers from the last two seasons, however, have been more pedestrian. This was especially true last season, when Johnson ran for only 1,047 yards and four touchdowns with only a 4.0 yards per carry average.
With Johnson failing to be the consistent yardage-gainer and dynamic runner that he was in 2009 over the past two years, he is no longer the NFL’s best running back. He has been surpassed by many others, including two in his own division, Arian Foster of the Houston Texans and Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
However, the NFL is no longer a league with elite backs like Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Marshall Faulk gracing its fields. The closest thing the NFL has had to a true superstar back since the end of LaDainian Tomlinson’s prime was Chris Johnson in 2009, and if Johnson plays up to his full ability, he can be the NFL’s best running back once again.
Why Chris Johnson Can Be the Best
There may be no more bigger asset for a skill-position player in the modern NFL game than speed, and there may no player in today’s NFL with more speed than Chris Johnson.
Johnson’s 40-yard dash time of 4.24 seconds, set at the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine, is tied for the fastest time recorded at the combine since 1999, and at least by that measure, he is the NFL’s fastest man.
Johnson’s speed translates to the field as well. This fantastic 89-yard touchdown run from one of Johnson’s best performances, in 2009 vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars, demonstrates how he utilizes his speed to make big plays:
Once Johnson hits the open field, the play is all but over. Even in a league full of fast defensive backs, Johnson can outrun them if they do not have an angle back to him.
Not surprisingly, Johnson led the league by an overwhelming margin in runs of 15 or more yards in 2009. He had 30 total runs of 15 or more yards that season, with a whopping 1,026 yards gained on those plays alone, according to Pro Football Focus premium statistics.
Even last season, Johnson managed 16 runs of more than 15 yards, as he remains the NFL’s best big-play threat among running backs.
There is more to Johnson’s game than speed alone, however.
Johnson supplements his speed with the ability to make sharp, quick cuts to elude defenders. He demonstrated that ability on this run against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011, on which he gained 25 yards:
Johnson made a massive cut just barely past the line of scrimmage and then made another defender miss, which allowed him to get into open field on the left side and run for a big gain.
Another skill that Johnson excels at is squeezing his way through tight holes. At 5'11" and 191 pounds, Johnson is a moderately sized running back, but he uses his vision very well and has a knack for bouncing into holes like a smaller back, finding a small gap in the defense and hitting it for big yardage.
On his longest run of the year last season, a 48-yard touchdown against the Buffalo Bills, he showed a great example of that.
At first, it appeared as though there was nowhere for Johnson to run, and that he would get stuffed by the Bills' defensive line. Johnson, however, made a move to find the one gap left in that group of Bills defenders, and when he made it through, he was able to find open field and run all the way to the end zone.
Johnson is also very good at running through tackle attempts and making missed tackles happen, especially for a running back known more for his speed. Johnson bounces off contact well and can also use spin moves or cut moves to make defenders miss him.
According to Pro Football Focus premium statistics, Johnson ranked first in the NFL in rushing yards after contact in 2009 and second in 2010 but was only 19th in 2011.
On this 20-yard run by Johnson against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he put all his skills together to show how effective he can be at his best.
First, Johnson used his vision and cutting ability to make tacklers miss at the line of scrimmage and found an opening to the left side of the field.
After what was already a significant gain, Johnson made a sharp cut to his right in front of two defenders, causing them both to miss him.
Johnson continued the run for even more yardage by running through another tackler.
When Johnson is on his game, there may not be one NFL running back who is better than he is. He has a complete skill set, along with a special level of speed that few NFL players have ever matched.
What’s Holding Johnson Back?
The 2011 season was, by all indications, a major disappointment for Johnson. Johnson started the season off by signing a six-year, $56 million contract but did not appear to be worth nearly that much money last season, with only four games of 100 or more yards and less than 65 yards in all of the other 12 games.
Consistency has clearly been a problem for Johnson, and motivation may have been a detracting factor last year, as he no longer had to worry about playing for a contract. However, while Johnson’s game is nearly complete, he does have areas in which he could improve on the field.
Who is the NFL's best running back?
When Johnson’s 16 carries of 15 or more yards are removed from his statistics from last season, he only gained 658 yards on 262 carries—an average of just 2.5 yards per carry. While he is a constant big-play threat, he needs to improve at picking up consistent yardage, rather than alternating big plays with minimal gains.
It seemed like the rest of the league started to figure out Johnson last season, while he also ran behind a struggling Titans interior offensive line, and that all led to the worst season of his career thus far.
With that said, even with many very poor performances last season, he showed glimpses of his incredible ability, and he has the talent to chase NFL records again if everything can fall back in place for him.
Dan Hope is the New England Patriots game-day correspondent and an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.