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Is Titans RB Chris Johnson Still an Elite NFL Player?

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Is Titans RB Chris Johnson Still an Elite NFL Player?
Harry How/Getty Images

After muddling through a disappointing 2011 season—which infamously came on the heels of an elongated, contentious holdout that ended with his signing a six-year, $55.26 million contract (which contained $30 million guaranteed)—Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson entered the 2012 NFL season determined to return to his previous form. 

All summer, we were treated to puff pieces about how Johnson was primed for a return to greatness. NFL observers talked about how Johnson's "burst" had returned. My buddy Ian Rapoport with NFL Network gushed about Johnson during training camp, saying on the network's Inside Training Camp Live, via PFT, that Johnson looked "...like the Chris Johnson of old. He’s fast, he’s in shape. Looks like he’s primed for a big year."

I don't bring this up to pick on Ian. He's simply someone who covers the NFL who I remember talking about how good Johnson looked in camp.

Is Chris Johnson Still An Elite NFL Player?

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Lots of folks were doing it, and Titans fans (not to mention fantasy football players) were excited about the possible return of the player we came to know as "CJ2K" when Johnson became only the sixth player ever to run for over 2,000 yards in a regular season back in 2009.

Well, fast-forward to 2012 and it seems clear, five games into the regular season, that whatever we saw (or thought we saw) during the offseason and training camp wasn't a precursor to a resurgence but a tease of monumental proportions. 

Johnson not only hasn't looked like the back we saw go over 2,000 yards a few years ago, he has looked downright pedestrian. And worse, it's starting to seem like his demise is the classic case of a guy who got paid and completely lost the edge, be it on or off the field, that made him great in the first place.

Not only does Johnson seem to lack the burst that gave defensive coordinators nightmares, he seems to actually shy away from contact. 

This play from the first game of the year tells you what you need to know. This is the case of a play being run pretty much perfectly, until the left tackle can't sustain his block. The old Johnson would have kept his legs moving and run through an arm tackle. This new Johnson spins away from contact, giving the defense all the time it needs to close and pile on top of him. 

Yes, we saw a bit of a "return" of the old Johnson against the Houston Texans in Week 4, where Johnson actually did a great job pressing the hole, reading the running lanes, putting his foot in the ground and taking off. 

But Week 5 saw Johnson revert to his 2012 self, finishing with 24 yards on 15 carries against the Minnesota Vikings. Worse, Johnson, who is usually so careful with the football, lost a fumble that gave the Vikings an easy scoring opportunity. The Titans are terrible enough on defense without their supposed star giving them a short field to defend. 

Speaking of attaching the word "star" to Johnson's name, it's hard to reconcile saddling any player with that moniker and then having them say the following after yet another tough loss, via TitanInsider.

I don't believe we're close right now. You look at the games and how we're playing, we don't look like a good team. I wouldn't sit here and say we're close.

We need somebody in this locker room to make plays and give us a spark. I feel like I've made some plays, but the situation of a spark has got to come from somewhere and getting a spark that can be big for this team.

I'm sorry, but that's just a tad much coming from the guy who held the team hostage last summer, was subsequently handed $30 million guaranteed ($20 million of which was just for signing his name on the contract) and then proceeded to pull a disappearing act that would have had Houdini asking how he did it. 

What's worse is Johnson passing the buck and taking shots at his teammates seems to be a recurring theme. 

After a Week 2 loss, Johnson had a rather frank assessment of why the running game, and his game in particular, was having trouble getting on track, via John Glennon of theTennessean:

People need to step up and do their job. They don’t need to let people beat them. It don’t matter who the opposing defense is, you can’t let your guy beat you. You just can’t give up plays. You have to make plays like they make plays. I can’t speak for the defense. I can only speak for the offense.

Why not just point at your offensive line and say "It's their fault" next time? 

Johnson wanted to be paid like a star after producing like a star. Well, part of being a star in the NFL is producing on the field (unless, of course, you're Tim Tebow) and not making excuses when you don't. Somebody in the locker room needs to give the team a spark? Check the mirror, Chris. 

Now, does Johnson's thinly-veiled critique of his offensive line have some merit to it? Of course it does. Not only that, I would contend that the offense being run in Tennessee is nowhere near creative enough in how it tries to get Johnson on the perimeter, where he has traditionally done his biggest damage. 

Take a look at the touchdown play from his rookie year that I've posted below. In particular, watch how the center and the tackles sell the stretch action to the left while both guards pull to the right, all of which gives Johnson a path to navigate around the edge and into the second level, where it becomes a footrace he will most often win. 

That's creative play design, capitalizing on Johnson's unique skill set. I don't see either one, creative plays or that old skill set, on any of the 2012 Titans tape I watch. 

That said, it's up to Johnson and the Titans to salvage what they can while they can. Even if he's not running for 2,000 yards, he's talented enough to be an asset to an NFL offense. But his days as a star in this league, both on and off the field, appear to be over. 

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