Can Chris Johnson Recapture Old Glory with a New Team?

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystApril 2, 2014

Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson warms up before an NFL football game between the Titans and the Houston Texans Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Wade Payne

It isn't all that often that a 2,000-yard running back is shown the door by his team, partly because fewer than 10 men in the history of the NFL have ever gained that many yards in a season.

Still, that's what is about to happen in Nashville, and with Chris Johnson's impending release more a formality than a question, there's a question hovering over him like a dark cloud: Is Johnson just a player who needs a change of scenery or a back whose best days are squarely in the rearview mirror?

After all, those best days weren't that long ago.

It didn't take long for Johnson to make an impression on the NFL back in 2008:

That 4.24-second 40-yard dash is the fastest ever recorded at the combine, and it was a large part of why the Tennessee Titans made the East Carolina running back the 24th overall pick in the 2008 draft.

In the early going, Johnson didn't disappoint.

Chris Johnson 2008-10

In the second quarter of Johnson's first preseason game, he ripped off a 66-yard touchdown run against the St. Louis Rams. He added one from the same distance against the Kansas City Chiefs during a rookie season in which he topped 1,200 yards on the ground.

He was only getting started.

In 2009, Johnson gained 5.6 yards per carry. He had three touchdown runs of 80 or more yards. From Week 6 on, Johnson topped 100 yards on the ground in 11 straight games.

By season's end, Johnson had topped 2,000 yards on the ground, added over 500 more in receiving yards and scored 16 touchdowns.

Johnson's numbers dipped a bit the following year, but entering the 2011 season, he was very much in the conversation as the NFL's top running back.

However, that's also when everything started to fall apart.

Chris Johnson 2011-13

A messy contract holdout cost Johnson almost all of an already abbreviated camp in 2011. Johnson responded with career lows in rushing yards, yards per carry and touchdowns.

Those numbers bounced back in 2012, so much so that entering last year behind an improved offensive line, Johnson told The Jim Rome Show that he felt another 2,000-yard campaign could be in the offing.

"I know I have another 2,000-yard season in me," said Johnson. "I would love to get 2,000 yards again."

He didn't come close. For the first time in his six NFL seasons, Johnson failed to top four yards per carry in 2013.

That brings us to where we are today, with a 28-year-old Johnson due an $8 million base salary and Ian Rapoport of reporting the Titans aren't about to pay it:

Some point the blame squarely at Johnson himself. "Too much time spent dancing behind the line," they say. "He got his big contract and has been mailing it in ever since."

On some level, they have a point. There's no denying that Johnson's productivity has gone down since he got that four-year, $53.5 million extension back in 2011.

A look at Johnson's "elusive rating" at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which measures "a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers," certainly seems to bear out that Johnson has lost a step over the past few years:

Gary Davenport/Bleacher Report

It's that lost step off the snap that has really cost Johnson. The 5'11", 203-pound back was always prone to "happy feet" in the backfield. But in the early years of his career Johnson was just so quick that once he saw that late hole open or decided to break it outside, he could use his "turbo boost" to get past the first level.

For whatever reason, that "turbo boost" has been MIA more often than not in recent years.

Maybe it was the contract. Maybe it's the 2,000-plus career touches over the past six years and all the bumps and bruises that came with them. Maybe Johnson's just getting older.

Whatever the case, anyone holding their breath waiting for Johnson to crank out another 2,000-yard season is probably going to pass out.

With that said, he also isn't toast by any stretch.

Johnson has topped 1,000 yards in each of his six NFL seasons. Over that stretch, only Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings has covered more ground on the ground. Johnson has also been remarkably durable for a smaller tailback, missing one game over his entire career.

And even though Johnson may have lost a step, he's still faster than a large percentage of the people whose job it is to chase him:

That highlight came in the 2013 preseason.

There won't be any shortage of teams lining up to take a run at Johnson once he hits the open market, with Rapoport mentioning the New York Jets as a potential suitor:

Odds are whichever team signs Johnson will do so more as a committee complement than a franchise bell cow. The odds are even better that he won't sniff $8 million a year.

Johnson may not have become the back we'd hoped he'd be, and he isn't the player he was.

But while his best days are behind him, there may still be some good ones to come.