The once-promising Chris Johnson has struggled mightily in 2012.
It hasn’t, as Johnson has rushed for 45 yards on 33 carries in three games this season, and there are a number of reasons Johnson won’t return to form in 2012.
Coming out of East Carolina, Johnson’s speed and agility allowed him to burst onto the NFL scene and rush for 1,228 yards in his rookie season in 2008. That set up an eye-catching performance in 2009.
In his sophomore season, he shocked the football world by out-rushing Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Stephen Jackson and Ray Rice by nearly 600 yards. Johnson put up 2,006 yards and was named to the All-Pro team as a unanimous choice.
The more outspoken Johnson became, the less he produced however. Johnson has said he is faster than Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, and held out the majority of the 2011 preseason looking for a new deal based on his early-career dominance.
Now a fifth-year pro, he is in the middle of his four-year, $53.5 million extension that included $30 million in guaranteed money. Fortunately for the feature back, the extension ends in 2016, which is enough time for him to get back to his early-career form.
But will he? The short answer is no, and here is why.
In 2009, Johnson was supported by a far better cast than he has now. Vince Young was playing his best NFL football, splitting time with crafty veteran Kerry Collins. Kenny Britt was a featured receiver. Nate Washington was a consistent pass-catcher. Even the defense was playing relatively well.
Unfortunately for the Titans, and Johnson, the game of football has changed drastically since 2009. That season, the Green Bay Packers had the second-best defense in the league. Brett Favre was quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. And Justin Bieber hadn’t graced the musical world with his presence, yet.
Current quarterback Jake Locker has promise, but not enough to benefit the running game. Defenses can still game-plan to stop the run and dare Locker to beat them through the air. After all, who is he going to throw the ball to anyway?
It’s no secret that the top priority for defenses against the Titans is stopping Johnson. It’s been working through the first three games. In the copy-cat league of the NFL, there is little reason to think anything will change in the coming weeks.
A Changing Game
Football is an ever-changing game. A league that used to be about size and power is now about speed and quickness. Passing used to be a thing of the past. Now, it’s a staple in every offensive coordinator’s playbook.
An effective passing attack can be a running back’s greatest friend, just as an ineffective air game can be his greatest enemy. The Titans are trying to develop a young quarterback in Locker, allowing defenses to focus solely on stopping the run.
Until Locker becomes a consistent passing threat, the Titans' running game is going to struggle and so will Johnson. Blaming his offensive line certainly won’t help matters much.
Teams often use a variety of RBs depending on situation. After the Miami Dolphins introduced the Wildcat formation in 2008, it seems like there is no limit on who can end up in the backfield.
The Titans, however, don’t have any variety. There is no third-down power back to pick up short-yardage plays that keep drives alive. It’s Johnson or no one.
And right now for the Titans, it’s no one. The ever-changing game of football appears to have left the Titans' offense behind. The struggles of their best offensive weapon only compound the woes.
2009 is Long Gone
Johnson’s dominating production of 5.6 yards per carry is as much a thing of the past as the single-wing offense. Since that season, the former Pirate hasn’t averaged more than 4.3 YPC. This season, he is averaging 1.4 YPC.
Johnson isn’t the 2,000-yard back that he was in 2009. Only five other RBs since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 have recorded 2,000 rushing yards in a season. To expect him to get back to that level again is asking too much.
In 2009, Johnson had four games of 150 rushing yards or more. Since then, he has hit the 150-mark just twice.
In his remarkable season, Johnson carried the ball a career-high 356 times. Last season, he carried the ball just 262 times. His decreasing effectiveness is leading to a decreased workload and vice versa.
The speedster is currently 65th in the NFL in rushing with 45 yards on 33 attempts. His QB has 67 yards on eight attempts. And the current rushing leader, Jamaal Charles, has 323 yards on 55 carries. If the Titans are going to make any sort of run at the playoffs, they need Johnson to find his stride.
That will be tougher than they can imagine with the upcoming schedule. Each of the Titans’ next four games is against top-15 rushing defenses, including this weekend against the fifth-rated Houston Texans.
Johnson may get back to his usual form at some point. With this slow start, he will need to channel his inner-CJ2K quickly if he is going to get there in 2012.