For one glorious season, Chris Johnson was as good as any running back has ever been—maybe better.
With a league-leading 358 attempts for a league-leading 2,006 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns in 2009, Johnson earned the moniker "CJ2K." He averaged 5.6 yards per carry, per Pro Football Reference, and added 50 receptions for 503 yards and another two touchdowns.
He hasn't been anywhere near as good since. In the four intervening seasons, he's averaged 4.2 yards per carry, 1,183 yards and seven touchdowns per season. That's good, but Johnson has the tools to be great—and he's been paid to be great.
Now, Jim Wyatt of The Tennesseean has reported Johnson is being released:
BREAKING: The #Titans have officially informed RB Chris Johnson he’s being released, per sources. The C.J. era is over in Tennessee.— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) April 4, 2014
The now-free-agent running back took to Twitter to say goodbye to the Tennessee Titans and their fans:
“I’d like to thank all of my teammates, the fans, the staff and the coaches who have supported me ... http://t.co/Sl78B1yWIe— Chris Johnson (@ChrisJohnson28) April 4, 2014
Wherever Johnson goes next, though, the questions will follow: Will he be good? Can he be great? What does he have left to offer, and what kind of impact will he have?
Physically, Johnson is everything he's ever been. At age 28, the 5'11", 195-pound back still has electrifying speed and razor-sharp cuts. He can slip through a seam and take it 94 yards, as he did against the New York Jets late in the 2012 season:
If there's anything that sums up the problem with Johnson, it's this: He finished that game with 22 carries for 122 yards and one touchdown, per Pro Football Reference—counting that one 94-yard touchdown run. He plowed into the teeth of the Jets defense 21 other times for a net gain of 28 yards.
What's missing here? Why does he disappear for entire quarters, or even games?
Watching the tape of Johnson, what's missing is his vision.
Though it's easy to say Johnson's simply bouncing outside too often, looking for home runs that aren't there, the reality is more complicated than that.
Let's take a look at this play from 2013's Week 10 matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars, a 2nd-and-2 from the opponent's 10-yard line:
The whole play is built around the pull of right guard Chance Warmack (No. 70), the Titans' 2013 first-round pick. Warmack, along with free-agent signee Andy Levitre, was supposed to clear a path for Johnson to get back to CJ2K production levels.
Warmack will pull to block the strong-side linebacker, while the tight end takes on the strong defensive end. Left tackle Michael Roos will chip a defensive tackle before taking on the middle linebacker, and Levitre will seal off that tackle. The center and right tackle double-team the other defensive tackle.
Two defenders are left unaccounted for: the weak-side defensive end and weak-side linebacker (circled in red). Since this run is designed to follow Warmack's pull to the strong side, neither should be in a position to make a play.
As Johnson takes the handoff, things are setting up nicely. As long as Warmack blocks his man squarely, Johnson will have a wall of blocking in front of him—and if he bounces it outside, he could take it to the house.
Instead, Johnson jump-cuts and breaks back inside...
...right into the weak-side linebacker, who never should have had a chance to make this play.
This decision is a complete head-scratcher. This isn't a failure of play design or execution; Johnson simply screwed up.
Just look at the wall of blocking Johnson passed up (circled in yellow) in favor of getting wrapped up at the line of scrimmage (circled in red)!
The other issue that shows up on film is Johnson's approach to hitting the hole.
Sometimes he hits the hole tentatively and braces for contact, as if expecting to get bottled up. Perhaps this is the running back version of an oft-sacked quarterback's "happy feet"—he ends up tackling himself.
90 Percent of the Problem Is Half Mental
The scary thing for Johnson's new team is that there's nothing it can do to fix stuff like this; it's all in his head.
Either he understands the offense and executes it, or he doesn't. Either his vision and instincts are working correctly, or they aren't. There's no amount of blocking the team can put in front of him, passing game it can take pressure off him with or coaching it can do to fire him up. Either he takes the yards his talent makes available to him, or he doesn't.
Assuming he continues to be the same boom-or-bust player he's been for the past four seasons, what's the best way to use him?
Feed him too often, and you'll starve more consistently productive players of touches.
Use him too sparingly, and he won't get enough reps to break one long.
Johnson's not a complete back. Pro Football Focus hasn't ranked him higher than 42nd overall among tailbacks (subscription required) in any of the past four seasons; he hasn't gotten a positive receiving or blocking grade in that span, either.
In fact, Johnson has never earned a positive blocking grade, and his plus-1.0 mark in 2009 was his only positive receiving grade.
Johnson's best fit is as the head of a two- or three-back committee on a team that spreads the field wide and opens up plenty of seams for him in the front seven. With a semi-steady diet of touches, Johnson might be great just often enough to be good.